Leading Through Thanks and Suffering

I have had a hard year. I won’t go into all the reasons why, but to name just a few… My wife accepted a big job in DC, and I’ve been trying to live productively in two places 2000 miles apart. One of our kids was diagnosed with a lifelong auto-immune condition. Another struggled to find their first job out of college. And the third continues to grapple with the effects of ways in which I have related to them. Dementia continues to take hold of my mom. I had a bike crash, a concussion and a resulting type of deep and episodic depression which threw me – worse than the bike had tossed me. My mom, too, fell twice – breaking a collarbone, then her shoulder, and almost entirely breaking her will to live. We thought we had lost her. She’s back!

From January 6th through another blurry year of COVID, who hasn’t been buffeted in 2021?

Aren’t we all ready to express thanks for Thanksgiving – without having to speak it through a mask or over a Zoom call – to actually see parents, kids, grandparents – and to cradle grandbabies in our non-virtual arms!

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How do you start to look back and make meaning of it? I offer the words of one of the greatest leaders and true action heroes of the 20th century, as a lens through which to look at what has likely been a hard year for you, too. This Fall seemed like the right time to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

One line haunted me, helped me and now gives me hope. Frankl wrote that the great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky “dreaded that he wasn’t worthy of his sufferings.” Read it again. I had to read it three times. And I have returned to it at least 25 times more since I read it a month ago.

How can this make any sense? Why would worthiness be required of a man sent to Auschwitz and Dachau – stripped of his family, home, vocation, freedom, clothes? Who could be worthy – or the synonym – deserve – such suffering????

Does it make any sense? I’ve read it so many times, because something inside me said: This guy knows something so much more important than I do and I need to understand it! In our time, the Brene Browns, the Chopras and Oprahs continually assert that we are worthy. Further, we are told to reject suffering, as you can read in 1,000 western Zen posts, “pain is mandatory, but suffering is optional.” Tell that to Frankl or his modern day counterparts victimized by today’s tribal wars. Just change your mind, Vik! Eat differently. Breathe differently. Think differently. Exercise differently. Suffering is just an illusion.

I will simply say that Frankl invites us to search for the meaning in our suffering. He lived with brutal suffering and in turn bore so much fruit from it. I have not been worthy. I can recognize over the last ten months how I have felt sorry for myself about the sacrifice I brought on when encouraging Jennifer to move and serve the president and the country. Feeling a victim has made me unworthy of my suffering. Self-pity is human and OK from time to time. But I wanna keep coming back to the choice and the questions that search for meaning. What is love? What is service? Why am I here? What can I make of my gifts? Including the gifts of displacement, loneliness, and fear?

I want to be worthy of my sufferings. And I wish for you the deep purpose when you’re led back to your best self!


P.S. I believe it was the Catholic ascetic Thomas Merton who said he thanked God three times for his sufferings. First for the trial that strengthened his faith, second for the resilience to endure it, and third for the joy of emerging from it.


  • Dan, I am so sorry for your annus horribilis – please do not beat yourself up over things you cannot control, and know that many of us have deep respect for your “best self” and how you encourage ours. I hope you can all find joy in being together for holidays.

  • Hi Dan….Just when I think I have it bad, I read about someone else and realize, for good or for bad, someone else had it worse. Thinking about you and the family in hopes that this holiday season is the beginning of a better year.

  • I think we are here to grow through (not GO through) our challenges. End up better on the other side. Suffering is an invitation for personal growth. And we all deserve to suffer with humility and grace.

  • Dan, Thanks for sharing this. Connie and I have come back to it several time. I first thought I am not suffering, but then I found we were. Two years ago we moved to a senior living place formerly called Henry Ford Village in Dearbon. In recent bweeks we have seen this style of living as suffering the loss of the freedom that our previous life style provided. But now we are conflicted because we recently adopted a series of guides for seniors seeking
    a healthy spirituality. It read read: “Today May I: Live a life of gratitude; Know myself as loved and worth; Embrace the letting go asked of me; live the now that is mine”

  • Dan, thank you for writing this. First to learn how your Mom is. Your Mom and my Mom were friends. I think of your Mom often and hope her spirits stay high.
    Second was my Mom suffered with Dementia too. As she did so did her family and friends. We all suffered and grew in so many ways. We learned so much and I would not change a thing because each experience, everything we suffered gave us more insight. It made us see think differently, to understand why things are and how to adapt to make things better.
    I wish the same for you and your family in the journey.
    Our suffering helps us help others who maybe not be suffering the same way but gives us empathy to try to understand and help them. That is why we are here.
    Please send our love to your Mom! Take care of each other. You are all in our prayers!

  • Hi Dan, Thanks for your brave and moving post. My Jewish education always stressed that while suffering is integral to living, we are also given the capacity to find meaning in our suffering and to use it to become more fully human. I know you will emerge from these experiences with even more to offer others. And don’t forget to be good to yourself as well. All my best, Kathleen

  • OMGosh, Dan. You certainly went through a lot, and with Jennifer not even by your side. But it certainly sounds like you’ve come through it well, and that’s terrific. Reading what Viktor Frankl went through in concentration camps during WWII (and I have read his book more than once, too) and how he came through it does tend to put a lot into perspective. Thanks for that. It has reminded me it’s time to reread it.
    Your column made me think more relative to what I’ve gone through for the past almost 2 years relative to trying to make the world a better place and not having a lot of success. I’m already feeling better, so thanks for that, too.
    Keep up the good work – and stay healthy and productive, man.
    Your students are lucky to have you.

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