Spiritual Wisdom for Secular Times

The search for meaning and faith.

Spiritual Growth Through Major Adversity

People transformed healthily by suffering are characterised by acceptance

Viktor Frankl had a "suffering induced transformational experience" (SITE), like those I wrote about in my last post. He was the founder of "logotherapy," at the heart of which is the search for meaning and purpose in life that is unique and specific to each person, even -- perhaps especially -- in the midst of hardship.

Viktor Frankl

A compassionate Viennese doctor and psychologist, Frankl was interned by the Nazis in 1942 for being Jewish. Married to a beautiful young wife, he had a career and status, a house, possessions and an income. All these, he was forced to give up.

This is the kind of traumatic loss that can turn people into what research psychologist Steve Taylor calls, shifters. After his arrest, the reality of his predicament did not impinge fully upon Frankl at first, even when crammed with 1500 people on a train, sharing a railway truck with 80 others, on a journey lasting several strength-sapping days and nights. Their destination was a huge concentration camp, with watch-towers prominent and surrounded by barbed wire. Long columns of dejected, rag-attired prisoners were being marched about. This was Auschwitz.

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The new inmates had to leave all luggage on the train. Frankl, reluctant to relinquish it, riskily retained the prized manuscript of his new book about logotherapy. He was sent aside to join a group of the healthier prisoners on the station forecourt. The remaining 90 percent were sent elsewhere, directly to their deaths.

Frankl's group had to run through the camp, to the cleansing station, where they were ordered to remove their watches and jewellery. To preserve his life, Frankl finally did give up his precious text. Hearing soon about the gas chambers, the crematoria and the instant deaths of so many people from the train, he was finally, inescapably confronted with the painful reality of his new circumstances. He grasped then the total extent of his losses and the threat of extinction, and mentally struck out his former life immediately.

Man's Search for Meaning

Frankl describes in his book Man's Search for Meaning how the men were told to undress completely, were crowded together and shaved of all body hair, including their eyebrows. They had a brief shower, as if to remove all trace of who they had been. Numbers were tattooed on their arms, so they effectively lost even their names. Frankl was able to keep his spectacles and a pair of shoes, but everything else was obliterated.

Reading this now, who could imagine him or herself in such circumstances? All familiar activities and goals in life were taken brutally away. Little was left of personhood, of control, of dignity. We naturally hope that nothing similar happens anywhere, to us or others, yet there are people today who encounter comparable circumstances, although not necessarily under repressive regimes.

Imagine, for example, living peacefully in a place suddenly visited by a famine, an earthquake, a tsunami, a hurricane, a flood or other natural disaster. What would it be like?

Or imagine being told you have a life-threatening, disfiguring or disabling disease like cancer. Your body is wasting. Your clothes no longer fit. You are debilitated and cannot go about your work or normal daily business.

Imagine attending hospital for surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy. You are dressed in nightclothes and a hospital gown. A band is applied to your wrist with your name and hospital number on it. You might lose all your hair as a result of treatment, even your eyebrows. You experience pain, nausea and other unpleasant physical sensations. You may not be cut off from your loved ones; nevertheless, in the circumstances, it would be natural to feel frightened, helpless and very alone.

Despite their awful nature, these are the very conditions that bring transformational experiences to some people. How come?

Stripped naked of all we hold dear, if we can somehow bring ourselves to submit rather than resist the inevitable, we may be forced -- by the circumstances of having nothing else left -- to make contact with our true selves; to get in touch, we might say, with our souls. When everything we try to hold onto is taken from us, we are left with something yet, something true and pure. We are left in the present, moment by moment, with conscious awareness: with physical sensation, with emotional feeling, and with the powers of thought, imagination and creativity. Through a spiritual kind of awareness, we may be left too with a source of calm, of courage, of inspiration and hope.

Frankl reports, surprisingly, that the men in the shower laughed at themselves and each other. There is a clue here. Stripped completely bare, the human spirit can still shine through with remarkable strength and resilience. The laughter provided not only important relief, but also a bond between these unfortunate men. Helping each other continued to give meaning to an otherwise senseless existence during the next weeks and months of hard labour, deprivation and cruelty.

Also, on that first evening in the camp, Frankl made a firm and deliberate choice not to commit suicide. He chose life. In answer to that primary, central question, posed by Shakespeare's Hamlet, Frankl decided "to be."

Later, when all hope of their reunion had faded, Frankl experienced a vision of his wife (who, as he feared, was already dead), and was transfixed by the thought that, for everyone, love is the ultimate and highest goal to which we can aspire. Reciprocal love between the couple had expanded for him into a universal love for humanity and creation. From this deeply personal experience, he could say, "I understood how a man who has nothing left in the world still may know bliss." (Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, page 49.)

Frankl survived the war, living over 50 fruitful more years, dying at the age of 92 in September 1997. His logotherapy and his personal story echo with many spiritual themes: the search for meaning and purpose in life, the discovery of salvation through love, and the experience of having nothing and finding bliss.

Frankl's life also tells us that an important characteristic setting shifters apart from others; from people who experience and endure suffering without being transformed; is an attitude of acceptance.

Whether through wisdom -- seeing they have no alternative -- or through emotional and physical exhaustion, making continued resistance impossible, they acquiesce and submit to their changed circumstances and the comprehensive losses they bring. Like Viktor Frankl, they choose life. Or, as some shifters describe the experience, it is as if life itself chooses them.

Copyright Larry Culliford

Larry Culliford, M.B., B.Chir. (Cantab), M.R.C. Psych. (UK), is the author of the Psychology of Spirituality and a psychiatrist in Sussex, England.

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