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