“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how'”.
Victor Frankl was a survivor of several concentration camps and the father of logotherapy, a branch of therapy that looks to help people by focusing on the meaning of their lives. The creation of this was his why. He survived years of starvation and abuse with the determination to write and publish his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” and try to ease the burden of suffering souls. He was able to practice this and observe the extremes of human suffering while in the concentration camps, as he found his medical skills saving him and others through his work in the sick quarters caring for the sick and dying, with as much dignity as could be managed in the circumstances.
In those terrible conditions people had very little control over anything. They were hungry, pushed around and subjected to tremendous suffering themselves as well as being worried about what was happening to the loved ones who had been cruelly stripped away from them. And yet many did not want to die, they found ways to survive, each of them finding a reason for why they wanted to continue, a tiny flicker of hope in a dark and damaging place. It was not those who were physically weakest who died but those who lost hope, who could no longer find a reason to continue, who found themselves succumbing to the final solution. Those who had a purpose, a sense of a task to fulfil, something to do, were most apt to survive.
That purpose took many forms. For one mother it was to care for her boy so that he might have a better life, for a loving husband it was bearing his suffering in the hope that his wife would not be suffering as he was. Others found a transcendental reason, believing that their perspective was limited to that of a human being, so they could not know the purpose for their suffering, but could believe that there was one. These people resolved to suffer with dignity and kept faith in the transformative power of their experience. Some discovered that with so much stripped from them the beauty of nature and poetry became even more profound than before.
This experience is a long way from my own, growing up as I did in middle class England with supportive parents and a great education. The sacrifices made by my grandparents’ generation allowed me a great freedom and an ability to live my life in a time of peace and prosperity. So what can we take now from Victor Frankl’s discoveries? Isn’t this idea of bearing suffering an old idea, replaceable now with the pursuit of pleasure or happiness?
I don’t think so. Happiness is a fleeting and tricky thing. It comes and it goes, along with all our other emotions as we respond to the stimuli in our life. Making ourselves a slave to happiness is just as much a prison as any other and the most tortuous prison we can find is the one we create in our own minds. So how can we free ourselves from that? Logotherapy suggests that instead of pursuing happiness we instead look for a reason to be happy. This purpose can shift and change as we do and is as specific as an individual, as unique as any moment but without it we succumb to boredom that leads us into the hell of an existential vacuum.
This purpose of ours; this careful, beautiful, specific gift propels us to become better in some way. It is built of our love and expresses itself in the love we feel and the love we give and that love is our transformation and the source of our salvation. Why we love, who we love and what we love is the reason we can find light in the darkness. It is the laughter shared with a fellow sufferer in a dark moment that lifts us up and gives us hope for a better tomorrow. Looking forward is something we can revel in: the holidays we will go on, the food we will eat, the music we will dance to, can save us from our suffering in the present as well as making it easier to bear. But we live in the present and our future is made up of each moment, every tiny choice we make, every response we have to the situations our life throws at us.
Much of the time we cannot choose what happens to us; we are victims of circumstance, time and geography but we can always choose what we do about it. But to do that we must dedicate ourselves to making choices that make us capable of fulfilling our purpose and becoming the people we need to be. And for that we have to commit ourselves to constant change and growth, to find an inner strength that leads us to our salvation. But how?
The answer comes from the first time I came across Victor Frankl at drama school. It was during an Alexander Technique session where we were all working on recognising and inhibiting our habitual behaviours so we could be free to choose something else. Penny shared this quote with us:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
In the heat of our strong emotions: whether anger or pride, pain or pleasure, jealousy or elation, it is hard to recognise that space. The intensity of what we feel makes us move ineluctably with our habitual response, not questioning whether we have control. But we do. Even then the space may be tiny but it is there. How can we grow it? For me, that answer has come from mindfulness and meditation. Through practicing awareness when there are few distractions, in the rest of my life I can be more aware of those strong emotions gripping my body and have a chance to step in and do the right thing rather than the easy one. It is a work in progress. I am a work in progress. But it is work that is meaningful to me and helps me be the person I need to be to fulfil my purpose, that of inspiring thriving.
If this resonates with you please send me a message and let me know how you are, what your purpose is and how you are working to be the person who will fulfil it.