A hiatus from my usual routine (readers will note that I missed the last two weeks’ blog posts) due to a medical issue, became the occasion for a little extra reading.
I tackled a classic, challenging work, that provoked much thought—though it largely affirmed my own, less studied, ideas on the matter.
Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning grew out of his own experiences in Auschwitz and several other German concentration camps during the Second World War but was also informed by his training as a medical doctor in psychiatry. Indeed, without that background he probably would not have survived; and, because of it, he likely helped many of his campmates also to survive.
The book, first written in 1959, has sold nearly 16 million copies worldwide.
The basic question he addressed: What separates those who survive and those who succumb in tragic circumstances that are beyond their control?
The difference, he says, is that one must avoid hopelessness by finding some meaning to life in the midst of these circumstances. The meaning need not be of some great exploit that changes the world; by contrast, it may be entirely subjective, may be real or imagined, and may even be fleeting.
He likens it to the frames of a movie. While the full meaning of a movie is only clarified at its conclusion after all its frames have been put together, each frame has its own contribution to make, and thus, its own meaning.
Time after time, he resorted to this tactic in his Auschwitz cell. Occasionally, he would have opportunity to encourage some of his fellow prisoners, as well.
Smuggling in his most prized possession, the nearly completed manuscript of his major work, he had it trashed by the authorities on the first day. He could have despaired! But, finding a scrap of paper in the pocket of the prison clothes he was given, he scribbled down as much of his outline as he could remember, imagining that, after Auschwitz, he would have opportunity to rewrite it—even though, at one point, he calculated that his chances of surviving were 1 in 28.
And so it went. Those prisoners who could find some faint hope within themselves, real or imagined, were able to survive. Those who accepted hopelessness perished.
I’m not in such circumstances, never have been and likely never will be.
Almost certainly, you aren’t either.
But one does not have to be in Auschwitz-like circumstances to have what Frankl calls, the “tragic triad”–pain, guilt, and death–affect them. In other words, negative circumstances beyond our control. (For those that are in our control, the solution is simply to get rid of the circumstances.)
Frankl devoted his life after the War to research and writing on the subject and, as a psychiatrist, helping people find meaning from tragic circumstances, to help them survive and flourish.
One of many examples he gives is of a senior man who, two years after his wife passed away, still found himself in despair. “How would your wife have felt,” asked Frankl, “if you had passed away first?”
“Oh, she would be disconsolate, in as great misery as I,” replied the man.
“So then,” replied Frankl, “you have saved her from that despair!”
At that moment, the man found meaning to having survived his wife, and emerged from his despondency.
Fortunately, I have a pretty easy life. I’ve had minimal experiences with the “tragic triangle.” The take-away for me, though, was to find meaning in each of the little frames of life, in every day and every moment.
For those who may be wondering about the aforementioned medical condition, and whether that had me, temporarily, in the circumstances Frankl addresses, I assure you that was not the case.
It was major dental surgery that was not covered by insurance. Four dental appointments in a week in a warm climate at (perhaps) a third of the price of a Canadian treatment, had me away from my business for nine days but certainly not in a situation where I identified with any of the circumstances Frankl describes in his book. In fact, much the opposite.
The surgery did, however, keep this adventurer (as I sometimes describe myself) mostly adventure-less for a week. In its place, my brain took up this new challenge.
And, hopefully, I’m a better person for having done that.
At least, that’s how I see it . . .