“Man’s Search for Meaning”: Viktor Frankl

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Happy Easter Sunday everyone.  He is Risen.  He is Risen indeed!  

I hope this Easter message finds you all doing as well as can be expected under these present circumstances.  Four weeks ago, I know, I, for one, certainly thought we’d be back in church by now; but here we are, still social distancing, and washing our hands, and wearing masks, and ya know what?, it’s working.  Keep up the great work everyone.  Here are some thoughts for this Easter Sunday:  

I’d like to begin by sharing a quote from a book.  Then follow that up with a couple of observations.   And finally conclude with an invitation.

Like many of you, I like books.  I don’t like to read just for the sake of reading.  I read in search for inspiration.  I’m constantly in search of inspiration, whether that is from people, nature, movies, songs, books, or scripture.  I’m always looking.  I know you all are too.

One day, many years ago, in my early 20’s, perhaps during my time of trying to understand what God was calling me to, I wandered into a bookstore.  A huge bookstore.  An enormous bookstore.  I had my favorite sections in the bookstore; but by far, my favorite section was in the stacks of books which offered inspiration.  Back then …

… and at times like this I turn to books when I go through a hard time and this, my friends, is a hard time for a lot of people.  By now more people in the United States have died from the coronavirus, than all of the people combined who died in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in the grassy field in Shanksville, PA the day we were attacked on 9/11.  These are dark times for many people.  The circumstances are very different, of course; but try to tell that to those suffering the loss of a loved one at this time.  Death and grief and the grieving process are all universal.  COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on countless individuals and families world-wide.  So …

… recently I turned to a book which is called, “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.  Maybe you’ve read it yourself.  For those of you who haven’t, Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychologist.  An early psychologist and also a holocaust survivor.  He wrote this book in 1946 after World War II and he wrote it as a meditation on what helped him survive Auschvitz and then THRIVE afterwards … after losing everyone: his beloved wife, children, family, country.  

And he also wrote the book for other people because he didn’t see any hierarchy in pain.  To Viktor, it didn’t matter to him that he went through the holocaust; but we might be going through something else.  He wrote this book so anyone could make a decision to survive and thrive.

So, we may not be going through a concentration camp experience but we are going through a very hard – and too many people – a dark and dangerous time.  This is our generation’s World War II.  What is going on today is a Big Deal.  So Frankl’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning, has had a lot of meaning for me and I’m going to read you a little passage from it.  Frankl wrote:

We were at work in a trench.  

The dawn was gray around us.  

Gray was the sky above.  

Gray the snow in the pale light of dawn.  

Gray the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad.  

And gray their faces.  

I was again conversing silently with my wife.  Or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings … and my slow dying.  In a last violent protest against  the hopelessness of imminent death I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom.  I felt it transcend that hopeless meaningless world and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes!’ in answer to my question, ‘Was there any ultimate purpose in existence?’  I heard, ‘Yes!’  And at that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse which stood at the horizon as if painted there in the midst of the miserable gray of the dawning morning.  And I heard at Luke’s in-tenebrous lucette “And the light shineth in the darkness.”  And for hours I stood hacking at the icey gray ground and the guard passed by and insulted me again and once again I communed with my beloved wife.  More and more I felt as though she was present … that she was with me.  The feeling was very strong.  She was there.  Then at that very moment a bird flew down … silently … and perched just in front of me on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch and looked steadily at me and this thought came to me, “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.”  What is really needed is a fundamental change in our attitude toward life.  We have to learn ourselves – and furthermore we can teach those despairing around us – that it does not really matter what we expect from life; but rather, what life expects from us.

Let me elaborate on a couple of points:

1.  First one is that Viktor says, quoting the Gospel of Luke, “And the light shineth in the darkness.”  

Note that Luke doesn’t say, “And it was always light!”  OR

“It was always rainbows and unicorns!

No, Luke says, “And The Light Shined In The Darkness!”

What that says to me is that we humans, today as in days of old, we sometimes get served darkness, it’s not always light.  Sometimes the darkness comes to just individuals in the form of: sickness, divorce, loss of a loved one, the loss of a job; and sometimes darkness is far more widespread: sometimes the whole earth community experiences darkness.  We’ve got one of those whole earth community darknesses going on right now.  

And what that line says to me and what Viktor Frankl says throughout his book is that unless you accept the darkness … unless you say, “yeah, it’s a dark time …” and acknowledge that dark time – then you can’t find the light.  If we’re always trying to avoid what has happened and not ask it what it has come to teach us … then we don’t get to find the light. 

So that line, “And the light shineth in the darkness” teaches me that it’s okay for me to feel dark, it’s okay to sometimes feel confused, at times impatient, to sometimes be in shock.  And then I let myself feel it.  

There’s nothing wrong with me.  I’m not some weirdo for feeling this.  All over the world billions of people are feeling this.  It’s okay.  There’s nothing wrong with me.  This is a dark time.  And then I can settle into it.  And then like Viktor said,  

I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom.  I felt it transcend that hopeless meaningless darkness and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes!

All day long each of us probably ride waves of fear, feeling the darkness, letting ourselves feel it, reaching for the light, waiting for that little bird to fly down like Viktor Frankl found to show us the light is still around us too.

2.  Then there’s this famous quote of his.  If you’ve never read Frankle’s book, maybe you’ve still heard this quote:  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.

One thing I am praying for for myself every day is … I feel like there’s been a decline in attitude in America and probably all over the world … in the past years … way before we were confronted by COVID-19 … there’s been a shift of attitude from optimism and cooperation – – – to anger and blame and negativity and scarcity and shutting down our hearts toward each another.  

And that is not an attitude I want to water in myself during these times.  Rather, I’m interested in watering the seeds of optimism and love and acceptance, even with people I disagree with or don’t particularly like.  I’m interested in seeing if what happens after COVID-19 is an increasing attitude of love and strength and abundance that rises from the ashes of this time.  

3.  Frankl said, it does not really matter what we expect from life; but rather, what life expects from us.  I love that: life expecting something from us.  Life expecting something from this gift of being human.

Like it or not COVID-19 came to us.  Other smarter people have been telling us for years that this could happen because of the choices we have made as individuals and a global community.  What we buy.  How we live.  How we travel.  The One-World-Community is a beautiful thing – and it is also sometimes fragile since we really do share everything … and this time … we share COVID-19.  

It’s as if we are being asked by the virus, like Frankl intimated, what does the virus expect from us?  What shall be our response?  How will we rise to this challenge?  

The world will change.  And if it changes for the better it will have a lot to do with how we respond to the world in which we live now.  

This doesn’t mean you have to go out and become a First Responder.  It’s really as simple as … or harder, actually, 

as … how we treat the other people in our house.  

As simple as the way we reach out to a neighbor who can’t go shopping.  

As simple as the way we expand our circles.  

As simple as how we love the person standing right in front of us.*  

As simple as how we accept others as they are.  

Like Jesus before us, like Viktor Frankl in Auschwitz, we can choose to Not Be Afraid to respond to this time of the coronavirus by making a commitment to be the opposite of the bad behaviors that have been going on in our culture for years.  

I actually think we – we Christians – were made for this time.  This is our generation’s big challenge.  So as Christians, as we search for meaning during this time, what is Jesus calling us to do and to be?  

On this Easter Sunday, maybe the resurrected Jesus is calling us to invite a neighbor to church.

Maybe Jesus might be calling us to get involved in the work of our church – to teach a Sunday School class or help sponsor our refugee family, or help to feed others in our community who are hungry.

Or is Jesus calling you to love and serve members of our community – sisters and brothers in Christ – who are homeless.

Might Jesus be calling you to pray for someone in your work place or school?

There are – literally – a thousand different ways that we can spread the Easter message to the world around us.  Pray for guidance, and then listen to hear how Christ would guide you.  For me, as a Christian, a self-professed Jesus-Freak – Jesus really is the answer for me to almost all of life’s circumstances.  He is my search for meaning.

Let me conclude with this story.  In his book, Sources of Strength, Jimmy Carter tells about a Cuban pastor named Eloy Cruz.  Carter observed that Cruz seemed to have a special touch with poor people who were also immigrants.  Carter saw Cruz connect with person after person.  Cruz always had the right word to say––just the right touch.  Invariably, people walked away from their encounter with Pastor Cruz just a little stronger––just a little more hopeful––just a little better prepared to face life’s challenges.

Carter asked Cruz the secret of his success.  At first, Cruz was embarrassed––but then he thought for a moment and was able to answer Carter’s question.  He said:

“Señor Jimmy,

we only need to have two loves in our lives.

For God,

and for the person who happens to be in front of us at any time.”*

That’s how Jesus lived His entire life.  One person after another, Jesus [just] loved the person who was standing right in front of Him.  

And my friends, Easter is the story of God’s love for us.  We will be able to – show God’s love for us – if we will have those two loves in our lives––love for God and love for the person who happens to be in front of us at any time. 

Happy Easter Everyone.  Go love the world.

Like you, I look forward to when we can all be together again.  What a reunion that will be.  Until then please continue to come to church online. Continue to be the best version of you.  Know you are loved and always in my thoughts and prayer.

Peace friends,

— Chuck McCoart, April 2020

Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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