“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”
We all face times that challenge us, test our metal, push us to go farther than we thought we could go, and achieve more than we dreamed we would. Sometimes, those experiences strengthen us for the next problem, goal, or contest. Yet, on occasion, we expend resources that are not readily renewed. Life can crush us. As we age, I think this is more true, especially if what we face is a health challenge.
I don’t know about you, but I have known those who seem able to face the unfaceable with a determination to take what comes on their own terms. They set their will and fight with heart and spirit, even when they are weak in body. They make it to their granddaughter’s wedding or their son’s graduation, they celebrate an anniversary or take one last sunset walk on the beach. Some beat the problem or the illness…others walk away or they leave us, but they walk into their goodnight with fortitude and grace. Just one example: My husband went to the hospital to see the Senior Pastor of our church, Dr. Art Mielke, who was fighting a final battle with terminal cancer. Looking through the window of his room, they could see the steeple of First Church in the distance. They spoke of his years as a pastor, their shared work together, and of the lessons on ministry Art had taught to Doug. Even dying, Doug told him, he still was imparting wisdom, still sharing a witness. Art patted his bed and acknowledged, “This is my pulpit now.”
As in most things, there are plenty of examples of lives lived from the opposite point of view. Many people are defeated by the pain some conquer. It always makes me wonder why some are weakened by the hardships of life and others find a strength that seems unbreakable. Then, I remember Viktor Frankl and his book on experiencing the Holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankl would go on living when so many died. He became a psychologist and founded a school of thought based on his experience called Logotherapy. The foundation of his thought was that life could be sustained by creating meaning: “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” He said those who survived the concentration camps weren’t the strongest physically, but those who found a larger reason to live, a purpose to live for.
Frankl’s book was pivotal for me. It helped me integrate the instances of trauma I had experienced, reshape them, and turn them into a commitment to helping others. These are some more of his quotes that sustain me….and my thoughts on them:
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” When we face horrible things most people ask impossible why questions. Why did this happen? Why me? Why do I deserve this? Why did he/she, Mom/Dad, my boss/the world do this to me? Why did no one stop it? Impossible whys lead to magnified suffering.
While some people can find an answer in “Why not me?”, I think Frankl deepens the why questions to “What is the why of me? Why was I put on earth? In the face of my experience, what meaning can I draw from it for myself that I can share with others.” These questions can be answered. They are answered inside ourselves where it matters. Once that meaning is discovered, then the only question that remains is how you live that meaning.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Imagine learning this “freedom” in a concentration camp. You own nothing, not even the rags on your back. You control nothing; the guards and dogs do. You are forced to labor with no return save the most minimal food, barely alive. It is enough to make one rage, to despair, to shake one’s fist at God. Frankl chose to accept that those were the givens in his life at that time. It was what it was, but not necessarily what it would be. He determined that, if he lived, he would live life for all who died. Setting this as a goal, his meaning became a commitment to overcome his experience by helping others overcome theirs.
“What is to give light must endure burning.” I don’t think suffering is necessary for the development of wisdom, or that everyone who suffers becomes noble. Yet, I have met those who do give light to everyone they meet. Many of them were “enlightened” by enduring difficult life experiences and overcoming them. They become signposts to the hows for the rest of us, and lamps that light our way. They are witnesses that suffering doesn’t have to be in vain, and that you can come out of the darkness into the light.
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” In an era where politicians are favored who scream in rage, who insult and demean, it is easy to see the strength of anger and outrage. Channeling frustration, rudeness, and incivility, seems to be the currency of elections and the path to “winning.” Sadly, the definition of being the winner is not being a good leader, but being the person who gets to fire the losers.
I prefer Franl’s choice, Gandhi’s choice, Buddha’s choice, Christ’s choice, my choice. When I am weak, my choice is to try to choose love. I am certainly far from perfect at it. I fail and fall short way too often. Yet, I do aspire to it. I know that love is the strength I seek and the salvation I need.
Probably for many of us, we write the post we need to hear ourselves. I needed this reminder…and I pray it will renew my strength so my spirit can fly “like the eagles,” so I can “run and not grow weary, and walk, (one step at a time), and not faint.” If you are also struggling…I hope you will take wing with me. May our spirits soar.
Thanks for sharing this. Great writing.
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Beautiful, Joanne. Your post felt like a journey. I am so inspired by those who find grace in situations that many look at with despair. Recognizing that we always have a choice about our attitudes grants us the freedom to choose love. 🙂
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I think Frankl was the pivotal author of my “therapy” work perspective, as Tolkien was for my writing. He lost his family, mother, father, brother, and wife and still remained focused on positive meaning…but then he also was convinced that his wife was always present with him and that no matter what, even death, nothing can take away love, love never ends.
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I also took a humanist approach to therapy. It made me a better, more compassionate person 🙂 Sometimes I think I received more than I gave. ❤
When I was faced with a horrible loss, I remember making a choice. The thought came to me I could live out my life in bitterness or I could strive to find love and happiness. While my son was in the hospital, I made the choice. I think I was lucky that God made me realize early on that I had a choice. I think some people get so sunk into the bitterness and grief and madness and anger of their situation that they don’t realize that they can choose happiness. A beautifully written homily Joanne.
Dear Bernadette, I am so sorry about this terrible time in your life. I didn’t say in my post that Viktor Frankl lost his entire family, mother, father, brother, wife. In many of his terrible camp experiences he felt as if his wife was present with him, sustaining him with her love. Once when he thought he could almost see and touch her a bird landed on the pile of dirt he had just dug. It was in those moments when he had his realization that love was what gives meaning and salvation to our lives. I am sure the choice you made to move out of bitterness and back in to the world, to choose love and happiness, doubtlessly helped shape the person you are today, someone who reaches out to others, someone who was and still is loved. Thank you for sharing this with me. Jo
What an encouraging post. I will read Frankl’s book. Last year I was very occupied with Primo Levi’s books also a holocaust survivor
I hope you find you like it. It really was transformative for me. The first half of the book is his Holocaust story, the second half his development of Logotherapy. I have always been engaged by things about the Holocaust (though I have not read Levi’s books.) I am Polish and though all my family came here in the late 1800s – early 1900s some of them were supposed to have been Jewish. Let me know what you think if you do read it.