When I am made aware of senseless suffering, of bad things happening to good people, these are the greatest spiritual challenges on my journey. In such moments, I always find comfort and guidance in the thoughts of Viktor Frankl.
I discovered Frankl in graduate school. Disappointed that my first psychotherapy course covered only research, I struck out on my own reading whatever I could find. Gestalt therapy. Albert Ellis. Carl Jung. Somewhere in my wanderings among the stacks, I came upon The Doctor and the Soul by Frankl. The suggestion of a spiritrual theme appealed to me.
Dr. Frankl was a psychiatrist of Jewish background who was imprisoned in the Nazi death camps. He was the only member of his family to survive. Yet, rather than be broken by his experiences, as a true wounded healer he drew upon them to formulate his theory of therapy known as logotherapy.
Frankl posited that we humans are possessed of a central drive he referred to as the will to meaning. By this he meant that we are driven to find meaning in our lives, that an absence of meaning can give rise to the likes of depression. . One key doorway for finding meaning, according to Frankl, is how we face suffering. Frankl observed that some circumstances in life were beyond our control. Fatal illness. Loss of a job. Persecution. These and other experiences elude our efforts to control. It is at this point of realization that we make a choice. How do I face this? Frankl’s insight has informed both my own facing of tragedies as well as my efforts to help others. Thus, when one man learned of his diagnosis of AIDS, thinking of Frankl, I asked this man “How do you want to face this?” His response? “I want to look forward to stepping into the light.” I will carry his words with me as guidance for when my own time comes. I think, too, of a young girl dying of cancer whom I met at a camp for children with cancer. In the midst of anger over no longer being able to dance, she grew quiet and said “I know I’ll live on. I’ll be part of this camp. I’ll be in the wind, in the trees.” She smiled, having found her stance to face the death which came just a few weeks later.
Viktor Frankl was one of the early architects of my desire to find a bridge between psychology and spirituality. Other theorists did not talk about finding meaning and did not offer help in facing tragedy. Frankl did. For that, I am grateful.
Reflections: 1. Where do you find meaning in your life?
2. How do you try to face suffering?
Further reading: Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is his best known and rightly so. My own personal favorite of his works is The Doctor and the Soul
Frankl has been one of my great mentors and teachers for years. Jung told us that nothing is worse than meaningless suffering, and that was before the holocaust that Frankl survived. I find meaning in opening to whatever life is attempting to teach me, which is much easier said than done. It has been said that God comes to us disguised as life. Without exception I have discovered from hindsight (rarely in the midst of the drama) that everything that I experience, no matter how horrific at the time, is God coming to me as life, and usually I couldn’t discover that during the experience but sometime later. Humans are the only animals that not only make meaning but are compelled to do so. Those humans who argue for the meaninglessness of life are usually quite miserable because they are arguing against their own human nature. However, meaning is never “found.” It can only be made which requires the willingness to reflect, to commit to a path of inner work, the trusting of one’s process, the reinforcement of past experiences in which we have made meaning, and utilizing the support and wisdom of others on the journey of transformation both past and present. How long does that take? Nothing less than an entire lifetime.
I, probably like most people, fear and try to avoid suffering. Alas, suffering seems to find me–I am not in control of suffering. learned to deal with suffering through my faith. I find that when I serve others thereby serving God,, when I get out of my head and really into my heart, then my suffering takes a back burner and I am free of it. I heard this the other day– courage is faith that said it’s prayers. So I pray and pray and pray. And I make beautiful art. Beauty also keeps suffering at bay. I also reach deep within me for the strength and resolve I know that God gave me as gifts on my journey…..
Since Frankl’s work nourished me during my periods of brokenness, I must also recommend his book entitled, “The Unheard Cry for Meaning”. Jewish women were not allowed to be pregnant during a certain period of the Nazi rule so his unborn child was forced to be aborted. He dedicated the book simply to “Harold or Marion, an unborn child”. He formulated his theory of Logotherapy before his internment in the concentration camp. The manuscript of his first book on Logotherapy was one of the few things he managed to smuggle into the camp. It was in the pocket of an overcoat which was taken from him. That coat was replaced by a thin, worn coat which had previously belonged to another man who had been gassed. He interpreted this as a sign that he should live out his theory! He later wrote about spending many nights re-writing the manuscript on scraps of paper. This he did after his days of hard labor in the concentration camp in the German winter. He emerged with sorrow but without bitterness toward anyone. The meaning of his suffering was to help others find theirs. He succeeded beyond measure.
Correction, Frankl’s book was dedicated “To Harry or Marion”, not Harold as I previously stated.
Great…just beautiful! P