Well, now, this doesn’t seem fair. This time last week I was reveling in the possibilities of seemingly endless time to read. Now, this week, I find (a) there hasn’t been nearly as much time as I thought, and (b) more than time, I lack all ability to focus. I read a paragraph, then check Facebook. Read a paragraph, then get distracted by the news. Read a paragraph, and realize my mind was somewhere else entirely and I didn’t actually read the paragraph at all. Anyone else find themselves in the same boat?
So, thank goodness for the suggestion made by Alison, Rosalyn, and others that the first book I pick up during this time of isolation be Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Not because it’s a profound book (which it certainly is). Or because it’s incredibly relevant for our current predicament (and it is that, as well). But because it’s short! And because it’s short, I was able to persevere — paragraph by paragraph — grateful for the chance to reacquaint myself with both its relevance and depth.
Pretty sure this copy dates back to college.
Dr. Viktor Frankl was a renowned Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of more than 30 books, none more impactful in its reach than Man’s Search for Meaning. (For more on the life and legacy of Frankl, see his obituary in the New York Times here.) Written in nine successive days shortly after his liberation from Nazi death camps in 1945, and first published in Austria in 1946, Frankl described his motivation for sharing the insights he gleaned from his experiences: “I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. … I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.”
From page one, Man’s Search for Meaning radiates with relevance for our own difficult time of uncertainty. Not because there are direct parallels between this moment of social distancing during a viral pandemic and the levels of suffering inflicted upon the innocent during the Holocaust. Hardly. Nor because reading of the extreme suffering those in Nazi death camps experienced yields a deep appreciation for the relative ease with which we have it, even under present circumstances. (Though that is a definite byproduct.) Frankl was not a relativist and his purpose in writing the book wasn’t to tell us all in the midst of our own life’s experiences to buck up; it could be so much worse.
Rather Frankl understood that all suffering is of one cloth. Circumstances change; trials and tribulations come in all shapes and sizes. But, no matter the suffering, its difficulties are lessened — or at least made bearable — when we can assign to them meaning. As he quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Humor, curiosity, art, intensification of inner life, surprise when the common wisdom re: what we think we need to survive is proven wrong — these were all tools and strategies Frankl saw those in the camps around him use, consciously or unconsciously, to survive to see another day. But discovering meaning in one’s life — meaning specific to oneself in a specific moment — was the most powerful agent of all.
Frankl describes three ways in which we can find meaning in our lives, and I suggest that these three pathways are available to each one of us right now:
- “By creating a work or doing a deed.” This is the roll-up-one’s-sleeves-and-get-cranking approach. Make that gourmet meal. Work that 1,000 piece puzzle. Sculpt that topiary in your garden. (Hey, no one’s judging your hobby or bucket list!) Whatever your passion, your talent, your interest — use this time and opportunity to create or do something new and special, something done just by you.
- “By experiencing something or encountering someone.” Here Frankl lists “goodness, truth and beauty,” “experiencing nature and culture,” “or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness.” I think of all those who are using this time to do for others: to shop and bring groceries to those who are shut-in; to give and raise funds for those whose personal or business resources are in dire need; to just pick up the phone and check in, whether you know someone to be in need, or they’re just on your mind. I think of the bike rides, the walks, or even just sitting in nature, tuning into something bigger than, and greater than, ourselves. Every act taken beyond ourselves expands our perspective and lightens our load.
- “By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” Yet, for some, this moment of isolation truly is a moment of inescapable suffering. Deep concern for our own health, or that of our loved ones, due to underlying medical conditions or compromised immunity; the effects of physical illness, or the struggle to preserve mental health, or the unraveling of our economic safety net — this is suffering that one can’t just “create” or “experience” their way out of. Here, Frankl teaches, perspective makes all the difference. For whom do we suffer? he might ask. Instead of a moment of suffering, can we see this as a moment of sacrifice? Think of all of those we are striving to protect by our actions. Replace statistics (staggering numbers) with faces and names of those in danger. I isolate for my friend and colleague, who lives with a medical condition that would quite likely render COVID-19 a death sentence. I isolate for my grandmother, and the grandmothers and grandfathers in my congregation, and all the grandparents and great-grandparents for whom this disease seems to be mercilessly unsparing. I isolate for a global humanity that may very well be saved, in part, by one person, me, staying 6 feet away from everyone else. I isolate because, despite all of the powerlessness this moment engenders, our individual choices, in reality, have rarely held such power.
I’ll give the last word to Dr. Frankl: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
What are you choosing today?