Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Art of Happiness 14

Suffering and Meaning

Sun reflected on Donabate Beach
I have written many posts on this topic over the years as can be found by hitting the relevant label or clicking here and subsequent posts.  The late great Dr Victor Frankl (1905 - 1997), who was imprisoned by the Nazis in some three concentration camps - Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Turkheim - once said that "Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see meaning in it." (Quoted The Art of Happiness, p. 167)  When he looked around him in these three horrific and murderous camps he quickly realized that those who survived the atrocities they witnessed and experienced there were not the most intelligent or educated, the strongest physically, but rather those who derived their strength to persist and to go on from a purpose or meaning to which they clung despite the apparent meaninglessness of all around them.  In fact, this great doctor went on to found a school of psychotherapy based on that very principle, the principle of finding and creating meaning in one's life, a school of therapy he called Logotherapy which is a form of Existential Analysis.  His movement of therapy is often called the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy", the first being that of Sigmund Freud and the second that of Alfred Adler. Here is a short paragraph from the WIKI on Frankl:

His best-selling book, Man's Search for Meaning (published under a different title in 1959: From Death-Camp to Existentialism, and originally published in 1946 as trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager), chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most sordid ones, and thus a reason to continue living. Frankl was one of the key figures in existential therapy and a prominent source of inspiration for humanistic psychologists.  ( Frankl)
Finding meaning in our suffering is a powerful method of helping us cope even during the most trying times in our lives.  However, finding meaning in our suffering is far from an easy task.  At such times we often despair and say things like, "Why me?  It's terribly unfair that I am suffering.  What did I do to deserve this? It's very hard to be philosophical or to take a larger and wider perspective - a topic we discussed in our last post - when we are actually suffering and paining in the here and now.  This is pure existentialism.  No explanations will satisfy the paining soul at that profound existential level.  Indeed, while we are in the midst of our pain and suffering, all our energy is focused on getting away from it.  In such instances we are far from able to be reflective on our pain and there is often little we can do but endure and trust in the help forthcoming from our family, friends and medical practitioners.  However, it is later that we must do serious reflection on our plight when the real storm has abated.

And so, it is in periods such as this, when you and I are in times of comparative ease or non-suffering that we must begin our search for the meaning of pain.  We must begin our quest for the meaning of suffering when things are going well.  Such has long been Buddhist practice, even to the extent of meditating on illness, dying and death as important parts of life.  Indeed, much of what I have written above is in keeping with the thoughts of the philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche who believed that what does not kill us makes us stronger.  Indeed this little piece of wisdom has been quoted by legions of preachers over the centuries, not to mention its provenance being wrongly ascribed to Martin Luther King, Jr. by Dr Cutler, one of the author's of our book being discussed here.

Cutler quotes an interesting comment from Graham Green's The Third Man:

In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed - but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland, they have brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, what did they produce?  The cuckoo clock." (Quoted The Art of Happiness, p. 169)
Suffering can both soften and harden us.  When I was hospitalized for seven weeks in a psychiatric hospital, thankfully some thirteen years ago now, I left it feeling stronger and harder than I had been before.  I had experienced a break-through to depths of strength which I had up until then not realized I possessed.  My experience was empowering, rather than dis-empowering.  It was almost as if I had been far too soft prior to that break-through, and afterwards I was strengthened and hardened to face crises in my life with more tenacity, courage and power.  Cutler recounts one very hardened businessman or CEO who had for thirty years or more portrayed a hard and tough exterior to all, and to some extent to his wife, whose break-through was to a more softened internal sense of his own vulnerable self, so much so that his wife told the psychiatrist that her husband had cried for hours upon hours in her arms during his recovery.  His hardened Self needed to be softened, to be humanised while my soft Self needed to be hardened.

Here, I am reminded of the brilliant Commencement address delivered by Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios at Standford University

My third story is about death.When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.
I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.
This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope it's the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. (Jobs' Speech)

How elegant, how stylish, how wise, how profound, and yet how simple are Steve Jobs' words above.  To speak such wisdom from the heart, from the soul and from lived experience reflected upon, is the key to good speech-making.  We need such wise entrepreneurs and such good and great human beings to spur us on in coping with life's challenges.

1 comment:

Billy Joe said...

Oh, I've yelled and complained and been on the brink of utter despair with suffering, then the clouds pass and the sun shines again, I recognized how I have grown
and fall down on my knees before the Creator. Oftentimes, the nugget of bliss and wisdom isn't revealed until much later. So don't give up just before the gift comes.