I came across a deposit slip from First Federal Savings & Loan that said, “Date: _____________ 19___” It was being used as a book mark in Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning for at least the last twenty years.
I found the deposit slip because I had been looking for some writer on my bookshelf who had experienced some sort of collective disruption. I didn’t need anything witty or clever from a self-indulgent writer like Hemingway or Kerouac. I needed something from someone who had been through some chaos and had something hopeful to say about it.
You see, I’m a novice at collective chaos. Things in the news have rarely ever affected my daily life. Then came the Corona Virus. It has definitely disrupted my daily life. Even though Frankl’s experience in the holocaust camps was exponentially more disruptive and disturbing than this pandemic, I still needed to look to someone like Frankl who lived through a moment when it looked like the world was going nuts.
I remembered Frankl’s book and that he wasn’t merely a holocaust survivor. He was a holocaust thriver. That is not a combination of words that you often hear—holocaust thriver. In essence you could have put Frankl in the midst of any human catastrophe and somehow this guy would have found a way to thrive—whether it be in the midst of a holocaust camp or a worldwide pandemic. So I wanted to revisit his mindset as this collective quarantine kicks in.
So when I opened up Frankl’s book, that’s when the bank deposit slip marking page 84 fell out. I picked up the deposit slip and on the back it read: “Can find meaning in life through: experiencing something, creating something, and our attitude toward suffering.”
On that same page 84, I had underlined two sentences. They read: “As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.’”
It’s interesting given the death rate and life expectancy inside those Nazi concentration camps, that one, Frankl took it on himself to help others find their goals in the midst of hell. Two, Frankl believed in the power of goals even in one of the most hopeless situations in human history.
Frankl’s secret to the meaning of life had to do with finding a purpose in the midst of suffering. While Frankl didn’t have it any better than anyone else in the camp, he chose not to suffer like everyone else. Frankl found a role in the midst of the suffering. His self-made role was to help alleviate the suffering of others. In this he found great meaning.
We can sit around and watch and complain as the world around us seems to be collapsing with the number of new cases exploding around the world, the number of those dying on the rise, mass graves sites detected in Iran, the obituary section of Italy’s newspapers taking over the paper itself, the chaos on Wall Street, massive unemployment that may reach 20% in our country, rumors of a trillion dollar bailout when our deficit is already at a trillion, not to mention the polar ice caps melting, children freezing to death in Syria, unimaginable suffering going on in Yemen, and the list goes on and on. It’s not a holocaust, but let’s just say, humanity has had better days. Our response can be to deny it or whine about it or find someone to blame for it or just wonder why is this all happening. Or we can approach it like Viktor Frankl.
Maybe now is a time for people of faith to exercise faith—to approach the chaos in a different way. And maybe that difference starts with our mindset and outlook on suffering.
Psalm 139 captures it beautifully:
7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
First, as we try to find some light in the darkness of this pandemic, there is nothing lite or nonchalant about this pandemic. People are dying. Families are grieving. People are no longer working. People are wondering how they’re going to pay the rent and find day care. This is serious. It is not something that can be belittled.
But how does our faith make any difference?
The psalmist said, “Even the darkness will not be dark to you.” Frankl found a light in the darkness. The light for him was to do something with suffering—namely help alleviate the suffering of others.
Perhaps before we can really help, we need to feel the pain. Or at least not deny the pain. Let’s not gloss over suffering. Real people with families are dying. Real people are struggling financially.
Pastor Alva Hohl frames this very well in his book:
"Natural disasters, mass shootings, and political, economic, and social unrest have become part of the canvas of the world. It appears the kingdom is lost. Out of situations such as these come laments....Interestingly, songs of lament almost always turn to prayers of thanksgiving....In the Bible laments are prayers lifted to God in the face of catastrophic circumstances....Laments tend to move from complaint to praise as an expression of the ongoing reality of a life of faith. Many times, through prayerful patience our critical situations find some measure of resolution--not always to our liking. [However through these catastrophic times] We [can] experience a new reality."
Notice in Pastor Hohl’s writing it says that before there is thanksgiving, there may be some lamenting. UCC Pastor Michael Dowd says that the depth of our laments shows the depth of our love. Lamenting is really an act of love. As we find our world in chaos, it certainly isn't hard (nor wrong) to lament. And probably our laments haven't even begun.
But as people of faith, Viktor Frankl, the psalmist, and Pastor Hohl, all tell us that we don't have to stay perpetually in a state of lament. The darkness can be as light to us. Pastor Hohl reminds us that our laments can turn into prayers of thanksgiving and we can experience new realities and possibilities. And finally Frankl offers us a pathway to turning laments into prayers of thanksgiving. This all comes from a guy who could have justifiably stayed in a place of lament during his dark time inside Auschwitz. But he found a pathway to hope by understanding his goals and his whys in such moments of insanity. Then he took his mindset and put it into action by helping other’s in their suffering. It was what he found to be the meaning of life.
It’s a bit ironic that these insights on attitude toward collective suffering started with a bank deposit slip. It may be time to actually deposit that slip into my life and cash in on the ideas jotted down on that slip.
Some questions we discussed:
1.)What is a lament you're feeling about these crazy times being shaped by the Coronavirus?
2.)What is any gratitude you have or sense of new reality/possibility you've found in the midst of this outbreak?
3.)What do you make of Nietzsche’s line, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.’” What is our why?
4.)How can we make a difference?