Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Aging with Spirit: Perspectives on Suffering

Why do some people age gracefully, while others do not?

Why do individuals differ so greatly in their ability to roll with the punches? How is it possible for one person to be content and engaging despite significant physical challenges, while another in relatively good health is constantly grumpy and discouraged?

One reason is the way each person deals with the reality of suffering in life.

A matter of meaning

No one likes to suffer. After all, to suffer is to experience continual, undeserved pain of the body, mind, and spirit. To suffer is to feel pain that will not go away. Yet suffering, we must realize, is in the eye of the beholder. One person can be in pain without suffering, just as another can suffer without being in physical pain.

People who feel pain but do not suffer are unsurprised by pain. They recognize pain is a part of life, and a reminder they are alive.

Looking at their present situation, these individuals may not find meaning or purpose at the moment, but they expect to discover it someday. They understand they are human — vulnerable, finite, imperfect.

In contrast, people who suffer without physical pain believe they deserve a pain-free life. To their way of thinking, limitations should be managed, controlled, manipulated, and mastered. These individuals cannot easily find meaning or purpose in their present situation, because the pillars upon which they built their lives have been threatened or destroyed. They are in spiritual distress, hurting in the soul as well as the body.

Viktor Frankl, the noted Viennese psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, coined this formula:

D=S-M, or despair (D) equals suffering (S) 'minus,' or without, meaning (M). Despair is the combination of pain with a sense of meaninglessness.

The other side of the coin is that having a sense of meaning in our lives can inure us to almost any pain. Frankl quotes Martin Heidegger, the existential philosopher, by noting that a person with a 'why' to live can deal with any 'how.'

Responses to pain

We all suffer, but to varying degrees. It's what we do with our pain that distinguishes people who age 'spiritedly' from those who do not.

Caring health and wellness professionals always consider how their patients respond to pain as individuals. Are they, as older adults, able to transcend pain and suffering to see the value and purpose in life? Do they realize they can find meaning in spite of pain, and sometimes even through that pain?

Unfortunately, health and wellness professionals sometimes cope with their patients' suffering by avoiding its complexities. That's because, in dealing with the suffering of others, professionals must often confront their own pain, vulnerability, and limitations. But professionals who have yet to come to terms with their pain may be closed or insensitive to their patients' pain and suffering.

Another way health and wellness professionals may deal with suffering is to try to fix it, as if they have the power to remedy another's suffering.

The truth is no one can fix another's pain. If Frankl is right and D does equal S-M, only the sufferer can work through his or her despair, because only he or she can judge this suffering to be meaningful, valuable, or worthy. Most sufferers do not seek 'answers.' They need companions who will listen to them and support them while they are suffering.

The gift of growth

My personal trainer once said the same words my high school track coach used to shout many years ago: "No pain, no gain." This cliché might be controversial in a senior wellness/fitness setting, but it turns out it is true in spiritual caregiving as well that growth comes whenever life is challenged.

Recommended Reading

  • Albom, M. Tuesdays with Morrie. New York NY: Doubleday, 1997
  • Byock, I. Dying Well: The Prospect of Growth at the End of Life. New York NY: Riverhead Books, 1997
  • Eiesland, N. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 1994
  • Frankl, V. Man's Search for Meaning. New York NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1959
  • Frankl, V. The Will to Meaning. New York NY: A Meridian Book, 1988
  • Kurtz, E. and Ketcham, K. The Spirituality of Imperfection. New York NY: Bantam, 1992
  • Lustbader, W. Counting on Kindness. New York NY: The Free Press, 1991

Rev. Donald KoepkeRev. Donald Koepke is the director emeritus of the Center for Spirituality and Aging (CSA), a program of California Lutheran Homes and Community Services, headquartered in Southern California. Rev. Koepke has presented many workshops on spirituality and aging. He is also the producer of the DVD, "Caring for Elders: Body, Mind and Spirit," which presents the concepts of the author, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, as applied to aging. For further study on spirituality and aging visit the CSA website at http://www.spiritualityandaging. org.

Labels: , , ,