Every once in a while I happen upon a lightning-bolt reminder of something vital.
Something that causes you to pause, take stock, and clean and refocus your lens which has become dirty from the gunk of daily life in a strange world.
I had one of those a few weeks ago. It was the convergence of two things:
1. I had just finished reading Viktor Frankl’s account of his experience of the concentration camps in World War Two. It’s in a profound, disturbing and very uplifting book called Man’s Search for Meaning.
27 out of 28 people died in those camps by Frankl’s own math, and he was one of the ones who walked out after a white flag was hoisted over the camp. Frankl’s entire family died in the camps and he suffered incredible pain. When on the outside he began to rebuild his psychiatry practice.
2. The second factor in this ‘convergence,’ was a conversation I was having with my wife, Laura. We were on vacation in Nova Scotia and I was lamenting how I wish our cottage was a bit closer to the beach. I know, I know. What a “problem” to have!
Part of what makes Frankl’s outlook so mind-blowing is his uplifting perspective even amidst terror.
He recalls working in the trenches (and enduring frequent beatings) but still finding moments of bliss simply because he focused his mind on thoughts of his wife. He remembers with gratitude the men who would sneak into other prisoners’ tents to offer them their own last piece of bread (when that same man was already starving), or the prayer circles of men in rags at the end of a work day, or rejoicing when they found out they were being moved to a different camp with no gas chamber, or when they all went out in the evening to marvel at a beautiful sunset (despite the blood-soaked puddles below), or when a bird broke into his workday to stare at him, taking his mind to a beautiful space.
What power. What gratitude!
And here I was complaining about my proximity to the ocean.
A colossal insight for Frankl was this: Life is about finding your meaning, your purpose. Whereas Freud considered it a quest for pleasure, and Adler a quest for power, Frankl considered it a quest for meaning. And when you have meaning, when you have a purpose, you can endure anything.
He agreed with Nietzsche: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”
But back to my vacation insight. It’s about Gratitude and Freedom.
I’m not in a concentration camp. And neither are you. Maybe you suffer in some other way. And I don’t diminish that. Frankl himself says that suffering is relative to the individual. But sometimes learning about someone else’s experience and then considering your own life gives you new vigor to heighten your vision.
Days after liberation, when Frankl was getting used to the outside world, he was disoriented. He was not used to freedom. He saw a lark flying in the open sky. Frankl dropped to his knees listening to the soaring bird’s joyous song, and prayed. He remembers not how long he was on his knees.
I am grateful. I am doing my best to live life faithfully “to the full” (John 10:10). I am thankful for this freedom.
Because a pulse doesn’t mean you’re alive.
A pulse doesn’t mean your alive. I read all your posts. I think about them and how your words and comments might influence or reverb off me. I have also read of many people who have suffered during the world wars and your blog reminded me of them. When I read the last line I was stopped in my tracks. We are breathing and living, but are we really alive and breathing ? Life really is a gift and we should enjoy the present ! Thank you Mathew
Hi Steve, thanks for the comment. And you’re welcome! I’m so glad the blog resonated. I like how you put it, “Life really is a gift and we should enjoy the present.” Have a great day and may we all continue to be thankful for the difficult roads traveled before us, giving us all new possibilities…