The good suffering in your life; or, the struggle to know one’s vocation

Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

Image by elycefeliz via Flickr

I admit I don’t think our church does a great job of helping people find their specific, individual purposes in life, and as a vestry guy and occasional lay teacher, I’m as responsible for that as anyone else. But then maybe no help is better than bad help. No way around it: individual vocation is the central question in most lives. Saint Paul said some are called to be teachers, some evangelists, some prophets, and so on. Kierkegaard wrote about the need for that thing for which he could live and die. When he said “truth is subjectivity,” he was not articulating the past century’s fashionable relativism but rather recognizing that each person has his own subjective, personal, individual response to the objective Gospel and to God. In the life of the Church, roles are as diverse and varied as fingerprints, and anyone who tries to simplify or reduce the individual’s role to an objective platitude inhibits the Christian’s influence in the world.

The difficulty of addressing vocation is precisely that it is so personal. To share the core of the matter, I will quote someone who I think did an exceptional job explaining the nature of the struggle: Viktor Frankl, best known as the Holocaust and concentration camp survivor who became an internationally recognized psychotherapist. Here’s an excerpt from his book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic; some amount of conflict is normal and healthy. In a similar sense suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon; rather than being a symptom of neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration…. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease…. Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become…. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task…. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” — Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

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One response to “The good suffering in your life; or, the struggle to know one’s vocation

  1. Pingback: In times of distress: pathological problems versus existential problems | Liturgical