This weekend I am visiting a friend who lives in Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C. On Saturday, we decided to go in to D.C. to tour the Holocaust Museum.
Needless to say, the experience was profound. For me, it was profoundly shocking and surreal. Walking through one of the cattle cars that transported thousands of Jews to their deaths, I felt overwhelmed by all of the suffering that one box car contained.
Of even more impact was a room filled with the shoes that prisoners were forced to remove before they were sent to be gassed. Shoes are such personal items, molded by the shape and imprint of the foot of the wearer. Each pair represented real feet of real living beings who once walked on this Earth — individual people who laughed, took care of daily tasks, had family, and held hopes and dreams for the future.
There were many shocking displays and films showing the atrocities of the Holocaust. Of course I knew much about this period in history before I toured the museum. But the experience reminded me of the enormity of the horror and the depth of evil men are capable of inflicting on one another.
Some of the exhibits and films also revealed the capacity for courage, compassion, and love that humans are capable of expressing. There were stories of people willing to put themselves in danger to save others, and stories of the power of love even in the most inhumane and desperate conditions. A film at the end of the tour features Holocaust survivors speaking of the will to live and the conscious choice to find meaning in the midst of suffering.The visit to the Museum also reawakened my interest in Dr. Victor Frankl, the renowned psychotherapist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of his personal experiences in a Nazi concentration camp which profoundly influenced his life’s work after the war. As a result, he founded logotherapy, a clinical approach to helping patients rediscover meaning in their lives.
Here is an excerpt from the book about his personal awareness of finding meaning in spite of his conditions:
Let me tell what happened on those early mornings when we had to march to our work site.
There were shouted commands: “Detachment, forward march! Left-2-3-4! Left-2-3-4! Left-2-3-4! Left-2-3-4! First man about, left and left and left and left! Caps off!” These words sound in my ears even now. At the order “Caps off!” we passed the gate of the camp, and searchlights were trained upon us. Whoever did not march smartly got a kick. And worse off was the man who, because of the cold, had pulled his cap back over his ears before permission was given.
We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
For Victor Frankl, the power of love — just the memory and imagination of love — is enough to transport him from his misery and allow him to find meaning even through suffering.
He also recounts how other inmates made the choice for a meaningful existence through their daily actions in the camp. He writes, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.”
Your personal suffering
Although you and I have not endured the horrors of life in a death camp, each one of us has endured our own private sufferings. Some have been life-altering and traumatic. Others are an accumulation of the small difficulties, indignities, and sorrows we encounter over time. Suffering is simply part of the human experience. We cannot escape it as hard as we try to manage our lives in order to do so.
So how do you respond to suffering?
Do you rail against it?
Do you sink into it, or allow it to taint your entire experience of life?
Victor Frankl reminds us that we have a choice. Even in the most difficult situations, we have a choice about who we want to be, how we want to live, and the power we have to find meaning in the midst of suffering. In fact, he suggests that without having meaning in suffering, there can be no meaning at all in life.
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.
For each of us in the solitude of our own lives and our personal difficulties, we have a choice about our response to suffering and emotional pain. We can resist it, fall into bitterness or despair, allow it to undermine all aspects of our lives. Or we can rise above our knee-jerk instincts, gather our strength, shift our internal attitudes, and make the choice to find meaning in spite of or through our suffering.
Through suffering we can . . .
- appreciate the many blessings we have in our lives otherwise;
- learn more about our capacity for inner strength, forgiveness, and resiliency;
- transform our sorrow into service, inspiration, and purpose;
- tap in to our capacity for creativity, action, and love.
I invite you to reflect on the difficulties and suffering you might be experiencing now. Examine your personal response to these situations and your feelings about them. Have you exercised your power of choice in order to find meaning through your hardships? If not, how can you transform your suffering into meaning?
Please share your experiences in the comments below about how you have transformed suffering into meaning.
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