The Duality of the Storm

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I have had some great feedback from a few people who wonder how my more positive posts can actually qualify as “writing from the shadow.” One way or another, the general gist of the conversation goes something like this: “Life is not all positive. In fact, for myself and others it is the exact opposite. ‘Life sucks and then you die,’ and there is nothing you can do about that.” This is how they see the “shadow” metaphor playing out.

I completely understand where they are coming from. But here’s another way of looking at this:

In a philosophy class I took a few years ago, entitled “Optimimism and Pessimism: A Philosophical Inquiry,” this topic was tackled in studying what a historical span of various philosophers and thinkers had to say on this dichotomy. At the beginning of the class, we were asked to identify which camp we fell into (or whether we were a mixture of the two).  What I found the most interesting was how several people identified themselves as optimists precisely because they were natural pessimists. As one student said, who was prone to depression: “If I didn’t choose to be optimistic, I would put a gun to my head.” For him, optimism was a choice he made to deal with the difficulties in his life, but it was not based on “hiding his head in the sand”  pretending that these difficulties didn’t exist.

One of the thinkers we studied during the class was Dr. Viktor Frankl, who built his life’s work around a similar idea.  Dr. Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist living in Vienna at the time of World War II.  Dr. Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz and endured incredible suffering, including the deaths of his wife, his parents, and most of his family. Based on these experiences, Dr. Frankl called himself a “tragic optimist,” – one who is well aware of the darkness of life but who has chosen to transcend it by finding meaning and purpose in it.  (To learn more about Dr. Frankl, see my earlier blog post about him from last spring).

While I have thankfully not suffered anywhere near what Dr. Frankl has, I have experienced other kinds of hardships, including a difficult childhood that left its mark on my psyche, and almost losing one of my children from a childhood illness that left her with a complex seizure disorder and lifelong developmental disabilities.  Yet I have also seen beauty and meaning come from these experiences, and that is what this blog is about: a reflection of both aspects of life—the difficult and the transcendent.  To find meaning in hardship is not easy. However I am compelled to try, most often from and with the strength of love, in all its many forms.  I am also compelled to do it because my soul and spirit fought to transcend it, often inexplicably, in spite of my own emotions and inclination to despair. Even within my own nature, I find this duality wage its war.

The storm picture used to illustrate the meaning of this blog (pictured above and to the right) also symbolize the dual aspects of life:  the churning waves crashing against the bench on one side, while giving way to the calm waters on the other side. And likewise, the black storm clouds on the left begin to break on the right, revealing the sunlight as the storm is abating.

This is what I write about in this blog. I write not only to find the sun in the storm, but the gifts hidden within it – within me – within us all, as we are faced with making sense of our lives and the responses we need to make in facing its very real challenges. I also do it to lift myself from the logical despair that can come from experiencing tragedy or other difficulties that make no sense at all at the time (and perhaps never will).  I also do it in case it might help someone else, just as other people have helped me when writing of their own suffering.

I truly understand where those who gave their feedback are coming from. I actually have felt the way they do at times. Yet my , but my soul and art continually compel me to find meaning in those experiences and perhaps transcend them.  It is that which fuels my life, art, and purpose.  And most of all, it is how I find healing and meaning in it.

Please share your thoughts on this subject: I would love to hear from you.

Photo of storm clouds and waves image used above and in the Blog header is the work of photographer Jason Swain, and is used by permission. To see more of Jason’s excellent work, click on the link below: http://www.jasonswain.co.uk/.

Viktor Frankl

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What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.  – Viktor Frankl

Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurosurgeon who had barely begun his professional career when he was condemned to die, along with millions of other Jews at the onset of World War II.  During that time, Dr. Frankl was imprisoned in no less than four Nazi concentration camps, one of which was the most horrific and notorious: Auschwitz, where over 1,500,000 people alone died in its gas chambers.

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WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR II/WAR IN THE WEST/THE HOLOCAUST

During the War, Dr. Frankl also lost his wife, his parents, and most of his family.  He miraculously survived this horror and afterward wrote a book about his experience (written in just under 9 days), entitled Man’s Search for Meaning.  To date, this influential book has sold over 14,000,000 copies and has been translated into twenty-four languages.  By many accounts it is one of the most important books of our time, and I agree.  This book was completely life changing for me and continues to deeply influence me.

In the forward to the 1992 edition of his book, Dr. Frankl reveals what drove him to write his book in the first place:

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.  And I thought that if the point were demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing.  I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.

In summary, Dr. Frankl believed this search for meaning and purpose is the most important task we have in life and described three primary ways in which we find it:  (1) by creating a body of work or doing something we feel is important or relevant; (2) through love (a deep connection to someone or something other than ourselves); and 3) by finding meaning in our suffering.  While Dr. Frankl is quick to point out that suffering in and of itself is meaningless (and to be avoided if possible), if we do find we cannot escape our suffering, we attempt to find meaning in it. He writes that this act of choice will not only help transform the experience, but ultimately will give us the courage and strength to rise above it.

So how does this specifically apply to the act of writing?   Undoubtedly, Dr. Frankl was a brilliant doctor and clinician, and while he wrote many books from this point of view, his most powerful and influential book came from his own personal experience. Through the act of writing about his suffering, he exemplified for us his own guidance in how we find meaning in our own lives:  (1) he found meaning in his suffering (in his case, to help others, which also was an act of love); (2) through love (one example of which he relates in the book: how during a particularly terrible time in his imprisonment, his despair made him want to give up; but he found a mystical yet very real and present strength when recalling the love of his wife); and (3) he wrote a seminal book and created a professional practice and school of psychotherapy around what he learned from his experiences[1].

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There is so much more to Dr. Frankl’s book and life’s work than I can adequately relate here, so please try and read Man’s Search for Meaning if you can.  It is an inspiring and beautifully written book, and one that I can promise you will touch, inspire, and encourage you no matter what your background or circumstance.  And of course, do “give voice and effort” to your own quest for meaning, whatever path yours may take.  Perhaps you will find that a life or two (or more) gets changed in the process: most notably, of course, your own.

With that, I will close with Dr. Frankl’s own closing words at the end of his book:

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.  What he becomes—within the limits of his endowment and environment—he has made out of himself.  In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints.  Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is.  After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

For those who have read the book, please leave your own thoughts and reflections in the comments.  I would love your help in honoring this beautiful man and his work.


[1] One Note: Dr. Frankl emphasized that even prior to his experiences in the concentration camps he deeply believed in these ideas.  His experiences in the camps only strengthened his original core beliefs and thereafter crucially shaped his clinical practice for the rest of his life.

Photo Sources (in order of appearance):

Photo by Dr. Franz Vesely. http://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dosya:Viktor_Frankl2.jpg

Photo by Mariusz Cieszewski.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/polandmfa/8736839849/

Photo by Private Ralph Forney (Army). http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:At_the_German_concentration_camp_at_Wobbelin.jpg

Book Cover. Galicia Musuem Publications. http://www.shop.galiciajewishmuseum.org//produkty/mans-search-for-meaning.html

Photo by Michael Schaffner. https://www.flickr.com/photos/

Photo by Travis Forsyth. https://www.flickr.com/photos/forsytht/5844157752

Photographer unknown.  Viktor Frankl Institute. www.viktorfrankl.org/

Photographer “CAHairyBear.”  https://www.flickr.com/photos/91173606@N00/5766331983/