by Dan Doyle -
Suffering comes into every life. Often it is so terrible we wonder how we can ever survive it. We can’t imagine the there could be any meaning in it. One of the most important books I’ve ever read is Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In it he tells of his experiences as an inmate in several of the Nazi death camps during WWII. Frankl was one of the lucky ones, he survived. He was liberated at the end of the war from Auchwitz as the only survivor of his family. Out of his pain and loss, out of the hell of it all, he came away with a deeper faith in God and, ironically, in humanity. We are the lucky ones, then, who can read this small book and be edified by the powerful meaning he discovered in and through his own suffering.
When we suffer, nothing makes sense to us. We are overwhelmed with a feeling that the world is cold, indifferent to our suffering, that we are utterly alone in it and imprisoned by it. How could there be any meaning in it at all? This is the central question of Viktor Frankl’s book. The core responsibility of our individual human lives is to find meaning and purpose, not just in fame, or wealth, but in transcendent ways, through faith, hope and, most importantly through love. Meaning ultimately is found in and through relationships with our loved ones, our friends, even humanity in general, but ultimately with God.
Frankl had been a doctor before being taken to the camps. He was a practicing psychiatrist and in the camps he was often responsible for caring for the sick and dying. One of the stories he tells in the book is a particularly poignant memory of caring for a young woman who was dying. He tells us that she knew she would die in the next few days, but when he talked to her, in that condition, in that awful place, she was always cheerful. She said, “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” She then pointed through a window of the dirty hut they were in and said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.”
Outside the window was a chestnut tree. In all that squalor and stench that surrounded them in the death camp, spring still came and the single branch that she could see actually had a couple of blossoms on it. She told Frankl that she talked to that tree. Frankl worried that in her dying state she was hallucinating, but asked her if it ever talked back to her. She said yes and he asked her the next logical question, “What does it say?” Her response was very simple in its words, but profound in its meaning. She said, It said to me, “I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.”
“I Am.” For a Jew and for a Christian this phrase is more than a mere statement of ontological fact. This is the very name of God given to Moses from out of the burning bush on Mt. Sinai in the desert. For that young woman that phrase gave her the meaning of life that she had always been avoiding in her formerly spoiled life. She had not “taken spiritual accomplishments seriously,” and her life had had no depth as a result. But there in the darkest moment in one of the darkest places on the planet, indeed, in history, she found that she had never been alone, that the Great I Am had always been with her and that He always would be.
This, of course, is only one of the many stories that Viktor Frankl tells in the book. He, too, an educated man, a man who loved a woman, his wife, who had by the cruelest of fates, been separated from her in the camps, who suffered the depravities of the Final Solution with all of the others he was there with, also needed to find meaning. How could there be any meaning in such unjust and cruel suffering?
The meaning that Frankl was able to finally come to seems too simple, maybe even ironic to us. He found that the last freedom we all have, is the freedom to choose our attitude, our response, to whatever situation of suffering we may find ourselves in.
As he reveals in the book, some chose to give up and simply laid down to die, or committed suicide. Others chose to become Capos, turncoat Jews who became petty tyrants overseeing their fellow Jews for cigarettes, or simply another day to live. Some, the majority really, chose to become a number, to try to melt into the center of the crowd to avoid being beaten by the often sadistic guards. Others gave the rags of their own coat, or their own meager cup of watery “soup” to another whom they perceived was more needy than themselves. These, Viktor Frankl tells us, were very few, but they were those who showed the truest, most transcendent depths of our human nature. Suffering can bring all of us to choices like this too, on any scale. We can choose to “escape” it by committing suicide. We can choose to become brutes ourselves in an effort to push our suffering off on someone else. We can choose to try to hide from it. Or we can choose to transcend it, by forgetting ourselves in and through our sacrifice for and service of others.
After his liberation from Auschwitz, Frankl found himself walking, “freely,” for the first time in four years, through the countryside, past meadows full of spring flowers, toward the market town near the camp. Larks were flying and singing joyously all around. He was alone and, “There was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the Larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky — and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world — I had but one sentence in my mind — always the same: ‘I called the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence I can no longer recall. But I know that on the day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.”
Frankl tells us that suffering is relative. We do not have to go through an Auschwitz of suffering to find meaning in our lives. Suffering comes to all of us, so often unbidden, through no fault of our own. Our struggle is no less than Viktor Frankl’s. Our suffering, though, ceases when we find meaning in it. Oh, the physical or emotional pain may still be there, but it will no longer imprison us, or define us. We will have named it, and with the always present grace of the eternal “I Am” we can face and endure anything. Thanks be to God for His grace and His mercy.
If you have never read this important book, may I suggest that you pick one up and take your time through it. The great irony is that it is a book that, in the end, will give you a deeper faith in humanity’s strengths and in the power of love. If you are suffering, it will give you reason for hope. It is a masterpiece of human courage and grace.