Finding Meaning In Inescapable Suffering: From Aceh To Haiti

03/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On December 26, 2004, a 9.2 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean near the island of Sumatra triggered one of the worst natural disasters in memory. Walls of water smashed into the coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other neighboring countries, taking the lives of more than 230,000 people with them. Many of those who were able to cling to life sustained massive bodily injuries and lost family members (some entire generations) and their possessions in the swift-moving waves.

The province of Aceh, Indonesia, was closest to the epicenter of the quake and was the area hit hardest by the monster waves. This area accounted for more than half of the total death toll (one-third of whom were children) and injuries, as well as bore the brunt of the physical destruction that covered almost its entire landscape.

By chance, my newly-published book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, found its way into the hands of representatives of a Jakarta-based professional services firm, Dunamis Organization Services. At the time, this firm was in the process of developing a "Volunteers' Readiness Program" to build individuals' capacities to quickly and effectively respond to the vast devastation and suffering that they would encounter in Aceh. The program, which asked for permission to use my book as a training resource, was employed not only by Dunamis Organization Services but also by various other organizations, including local government bodies and non-government organizations such as UNESCO and UNICEF.

The decision to use Prisoners of Our Thoughts, I should add, was made because of the coping skills that it teaches and its focus on the human quest for meaning in all situations. The book became a primer for volunteers to learn how to confront the catastrophe while, at the same time, dealing with their own psychological reactions to the trauma. The program's goal, in short, was to prepare volunteers realistically for what they would encounter working in the field. While focusing on specific skills and practical tools, the training also concentrated on mental strategies for dealing with the aftereffects of a natural disaster.

Fast forward five years and what does the situation look like in the areas that had been affected and in some cases completely devastated by the Asian Tsunami? Some readers may recall that on Saturday, December 26, 2009, solemn ceremonies marking the fifth "anniversary" of the disaster took place in the dozen countries around the Indian Ocean rim. Buddhist monks chanted in Thailand, thousands prayed at mosques in Indonesia, and traffic across Sri Lanka came to a standstill as people around the country observed two minutes of silence.

Over the last five years, it looks like the task of peeling back the layers of physical and emotional destruction left in the tsunami's wake has seen remarkable and meaningful results. To be sure, the Herculean task of easing the suffering of survivors and rebuilding the flattened towns and shattered lives has not been an easy one. Fortunately, the disaster prompted a widespread humanitarian response; in all, the worldwide community has donated more than $13 billion in humanitarian aid to the relief effort.

In Aceh, I'm pleased to report that a huge reconstruction effort has effectively rebuilt the province, providing more than 140,000 new homes, 2,227 miles of roads, 1,500 schools, and 1,047 hospitals. As you can imagine, this is a far cry from what Aceh looked like in early 2005 when I was first contacted by my colleagues in Jakarta.

As part of the anniversary celebration held last month in Aceh, Indonesia's Vice President Boediono said the following:

"After five years ... the people of Aceh have risen and have a new life ...Their struggle to rise from the tsunami tragedy has inspired the people in this country, and around the region."

Let's now hope that the people of Aceh inspire the people of Haiti, the fragile island that was rocked on January 12th by the largest earthquake ever recorded (7.0) in its part of the world. Recent reports from Haiti's capital city, Port-au-Prince, still are not especially promising and the disaster has even been compared directly to the Asian Tsunami tragedy. What officials first described as a scene of "total disaster and chaos" looks like it is becoming one of "total suffering and despair." In this regard, as relief and medical care continue to pour into earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince, it has been reported that some desperate Haitians have been turning to violence in their struggle to survive. Under the circumstances, resorting to this kind of behavior is not uncommon but at the same time it is not a good sign nor does it help the relief effort in any way.

Of course, no two natural disasters are alike nor is the trauma experienced by the victims. The same holds true for other traumatic events and experiences, such as war and civil strife, incurable diseases, permanent injuries from accidents, and imprisonment. Each event and experience comes with its own unique kind of personal trauma, deep-felt tragedy, and inescapable suffering. And although it may be difficult to comprehend, such suffering also provides us with an opportunity to find meaning in the situation, even if it sometimes must come long after the event we are forced to endure. Finding meaning in inescapable suffering also applies to those of us who may not be affected directly or are witnesses to such tragedies from afar. In other words, what can we learn from the horrific experience and what will we do now and in the future to demonstrate that we have grown from it in meaningful ways. How can we all make a positive difference in the world in response to and as a result of the suffering that is taking (has taken) place?

Importantly, I want to emphasize that the potential for meaning exists in every moment of life; but this meaning potential can only be searched for and detected by each of us individually. According to the famous psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, Dr. Viktor Frankl,

"Life remains potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable."

And please take note: Dr. Frankl not only survived but was able also to find meaning under the most horrific circumstances imaginable. During World War II, he spent over three years in various Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz, where his parents, his brother, and his wife perished.

Likewise, through the resiliency and dignity of the people of Aceh, I observed how a culture far removed from my own was able to find meaning under circumstances of unimaginable suffering. Fortunately, most of us will never face such horrific circumstances like a tsunami, earthquake, or concentration camp. Be grateful for this. At the same time, let us not give up on the power of the human spirit to survive--and even "thrive"--against all odds and under the most grueling of challenges.

Sure, the need for "humanitarian" aid is ever pressing and can never be ignored. Yet, based on my own direct and very personal experience with such matters, most people in need who are really suffering--under circumstances that are outside of their own control--would prefer to receive a "hand-up" rather than a "hand-out." Showing respect for the dignity of all human beings no matter what their personal circumstances demands no less. With this in mind, it's now time to give our fellow human beings in Haiti a hand-up and pray that we never have to experience such tragedy in our own lives!


You can find out more about Dr. Alex Pattakos, author of Prisoners of Our Thoughts, in his HuffPost Bio and can contact him at: