Thursday, May 15, 2008

Viktor Frankl On Suffering

If you haven't read it before, I urge you to read Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search For Meaning. Written by a Nazi concentration survivor, it's a profound examination of how one can find meaning in the midst of suffering, even in the midst of such dehumanizing conditions as the author experienced. If anyone has suffered, it's a survivor of Auschwitz, and if he or she speaks about how to transform suffering into something that reflects our inner dignity and freedom, then I'll pay close attention. I've often thought that many of us have our own prisons where we suffer, whether it be a physical ailment, or something more psychological, like depression, or perhaps something moral, such as struggling daily with temptation. They are all prisons that Christ desires to free us from, but in the midst of the suffering, while we are yet behind their gates, he calls us to grow in our suffering, and indeed to embrace the suffering as a gift that transforms us. As Frankl says, "any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him-mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, 'There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.' These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom-which cannot be taken away-that makes life meaningful and purposeful."

Here are a few quotes that I think are quite powerful.

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity-even under the most difficult circumstances-to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.

The following story never fails to move me, and I always wonder if I am able to echo in my own life the incredible statement this woman said in the midst of a concentration camp.

This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. "I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard," she told me. "In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously." Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, "This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness." Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. "I often talk to this tree," she said to me. I was startled and didn't quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. "Yes." What did it say to her? She answered, "It said to me, 'I am here-I am here-I am life, eternal life.' "

We have a Tree as well, that says to us in the midst of all of our trials, pains and suffering: I am here-I am here-I am life, eternal life.

1 comment:

ali said...

dan, i've heard of this man's story and that it is unbelievable. i lost your e-mail. e-mail me your address i have something really wonderful to send you.