As I sit here at 6:20pm, in Chelsea, Michigan, not the place I was born or grew up, but the place I've called home for the past four years, I feel blessed. I feel blessed that I have had the opportunities that I've had in my life and I'm excited about the future.
It's a fall day, and the wind is strong... very strong! The wind through the trees makes a roaring sound as it passes over the leaves that have been strong enough to stay attached through the previous days. Other leaves fall down from the sky with each extra strong gust, filling it as if a flock of birds were flying above. Each leaf has a unique pattern of rising and falling while almost dancing on the wind and flirting with gravity.
I am here by myself and posting this entry from the deck attached to my residence. I am surrounded by only nature, and I am aware of my blessings.
Today I finished the audiobook "Man's Search For Meaning", by Viktor Frankl. An amazing story of survival through what I could only refer to as what must have been terror in multiple concentration camps in Nazi controlled Germany in the 1940's. Before being a prisoner, Frankl was a well respected neurologist and psychiatrist. During his personal experiences in these camps he was able to analyze how humans react when put under enormous stress and loss of hope, loss of meaning in one's life. He also was able to see how individuals could, even in the absolute worst situations imaginable, rise up and overcome these odds and survive where most would have given up. He was able to analyze the human spirit of other prisoners, and himself and share his findings with the world through this book.
The book is broken into three main parts. The first dealing with stories of the human spirit within this prisoner camps and reaction to specific situational examples. The second an introduction to Logotherapy. The third is a case for "Tragic Optimism"
This book has many great lessons and I figured I'd share a few that had extra special meaning to me.
In the preface of the book, Gordon Allport says "To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in the suffering" and I find this statement really hit home with me. As a human, part of life is suffering. We will all suffer at times in our life. Some may be extreme and out of our control, some may be trivial and brought on by our own self. Many will fall in between those extremes. We will also all suffer at the time of our death. This book discusses the "how" some chose to suffer under extreme circumstances. A quote that is mentioned early in the book and again multiple times after is from Nietzsche, "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how."
Read that quote again - it's another one of those times during the read that really hit home for me. No matter what we are faced with during our life, if we have meaning, we can rise above it. We can find the courage to overcome and live life to the fullest that we are afforded.
Frankl explains that the power lies in choice. That humans have the ability to choose their attitude for any situation presented to them. We can adjust and adapt. We can choose to live or choose to give up. There are many examples through the book where prisoners had lost the will to live, and Frankl explains exactly what that looked like and how other prisoners could tell that it would not be long after the loss of will to live that the prisoner would die.
Frankl, through his suffering found meaning for life, and because of this was able to survive. Through various accounts he tells how he would try to help others find meaning as well. Through his study what he found is that the "will for meaning" is a strong influence on a life. With it a human can thrive, without it we can exist but will live at less than our potential, and when put under stress and suffering having the meaning / reason to live could be the difference between life and death.
Frankl mentions that we do not need suffering to find meaning, in fact if the suffering can be avoided by change within the person or environment, then it should at all costs. To suffer when you are in control of the situation is unwise. What he points out is that the stories in this book offer proof that people who are suffering in a situation they can't control can still find meaning for life. It is possible!
I won't go too far into Logotherapy in this post, other than to say that Frankl says it is the method to help the patient find meaning in their life to overcome their situation. The three ways described are through action, what I would refer to as the doing side of us or creative side. Through interaction with others or experiences, this is the method where love falls into and Frankl believes that love could be one of the strongest meanings to humans. The third method can be through attitudinal values, such as finding meaning in being a good person, being compassionate, knowing your worth based on the person you are. I will say that I'm very interested in learning more about this area, especially in the treatment of depression or in cases where people have a feeling that life has no meaning.
The third part of the book discusses "Tragic Optimism" and the best way I can describe it is those who have gone through or are going through great suffering and choose to live their life to the fullest. Mentioned in the book as "the defiant power of the Spirit", it's inspirational in the most meaningful way possible. Below is an excerpt from the book.
But the most powerful arguments in favor of 'a tragic optimism' are those which in Latin are called argumenta ad hominem. Jerry Long, to cite an example, is a living testimony to 'the defiant power of the Spirit' . . . To quote the Texarkana Gazette, 'Jerry Long has been paralyzed from his neck down since a diving accident which rendered him a quadriplegic three years ago. He was 17 when the accident occurred. Today Long can use his mouth stick to type. He "attends" two courses at Community College via a special telephone. The intercom allows Long to both hear and participate in class discussions. He also occupies his time by reading, watching television and writing.' And in a letter I received from him, he writes: 'I view my life as being abundant with meaning and purpose. The attitude that I adopted on that fateful day has become my personal credo for life: I broke my neck, it didn't break me. I am currently enrolled in my first psychology course in college. I believe that my handicap will only enhance my ability to help others. I know that without the suffering, the growth that I have achieved would have been impossible.'This book describes what is possible and as you can tell by this post, it's had a great impact on me. I highly recommend it.
Just before arriving home I stopped at a local coffee shop with good friends for conversation and an afternoon coffee. At one point in the visit I got up to go to the washroom and I noticed a man and women off to the side. The man was in a wheelchair and looked to be paralyzed from the neck down, In an effort not to stare I caught out of the corner of my eye that the lady was holding the drink to the man's mouth so that he could take a sip. As I entered the restroom and locked the door, I thanked God for all my blessings. I have known suffering and tough situations in my life, but those have made me who I am today and I know that I've known nowhere near the suffering that this man that I passed by has known.
Imagine my surprise when upon leaving the coffee shop and returning to the point that I had left off at in the audiobook, I was greeted with the example of Jerry Long that I posted above. Mere moments before I had seen a man in a similar situation and I said these words upon reflection...
"How dare I... How dare I feel bad about my situation and the life that I've lived. It has been a life filled with choices that have been made by me, nobody else. The majority of what I refer to as suffering is self imposed with feelings of self-pity and regret instead of looking back on my experiences and understanding that they have shaped who I am."
As I arrived home and pulled into my driveway, I posted the following on Facebook.
"I choose my attitude in all situations, I choose my destiny, only I can choose to reach my full potential. Happiness is a by-product of my choices. If I'm not happy, guess who I get to blame? Better yet, guess who can change circumstances making me feel that way?"
As the sun sets and I reflect on the many lessons that I learned from this book and the future reading it will influence, I can't help but feel good. My search for meaning continues as all of ours will throughout different times in our life, but I am hopeful and optimistic.