Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who spent the years 1942-45 in four different Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. By the end of the war his pregnant wife, his parents and his brother had been murdered; among his immediate family, only he and his sister survived. After the war he published Man's Search for Meaning, a book inspired by his experiences in the camps, and one in which I've found wisdom and comfort during times of difficulty.
As I wrote yesterday, I have been appreciating life while hoping for the recovery of Roanak Desai, a student I've worked with for the past few months who contracted cerebral malaria and was hospitalized last week. I learned last night that Roanak had passed away, and after a good cry with my wife, I turned to Frankl, seeking to make some sense of this meaningless tragedy. Frankl writes:
[pp 111-115] We can discover this meaning of life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. The first, by way of achievement or accomplishment, is quite obvious. The second and third need further elaboration.
The Meaning of Love
Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features of the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true...
The third way of finding a meaning in life is by suffering.
The Meaning of Suffering
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation--just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer--we are challenged to change ourselves...
But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering--provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political...
There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one's work or enjoy one's life; but what can never be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end. In other words, life's meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the potential meaning of unavoidable suffering...
[In Auschwitz] the question that beset me was, "Has all this suffering, all this dying around us, a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends on such a happenstance--as whether one escapes or not--ultimately would not be worth living at all."
What I find comforting in Frankl's perspective is that he's not denying the grief and rage that spring from suffering and tragedy. He's not "making the best of things." And he's not blithely suggesting that "everything happens for a reason" (which I find a particularly unhelpful expression of condolence.)
What Frankl is doing is encouraging us to acknowledge our grief and rage, and also to see our suffering as an experience in which it is possible to find meaning. The nature of that meaning will be different for all of us, of course, even in response to the same tragedy. There's no one-size-fits-all meaning-of-life. And discovering that meaning will be hard work, made even harder by our grief and rage.
In the case of Roanak's passing, I'm finding meaning in the realization that, although I knew Roanak for just a few months, the nature of our work together gave me an opportunity to know him well, to talk at length about our hopes and aspirations, and, indeed, to love him. Roanak was an easy person to love, with a warm heart, a ready smile and an inspiring approach to life that had an impact on many people around him. None of this diminishes my grief, and knowing how hard I'm taking this loss, I'm heartbroken at the thought of how hard it must be for Roanak's parents, his close friends and other loved ones. And, of course, I'm reminded of the recent death of Richard Wright, my father-in-law, another man whose passing left a large hole in a community and a family, and the cumulative impact of these losses is making them harder to bear.
And yet there's something in Frankl's words, something about the search for meaning, that makes it easier. The nature of that meaning is not at all clear to me now, and perhaps it never will be. Perhaps this search for meaning is in fact the purpose of life. I don't know, but thank you, Viktor. And good-bye, Roanak. You are missed.