Time to rethink how we view our tragedies
Right attitude helps us easily handle life’s obstacles.
In one ear I heard gentle, empathetic offers to help me in a difficult time of transition, but in the other, harsh directives that it was my “responsibility to get my parents back together.”
Such was my worst holiday season ever. I handled it poorly. I retreated, including from those reaching out in love. I was miserable. It was Christmas 1973 — my first after my parents’ unexpected split, which fractured the warm, secure home I had known all my life to that point.
As an immature and shaken 17-year-old, I chose to withdraw that holiday.
I spent as much of the season as possible alone on a remote golf course while others seemed to join happily with their family and friends. If there had been ready access to a cave, I suppose I would have used it as my Christmas dwelling.
Several years of healing later while in graduate school, I read Viktor Frankl’s “From Death Camp to Existentialism.” This book is typically found today under the less captivating title “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
I was initially introduced to Frankl in a psychology of religion class. My professor characterized him as the founder of the third Viennese school of psychotherapy. Whatever! Instead of focusing on what seemed to me stale comparisons to Freud and Adler, I took Frankl’s book to heart. It has been part of my life ever since.
I read it every year and embrace this holiday tradition of reading and re-reading a truly meaningful book. It always encourages me to make better attitudinal choices and respond in a healthier manner to all of life’s circumstances, including the most difficult ones.
Frankl’s central idea is simple and profound but not always easy to implement: Whatever our circumstances, we are free to choose our attitude and response. Although events and other people can hurt and even devastate us, we make our own choice of perspective.
According to Frankl: “Everything can be taken from a man or woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” Many of us would bristle at this suggestion because no one has known our particular pain and the related severity of our problems. To borrow a legal concept, however, Frankl has “standing” to comment on positive attitudinal election. He survived Auschwitz. His death camp experiences and observations of others formed the basis of his ideas and suggestions.
Frankl’s Holocaust account is unique because he focuses on stories of personal reaction and related survival efforts as opposed to cataloging details of atrocities. Rabbi Harold Kushner observes that “Frankl’s concern is less with the question of why most died than it is with the question of why anyone at all survived.” Kushner then focuses on one of Frankl’s key ideas: “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure ... or a quest for power ... but a quest for meaning.”
Similar to Frankl, Kushner’s life observations are worthy of our attention. His “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” was the result of his son’s serious illness and all too brief life. In this and other works, Kushner consistently highlights the importance of how people respond to challenging situations and sees God present in their gentle, loving, caring and gracious response action.
In a moving passage from his book, Frankl recalls how vivid mental images of his wife helped him cope with and escape from day-to-day difficulties. He did not know where she was or her fate, but thoughts of her made her “more luminous than the sun” and helped him conclude that the “salvation of man is through love and in love.”
I have had a fortunate and charmed life in so many ways. People who truly love and care for me, especially my wife, children, grandchildren, brother, and close friends. Although my challenges in life pale relative to those of others, I have my own dark places and deep wounds. Those stemming from an unexpected broken home many years ago still sting. With God’s help through others, however, I endeavor to choose an attitude and a way with true meaning.
Reading Frankl’s masterpiece annually helps me make better choices and wakes me up to real priorities in my life with a fresh new year in sight.
Years ago I told a Christian friend that two of my favorite authors were Viktor Frankl and Harold Kushner. He was surprised: “Why are Jewish writers your favorite?” I gave a nice, lame response while thinking his question was odd. After all, we as Christians endeavor to live in a manner worthy of the teachings and life model of a Jewish rabbi who pointed to God as love — in all seasons and for all people.