Dr. Paul T. P. Wong’s autobiography, A Lifelong Search for Meaning: Lessons on Virtue, Grit, and Faith, is published in weekly installments. Stay updated here.

So much injustice, so much pain—yet what a wonderful life I’ve had!

Some people have asked me, “What is the evidence that you have suffered so much? From reading your autobiography, I don’t see much suffering.” They are probably thinking in terms of dramatic or physical suffering, as described in Viktor Frankl’s (1985) Man’s Search for Meaning, but my suffering is more psychological than physical. Here is a list of major psychological injuries, including being:

  1. Banished from my own home when it came under Japanese occupation;
  2. Ridiculed and attacked as a refugee in Hong Kong;
  3. Reduced to poverty as a refugee;
  4. Fired from my first teaching job;
  5. Expelled by the first church I served;
  6. Expelled by a Texas-based institute based on trumped up charges;
  7. Deleted from the history of the church I founded;
  8. Expelled by my future parents-in-law from their house;
  9. Attacked verbally by racists all through my academic career;
  10. Betrayed by a Christian university;
  11. Betrayed by another Christian university;
  12. Near death three times in the emergency room due to being given the wrong medication;
  13. The survivor of a cancer operation and extreme skin conditions;
  14. The survivor of “torture” at the hands of incompetent nurses.

Is that enough suffering for one person? Anyone reading the above must be wondering: “How could so many bad things have happened to the same person? Was he unlucky, or perhaps he was just a bad person?” I used to think along these lines too. I used to wonder whether I was born under the wrong star, or whether I was cursed with strong opinions and a sharp mind, which have been offensive to many.

The Positive Psychology of Suffering

After reading this chapter, my wife continually asked, “How could so many unfair things happen to you all through your life?” I have asked myself the same question a thousand times.

If I could go back in time and correct all my mistakes, could I have prevented my misfortunes? Sadly, the answer is no; it would not have made any difference! When bad fate comes your way, you cannot escape. When bad people want to attack you, they don’t need any justification.

This is how the present world works: might makes right, money trumps all, and nothing sells like celebrity. In the 2lst century, fake science and fake news count more than truth, and getting rich and famous matters more than protecting human rights; consequently, the poor and the voiceless have no recourse to justice. That is why I have devoted my life to advancing the positive psychology of suffering in an unfair and cruel world—a psychology of taking personal responsibility to fight for what matters with grit no matter how harsh life is (Ch. 28).

He has made everything beautiful in its time

It took Viktor Frankl three years in Nazi concentration camps to discover the role of suffering in a meaningful life. It took me more than 30 years of traumatic experiences and research to discover the role of suffering in human flourishing. No matter how undesirable suffering may be, it is still something to be embraced and transformed if we want to become fully functioning human beings. That is the essence of second wave positive psychology (PP 2.0).

I could also answer my wife’s question from a spiritual perspective. I wouldn’t have had a colourful and dramatic life story to declare God’s glory if not for all my sufferings, for He has made everything beautiful in its time.

Indeed, the story of my entire life has a message for all those who have intentionally done me great harm: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

In response to all the injustice and suffering I endured, I have become a justice warrior and advocated for the oppressed and abused whenever there has been an opportunity. I always stand in solidarity with all the disadvantaged and live by my motto: “My happiness is to bring happiness to the suffering people.” In sum, I have lived a meaningful life and benefited from suffering in many ways, as illustrated below:

  1. I have stood up against despots and authoritarianism with whatever means I had. That is why I am still supporting those in Hong Kong and Taiwan struggling for self-determination against overwhelming odds. I sent encouraging poems to Hong Kong students during their Umbrella Movement in 2014. I promised the people in Taiwan during my 2017 lecture tour that I love Taiwan and will defend the country with my life in every lecture. I am so glad that the Umbrella Movement has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
  2. I have contributed to the development of servant leadership and positive corporate culture. I have set an example of leading through serving with humility, both in the church and academia. I am still trying to figure out how to lead with a servant’s heart, even when ambitious individuals often attempt to take advantage of my kindness as weakness.
  3. All my sufferings have contributed to my spiritual growth and character building as promised by God: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).
  4. Suffering has made me a more compassionate human being and therapist. It is easier for me to empathize and connect with suffering people at a deeper level because I have been there and can actually feel their pain.
  5. Since my teenage years, I have learned how to pull myself out of the pit of depression by writing inspirational statements that would instill a sense of meaning and purpose for striving. After my conversion, I added faith or spirituality to my arsenal in fighting against depression. These experiences have led me to logotherapy, which I have now expanded into integrative meaning therapy (Wong, 2010).
  6. The most consequential outcome of my lifelong suffering is the idea of PP 2.0 (see Wong, 2011, 2015). This idea can transform our thinking about suffering. Frankl (1985) demonstrated that there is meaning in suffering and that meaning can empower us to survive and thrive despite suffering. I have unpacked Frankl’s revolutionary idea and translated it into testable hypotheses for scientific research (e.g., Wong, 2014a). PP 2.0 has the potential of integrating positive psychology and humanistic-existential psychology, as well as developing more existential positive interventions (Wong, 2016a).
  7. The Toronto Meaningful Living Meetup Group in our backyard on Victoria Day.By combining PP 2.0 and meaning therapy, I have developed a 12-step program on meaningful living (see inpm.org) for Meetup meetings. This program has the potential of becoming a grassroots mental health movement and an alternative approach to positive education or life education that focuses on life intelligence.
  8. Given the resistance from entrenched interests groups in psychology, I was compelled to develop the International Network on Personal Meaning (INPM) as an inclusive big tent organization that embraces everyone interested in pursuing meaning-centered research and global wellbeing.
  9. I have published prolifically and been cited widely.
  10. I have been invited to lecture all over the world.
  11. I have received numerous grants and been invited to participate in several international research projects.
  12. I have received numerous honours and awards.

The above list of accomplishments is quite impressive for someone with so many obstacles and problems. How do you reconcile the list of my misfortunes and the list of my accomplishments?

MenciusOn a personal level, you can attribute the above achievements to my grit—I’m a constantly defeated warrior, yet by getting back on my feet each time, I’ll have the last laugh. According to Mencius, I’ve contributed more to humanity than most people, probably because I have suffered more. My scars are my badge of honour.

On a spiritual level, one can also see that some higher power is at work in my life. God has done the impossible. To quote Martin Luther with a twist, I can claim that I did nothing—God did it all. He not only gave me the ideas, but He also empowered me and fulfilled His purpose in my life beyond my expectations.

In my darkest hours, I felt like the Biblical character of Job, who suffered all kinds of misfortunes and was wrongly accused of deserving his sufferings, yet, through it all, God was glorified. It was at the depth of Job’s despair that the most glorious affirmation of faith broke through: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him!” (Job 13:15).

It has taken me several years to complete the story of my lifelong quest for meaning. It is my sincere hope that my readers will find some comfort and inspiration from my life story. After all, life can be beautiful only if you believe and pursue your dreams with courage.

My task on earth is not done yet. I am still struggling and pursuing my ideals. This verse rings in my ear every day: “When Joshua had grown old, the Lord said to him, ‘You are now very old, and there are still very large areas of land to be taken over’” (Jos. 13:1). I invite all of you, young and old, to join me in this epic struggle to create a better world.

It has been painful for me to recall and report the terrible things done to me; it was like opening old wounds. What enabled me to complete this memoir was the hope that such cruelty will not happen again to anyone. It is true that, while they meant it for evil, God meant it for good—but the process can be very painful.

The 12 Principles of Meaningful Living

How could we then live joyfully and meaningfully in a world of troubles and chaos? l believe that the following 12 principles can be extracted from all the previous chapters of my autobiography.

Here is a caveat: It would be presumptuous for anyone to tell you that the good life is easily attainable and that all you need is to do three or four things at the cognitive-behavioral level. It took a long time of struggle for a wise man like King Solomon to discover the path to meaning (see Ecclesiastes). It has also taken me half a century of research and surviving numerous traumas to discover these 12 principles.

Life is far too unpredictable and unfair, and people are far too complex and irrational, for any psychologist to prescribe a simple way to achieve the good life. No one can understand why bad things happen to good people. No one can understand why some intelligent people do foolish things that mess up their lives and lead to a downward spiral of self-destruction. And no one on the outside can fully understand what life is like inside a tyrannical state.

Contrary to the naïve optimism of some positive psychologists, not everyone has the privilege or opportunity to pursue a cherished career or establish a loving relationship with a person of one’s dreams. It often takes trial and error to find one’s path, and a truly worthy life often demands courage, striving, and self-sacrifice.

That’s why Viktor Frankl’s (1985) Man’s Search for Meaning continues to enjoy wide appeal; he was the first person to develop the positive psychology of meaning to give hope to all suffering people. One cannot provide an adequate roadmap of how to live a meaningful life without addressing the weighty issue of inevitable human suffering. Even my 12 principles for meaningful living are still far from being complete, but at least many of the following lessons wrestle with the problem of suffering.

1. You are Responsible for Your Life

It is as simple and common-sense as taking ownership of your life and becoming the captain of your own ship. In an affluent democratic society, there are almost infinite paths you can choose—be that of a human trafficker or a serial killer on one end of the spectrum to that of a historical Buddha or St. Francis of Assisi on the other end. Whichever your earthly path, it all begins at a certain point with your conscious choice. No one can completely blame external factors for one’s miserable life.

It is puzzling why all my fellow researchers in positive psychology are still unwilling to include responsibility as an essential component of meaning in life, despite all the scientific evidence on self-determination. Is it even possible to be a decent human being without assuming responsibility for one’s own behaviour and wellbeing, as well as towards family, friends, and society? Responsibility is predicated on freedom. That is why we have to believe that we always have the capacity for freedom; even in a totalitarian state, we can still have the freedom of maintaining a defiant attitude.

Apart from being an instrumental agent, a human being is also a moral agent. One is responsible for both the consequences and ethical implications of one’s decisions and actions. A conscientious person has a keen sense of responsibility and duty.

2. You Need to Know Yourself

I mean that you need to know all about yourself, including your unconscious self, your dark side, your own shadow, your fears and aspirations, and your strengths and weaknesses. It requires hard work in honest self-examination and self-reflection. This is foundational, because without a deep self-knowledge, you will be prone to self-deception and make the wrong choices of friends and career. A misguided career goal can be worse than no career plan at all. Your true purpose in life depends on your self- knowledge. Your ability to find your niche also depends on knowing your place in the world.

Self-knowledge is difficult because of human being’s proneness to self-deception and habit of wearing a mask in public. You need to know not only your current real self, but also your future ideal self. A great deal of hard work is needed to narrow the gap between the current and the ideal self.

3. You Need to be Socially Integrated

We are hardwired to be social creatures. No one can go through life healthy and happy, if one does not have any friends or social connections. Social support is important for one’s wellbeing, especially under high stress. Research has shown that loneliness and social isolation are serious risk factors to our wellbeing (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015; Leung, 2018) One is more likely to feel miserable or depressed when one is all alone without a friend or human contact.

At a deeper level, social integration involves a spiritual connection with humanity, nature, and the higher power. We are not only one of a group, but we can also achieve oneness with something much larger.

4. You Need to Have Faith or Belief

You need to believe in something transcendental, superordinate, sacred, and spiritual. Call it your God or higher power, if you may. There is nothing irrational about it. It is just as rational as believing that the world is orderly—a belief shared by all scientists. It is also just as rational as believing in the classical ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty. It is such beliefs that elevate humanity above all other animals and create civilizations. It is such beliefs that motivate us to strive towards the transcendental and sacred and bring out the most noble and the best qualities in us (Emmons, 2005).

Gandhi

Faith involves rationality, but also goes beyond it—it represents the highest human achievement, because it stretches one’s intellect to the limit, propels one’s imagination to the uttermost, and rises to the greatest challenge to becoming one’s best and doing one’s best deemed impossible without the faith factor.

Gandhi is correct; God represents all the best things in life you have been yearning for, both consciously and unconsciously—love, goodness, beauty, courage, and the ability to transcend all your space-time limitations.

5. You Need to Have the Courage to be True to Yourself and Do the Right Thing

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage,” wrote Maya Angelou (as quoted by Graham, 2006, p. 224). Numerous philosophers before her had also stressed that courage is the virtue that support all other virtues (e.g., Zeno, Aristotle and Aquinas).

Courage is essential if you really want to live your own life, follow your own path, and be the captain of your own ship. It is also imperative to have the courage to remain true to your core values and beliefs. This is how you live an authentic life and experience authentic happiness. Don’t sell your soul to the Devil, be it money, power, or some scary monster who demands obedience. You only have one life to live; make it count for something good, beautiful, and deeply fulfilling. Have the courage to be different and tell the truth as you see it, even when no one listens. My own life has shown that I become who I am, because I have the courage to be different and to be disliked (see Kishimi & Koga, 2017).

6. You Need to do Something Creative and Significant with Your Life

NietzscheHere lies the secret to authentic happiness—develop your best self and give it back to the world in the spirit of self-transcendence and generosity. Be actively engaged with life, with what matters most to you. This principle can be applied to whatever career you happen to have. It can be waiting on tables or owning a large corporation. What matters is the conscientious attitude and the creative energy you bring to your work. You can always add the imprint of your personality and creativity to your work. Every person has the potential to be a unique contributing member of the human race. It is indeed more blessed to give than to receive.

7. You Need to Develop True Grit to Pursue Your Calling or Life Dream

We are living in a world full of obstacles, injustice, hardships, tragedies, and disappointments; therefore, unless we have true grit, we will never realize our most cherished dreams. It takes courage, meaning, and persistence to achieve anything really worthwhile. Nietzsche’s (1889/1990) quote “What does not kill me, makes me stronger” (p. 8) has inspired Frankl and numerous people that the courage and ability to survive traumas enable us to overcome any obstacle life throws at us.

A general calling for all humankind is to become one’s best despite all the limiting deterministic factors. Once again, Nietzsche has something profound to say. In his philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche (1891/1961) advanced the controversial doctrine of the Übermensch or “superman.” His intention was to show that the ultimate goal of human beings is to have the will power or the grit to conquer and transcend human weaknesses and limitations to become one’s best. If we can combine the will power of “superman” and the faith power of a true believer, one has both the courage and meaning to persevere until victorious. Thus, this existential perspective adds more depth the current positive psychology view of grit.

8. You Need the Wisdom and Ability to Adapt to Changing Circumstances

From David Wechsler and Robert Sternberg to Stephen Hawking, scientists have defined intelligence as our ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Dostoyevsky (1915/2004) has also captured the essence of the intelligent person: “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him” (p. 6).

This amazing ability to adapt comes not only from our intellectual ability (IQ), but also from our wisdom and capacity for meaning making, also known as life intelligence (LQ). It does not require much wisdom to see some patterns of connection and order between simple events, but it takes a lot of wisdom to discover coherence and unity in a chaotic and fragmented world.

An important component of wisdom is acceptance—the ability to accept our limitations, the wisdom of knowing when to fight against and when to accept fate, and the willingness to embrace the dark side of life. It was through accepting my fate and sufferings that I have found inner peace and contentment—the two pillars of mature happiness.

The accumulated knowledge, experiences and insights about life can be found from the wisdom literature, such as the Bible, Buddhist Dharma wisdom, and the Five Classics of Confucianism. Wisdom literature from both the East and West deepens our understanding of the complexities of life; it also helps us discover a moral compass to steer us away from the pitfalls and disasters that have ruined countless people who were without any moral principles.

The capacity for reframing and attributing positive meaning to adversity has enabled us to survive anything. That is why Frankl likes to quote Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Just as a pearl is formed inside an oyster because of irritants, wisdom comes from transcending and transforming hardships.

In an earlier article, I (Wong, 2005) I elevated wisdom to a higher level: “May you be grounded in reality, guided by a sound mind, and enlightened by the Spirit. May God show you the right path in a dark and crooked world. Let your light so shine that others may be inspired to pursue Wisdom—the only priceless possession.”

9. You Need to Take the Bad with the Good as Two Sides of the Same Coin

Everything in life exists in polarity. The bad and the good always coexist in the form of a pendulum, tug-or-war, or balance. The result is always some kind of middle way or moderation. This will prevent us from either extreme sadness and despair or exuberant happiness and over-optimism.

This polarity principle of yin-yang sheds a new light on positive psychology—happiness is no longer the presence of positive affect and the absence of negative affect, but the acceptance of the inevitable polarity of both positive and negative emotions and being attuned to the ebb and flow of fortune with a sense of contentment (Wong, 2014b; Wong & Bowers, in press).

Similarly, from this yin-yang perspective, meaning in life takes shape through the endless process of transforming and assimilating absurd and meaningless moments into a larger meaningful design. This process of personal growth is made possible only through the constant struggle and stretching to overcome challenges and obstacles (Wong, 2011). My life story shows clearly that without all the sufferings I have gone through, I would not have found the joy of living a meaningful life.

10. You Need to be Appreciative and Grateful

Even when we cannot find good things to be grateful for, we can always be thankful for the gift of life, for our planet earth, and to all the people that make our existence possible and pleasant. Research on gratitude by Bob Emmons and others have shown that the benefits of gratitude can be found in all cultures. The Chinese proverb of “when drinking, remember its source” is in fact a piece of advice for us to be grateful in all situations, because whatever we possess or enjoy always originated from someone else’s efforts.

SchweitzerTo those who have learned to look at the world with a meaning mindset (Wong, 2012), we can discover something meaningful and beautiful even in our darkest hours and deepest abyss. The lens of meaning and gratitude allows us to live life at a deeper and higher level, because it enables us to see beyond the material world.

A painting or tapestry would be boring without the contrast of dark colors. Similarly, life would be boring if is uneventful and pleasant all the time. A rich and exciting life has all flavours—sweet, bland, bitter, sour, salty, and spicy. I am grateful that I have been blessed with such a rich life; it has not been easy, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

11. You Need a Moral Compass to Navigate Perilous Waters

In a postmodern age of relativism, many have lost their moral moorings and succumbed to the expediency of temptations or yielded to threats. History has shown that when we do not have any moral grounding, when we can no longer tell right from wrong with any confidence, we will mess up our lives. From my own life experiences, I have learned that my greatest satisfaction comes from virtuous deeds and my greatest regrets come from violating my own moral standards.

Frankl’s self-transcendence model wrestles with the moral challenges of how to be a decent human being under two very difficult conditions: first, how to live with a sense of human dignity and significance in the presence of horrific evil, and second, how to prevent anyone in a position of power from becoming a monster like Hitler. Frankl’s answer to the above two ethical challenges is threefold: (1) to awaken the will to meaning to search for self-transcendence (i.e., the spiritual and noble part of human nature); (2) to practice the meaning-mindset to discover truth, beauty, and goodness in all of life’s situations, no matter how bad (i.e., the need for a perspective shift); (3) and to cultivate personal responsibility to choose and do the right thing in every situation, (i.e., the good habit of following one’s innate conscience and the time-tested moral norm).

The Golden Rule provides a simple moral guide on how we should treat other people. This principle is as universal as it is timeless: We should treat all human beings with decency, respect, and kindness as we would want to be treated by others. Justice and equality can be achieved through the golden rule of love and respect, rather than through class struggles and brute instruments of the state.

Since my youth, I have learned from Albert Schweitzer that the purpose of human life is to show love and compassion to all people. It is through fulfilling this purpose of loving, helping, and forgiving others that we find true happiness. Indeed, I have found all through my life that when I valued virtue and compassion more than happiness, I was surprised by joy much more than those who only pursued self-centered pleasures.

This is my plea with all my readers: Dear fellow human beings, let’s be kind and helpful to each other, because life is full of sufferings; this is at the heart of all moral teachings.

12. You Need to Author a Good Story to Live By

Make sure that it is a story that is not only worth listening to but also worth living by, a story that both informs and inspires. You can always transform all your ordeals into a hero’s journey, if you have learned the previous 11 lessons.

CampbellWe have all experienced the pain of betrayal, unfair treatment, or gross injustice. We may lick our wounds and ruminate over these misfortunes. Others may add insult to injury by blaming us for our problems or shrugging their shoulders and saying that our problems are of no concern to them. Yet, we can build a story of triumph around these painful events; such a story typically assimilates the traumatic events into an overarching metanarrative that is much bigger than ourselves. Tragedy and trauma make your story worth reading. That is why I am not afraid of all the bad things people can do to me, because what they meant for evil, God can make it to work for our good (Rom. 8:28). My life story, if nothing else, proves this principle.

Conclusion

A perceptive reader will notice that these 12 pillars rest on three cornerstones: Freedom of will and responsibility, the will to meaning, and the meaning of life as proposed by Viktor Frankl (1985). The walls that connect the 12 pillars are made of four basic ingredients: courage, meaning, virtue, and mature happiness (Wong & Bowers, in press). In short, there is no shortcut to meaning, no easy path to the good life —it takes courage and self-transcendence to build a worthwhile life (Wong, 2016b).

Life is a constant struggle for those who aspire to live on a higher plane for a higher purpose. You too can make something meaningful and beautiful out of life if you have the courage to assume responsibility for your future and wellbeing. I have learned the important lesson that it does not matter whether people listen to my song or recognize my existence, as long as I believe the worth of my calling and have confidence that God will fulfill his purpose in my life regardless of how bleak the situation.

We may not be able to cure all the ills in this world; at least we can learn how to discover the mature happiness of living in a harsh world and bringing joy to others. My effort in writing this memoir has not been wasted, even if only a few people find some comfort and encouragement from my struggles and triumphs.

I want to end my autobiography by expressing gratitude to God for everything, to my wife, family, and friends for supporting me, and to the Chou Ta-Kuan Foundation for inviting me to write this memoir. I am grateful that I can pass on a little bit of my faith, love, hope, and courage to all my readers.

References

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