Dancing & Viktor Frankl

As I sit writing this, the sun has gone behind the mountain across the bay from our villa.  The gray clouds are lined with a peachy-pink, and the clear blue sky on the other side shines through.  It’s just rained, and night is falling.  Ah, such a beautiful sight.  But not quite as beautiful as Liliana dancing with such a sorrowful face and labored movements, because the singer of the song is singing a throaty, sad song.

I’ve started reading again (if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that since our adoption, I’ve not been able to read as much as I’ve wanted to), so it was a welcome change this afternoon.  While Liliana napped, I started Viktor Frankl’s memoir-slash-psychology manual Man’s Search for Meaning, based on his experiences in concentration camps during WWII.  [I know, I bring lots of light reading like this on my vacations!]  Gordon Allport, a former professor of psychology at Harvard University, wrote the preface, and in it, he clarifies what Frankl’s done with this book, besides being a bestseller.  He says that Frankl has explained what happens to an individual’s psyche when surrounded by such horrors–that moments of beauty  such as a tree or a sunset are exquisite, yet not enough to make a person want to live.  He continues:

“But these moments of comfort do not establish the will to live unless they help the prisoner make larger sense out of his apparently senseless suffering.  It is here that we encounter the central theme of existentialism: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.  If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying.  But no man can tell another what this purpose is.  Each must find out for himself, and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes.  If he succeeds he will continue to grow in spite of all indignities.  Frankl is fond of quoting Nietzsche, ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.’”

Isn’t that so true?

Later in the book, Frankl says that many methods of survival existed in the camps, including humor and art (although a paltry amount).

“The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living.  Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.  To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas.  If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber.  Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.  Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

I was talking to Dan about it, and he exclaimed, “But it’s the same with patients.  I see patients who have endured the ultimate, and yet they have the greatest attitudes, then I’ll see a person who has the tiniest problem, and you’d think they had suffered years and years of pain!”

Frankl continues several pages later–this time using a quote from Dostoevsky that says, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”  Frankl uses this as a jump-off point.

“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.”

I’m fixated on this suffering thing, I know, because it is the one question, above all others, I would like to ask God.  How can He turn away?  How can He not intervene?  Is it enough that He has created individuals with free will, and that alone can hurt so many people?  If you read Eve, you’ll see that this comprises some of the novel.  It is a worthy question, I think–one that many people want the answer to.  It’s not an easy or comfortable one, if you believe in a merciful God.

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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