Finding Meaning through Suffering
by Philip Sarpong
(Greenwood, IN, U.S. )
I recently read an influential book called Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. In this book, Viktor, a psychiatrist, shares his story about his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.
The book reveals intricate details about the horrors and atrocities in the camps, as prisoners were separated from their homes and families, to work under terrible conditions. Viktor finds purpose by using a psychotherapeutic method that helps him feel positive, almost empowered through his experiences at the camp, and ultimately survives to tell his story and publish his book in 1946.
I read this book after a year of experiencing my own horror story. In 2018, I accepted an offer to attend dental school. This victory was a dream come true since the time I shadowed my first dentist in high school.
I completed two full semesters in the program before beginning my summer semester in 2019. At this point, I had some momentum with my studies; I was spending more time in the clinic and working with patients, which was my ultimate dream. I loved what I was doing because I believed I was making an impact.
Unfortunately, during one of my courses, an incident happened with another professor and me - an event that matched the flame to many incidents that would occur the remainder of the summer semester. Through these incidents, there was miscommunication and misunderstanding on both sides.
These incidents led to the professor giving me a passing grade for an assignment and then failing me for that same assignment, which led to him failing me for the course. After getting the committee and the human resources department involved, the school dismissed me from the program without allowing me to remediate the assignment. The confusing part of this story is that multiple students received a chance to remediate various assignments and courses in that same semester.
Why was I, the only black male student, not given a fair trial like previous white students? Why was I, a black student, given a more strict sentence than white students who have failed more courses and cheated multiple times? Why was I, a black student, not allowed to come back to the school when other students, white students (one with several sexual assault claims), could come back to school?
When I asked why me and not these white students, I never got a response. The only explanation I got for my dismissal was that “dentistry wasn’t for me.”
(Note: It is peculiar that in the past other white students were expelled for much worse situations. They failed multiple courses or cheated numerous times. Neither of which I had done.)
I share my story because the best-case scenario would be that this does not happen to another minority student. No student should have to withstand their claims ignored. Justice should prevail swiftly.
A few months ago, after the tragedies of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Aubery came to surface, the institution's president shared an email to the school. In this email, he claimed the school was working intensely not just to be a non-racist institution but also to be an anti-racist school that does the work, which facilitates an environment where faculty, students, and leadership embrace racial diversity.
After a long debate with myself, I decided to respond to that email. I cc'd several of my old professors, faculty members, student representatives, and many random people, as well.
Because of my situation, I researched the NDA, National Dental Association, and their members.
The NDA is a group of dentists known for advocating for racial awareness, inclusiveness, and diversity within the dental community. I had never met the members I cc'd before, and I knew inherently that they probably couldn't do much about my situation, but I thought to myself that it wouldn't hurt. Besides, I knew no one would respond to my email, regardless.
But someone from the NDA did respond, a retired dentist who had recently received an offer to become an advocate and diversify the scientific workforce of an organization by representing minorities in advancing dental, oral, and craniofacial research.
In her email response, Dr. Pamela wrote that she had read my letter and wanted to converse on the phone with me. She felt compelled to reach out to me, and during our phone conversation, it was as if she received the clarity that she needed to decide and move forward with accepting a racial diversity position in a school program.
In my letter, I shared the story of my experience in the program. The message's goal was an incentive and a hope that the president would keep his promise for racial equality.
I also did this to raise awareness within the school and as an emotional and mental closure for myself. I could have sued the school, and I did get a lawyer at a certain point. I faced the decision to pursue a lawsuit, and I decided not to because of advice given to me from other dental schools who were familiar with the system. In the end, I had two choices; to fight the school with everything I had, or to try and transfer to a different school or career and move on and be happy with my life.
Lessons, Forgiveness, and Gratitude
Despite everything that I had been through, I knew it was important for myself to forgive. Forgiveness was the best remedy given to my aching heart; it helped me heal, grow, and become stronger.
I was able to forgive myself for wishing that I could have done more in the situation, hoping that I could have been smarter or more intelligent than other students in my class, which would have prevented my dismissal.
At the core, letting go of the will to control the situation, and embracing the fact that humans make mistakes and are imperfect was the most freeing experience.
Forgiving myself was just as important as forgiving others.
In Man's Search for Meaning
, Viktor Frankl describes three attributes to finding meaning. The first is through work, doing what you love, the second can be relational, being with and surrounding yourself with influential positive relationships, and the last is through suffering.
I bring up his story not to compare my account with his, but to underline that he was not bitter at the Nazis for doing what they did to him. He had found meaning through his suffering, which allowed him instead to forgive them. The most important thing of all was that he shared his story.
I am grateful for the experiences that I have in my past. They have led to becoming the person that I am today. I am grateful for the time in dental school because I met students in my class who I will be friends with for a lifetime.
Through this year, I have found meaning through my work. I accepted an offer from a program to pursue a Clinical Psychology PsyD degree. I am closer than I have ever been to my family, my friends, as well as my future wife, and my suffering has led to some incredible situations with people that I would never have thought would be possible.
The experience has taught me about myself and shaped how I view life. I am grateful for the little things such as being able to enjoy the outdoors and being around family and friends, and most importantly, being able to help and serve others in any way possible.
I also believe in the power of searching for meaning through suffering. Such as the case with Dr. Pamela; my story connected me to speaking with her. Our conversation impacted both of us way in a way that I would never have imagined. I know God will use her in beautiful ways with the position that she has to help and represent those who look like me, as well, by serving her community.
The year 2020 has been a troubling year for many people. We still have six months left to go. I know there are many hurting right now with businesses, jobs, health, and disappointment. I'm not sure what the future has in store, but I know that finding meaning is an ongoing process, a process that we don't have to go through alone, and that our stories can not only make an impact on our internal growth but produce an effect for others.Read more about the benefits of expressing gratitude.Learn how to forgive yourself and others.