And, until we do that work, our spirit, self or soul--whichever we call it-- is going to be giving us holy hell. And we're going to hurt. And we can carry this hurt, sadness, depression, and anxious worry around to different doctors and therapists begging them to "do something." And the best that they will be able to do for us is to write long lists of our symptoms which they will keep in a big book on their desks. Then they will try to cure us of the name they have given to the list of our symptoms and we will feel comforted because they know what page our pain is on.
Oh, they can drug us into oblivion too, but they can't really help us, thank goodness! Because in our ignorance, we are asking to be cured of ourselves, rather than doing the life's work we need in order to become ourselves. And it is only our problems and our pain that can accomplish this by forcing us to do that work. Daniel DeFoe (1660-1731) in Robinson Crusoe echoes this idea: " It is impossible to make mankind wise but at their own expense, and their experience seems to be always of most use to them when it is dearest bought."
Life itself will select our battlefields for us. For Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist captured by the Nazis, it was a concentration camp at Auschwitz. We are not forced to make a stand. Dr. Frankl could have given up, turned his head to the wall and died, as many prisoners did. But he lived to write about his experiences in his bestselling book, Man's Search for Meaning.
Instead of any lingering resentment and blame as a result of his camp experiences, Dr. Frankl insists that it was this very suffering that taught him "to the bone" the most important lesson of his life. Dr. Frankl learned that he, that any human being is more than just a biological and psychological mind and body, more than an accidental accumulation of reactions to his body, and to the events in his life; that he is never without some choice of his own.
Dr. Frankl believed that he survived because he had meaning in his life, he had an overriding desire to write a book. He noticed, also, that others who chose to survive in the camps felt responsible for someone else who therefore gave their own lives meaning. Frankl was influenced in this by his study of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who said that a man can always survive if he can find meaning in life; that if he has a why, he can survive almost any how.
I don't agree with Nietzche's conclusion, though Dr. Frankl's description of his camp experience corroborates for me the idea that a human being is not just a physical and psychological system of techniques which need a particular structure in order to find meaning. But I would take that further and say that a human being is meaning itself.
Choice is what gives us meaning and, since we are never without the one, we can never be bereft of the other. What we do is to deny that we have choice and then, of course, meaning disappears immediately. It is rather like killing one's own parents and then bewailing the fact that one is an orphan. I say that since we always have a how, we do not need a why. Again, according to ancient wisdom, "A result cannot have a purpose of its own." The necessity to search for meaning would make us the result of what we found.
Choice means that in the face of fear, courage can keep us from being forced away from our free choice of what to do or what to think next. In the face of temptation, integrity can keep us from being seduced away from our free choice of what to do and what to think next. Failure to make use of courage and integrity one moment does not limit their availability to us in the next moment, anymore than our failure to look at the sky would cause it to disappear. No matter how we have messed up our lives, our inner choice remains, and awaits us absolutely unchanged, undamaged, and imminently accessible to our will to choose it. "Achilles absent is Achilles still."
(In Homer's Iliad Hector slew Petroclus who was wearing Achilles' armor. Achilles had new armor made and slew Hector to avenge his friend Petroclus, saying to Hector that he should have remembered the strength and loyalty that Achilles bore his friend. Achilles told Hector that he should have feared Achilles, seeing the symbol of his protection in the form of his own shield on Petroclus, despite the fact that Achilles was not present, at that particular moment, in battle: "Achilles absent was Achilles still.")
Our choice, unused, is our choice still. This means that no one can predict or need despair what he or someone else may ultimately become. Dr. Frankl learned that one of the most sadistic of his Nazi guards ended up in a Russian prison after the war. There he performed such kindnesses and acts of personal sacrifice that he was universally loved and considered almost a saint by his fellow inmates (many of them innocent political prisoners captured by the Communists) before he finally died of cancer.
She said she had led a privileged life before being brought to the concentration camp and had not taken spiritual ideas seriously. Dr. Frankl was at first alarmed when the young woman remarked that she often spoke to the tree outside her window, which she described as her only friend in her loneliness, and said that the tree spoke to her.
At first Dr. Frankl was afraid that she might be delusional, and having hallucinations; but when she told him what the tree said, he changed his mind and thought it was, instead, a profound thing, "like a poem." Through the small window next to her bed, the only thing the young woman could see was a single branch of a chestnut tree where there were just two blossoms.And what did the tree say to her? "I am here. I am here. I am life, eternal life."
Dr. Frankl lost his wife and all the rest of his family to the Nazis. Rather than suffer the depression common to people who experience such personal loss, he learned to exercise authority over himself rather than trying to control his environment.
He had a different point of view, a different paradigm from his camp mates.He watched men go crazy trying to decide which was the "right" line to get in when they were told to form two lines. Everybody knew that one line would go to the work camp, and one line would go to the crematorium.Everybody also knew that there was no way to tell which was which. Even those who chose on the basis of "clues" or "inside information" often"sealed their fate" instead of saving their lives.
Dr. Frankl learned to refuse to become this kind of neurotic plaything of circumstance. The wrong line, of course, would mean his immediate death.The lesson he learned was that when all else fails, there still remains the dignity of accepting reality. Since there was no rational way to choose theline which would save his life, Dr. Frankl chose to treat the lines within difference rather than fear. He learned to get in a line based on some personal choice of his own--seeing a friend, or wishing to stand in the sun.Although he could not be responsible for the outcome of his action, Dr.Frankl could make sure that his action was in accord with his chosen principles; his action, therefore, coming not from fear but from his essential okayness.
There was little food and little rest in the camps. It was common to be irritable and depressed. Dr. Frankl could see that giving in to hisphysical condition (adapting to his emotions) was not as inevitable as one might at first think. He experimented with himself. He learned that he could despair, or he could make a small joke. He could choose to be angry,or he could choose to help somebody. Dr. Frankl saw that he was never leftwithout some freedom of choice either of action or attitude. He saw that although he could not be responsible for the circumstances of his imprisonment, or the outcome of his action, he could learn to be responsible for his behavior and attitude in the face of those circumstances and despite those outcomes.
Thank you very much for all your comments and citings from many books and stories. I really do appreciate it. Frankly I feel a bit overwhelmed and instead of being inspired, I feel my weakness that I cannot be strong and face adversity like Dr Frankl. I am so depressed and depleted that I do not know what to do. I feel I've lost the will to live and face another day. I don't think I have an inch in me to push myself through work or to show up at work to take care of things in a responsible manner. All I want to do is disappear.