Love, Nature, Humor, & Suffering

Have you ever noticed something very particular and seemingly random suddenly coming up again and again in your everyday life? Almost as if the universe is calling you to pay attention to this specific thing? I know some people have this sensation often, even to the extent they start making every little thing extremely meaningful in some way. For me, this hardly ever happens. I have a very weak sense of my intuition. I never really think much of the strange coincidences that happen in my life. That made it all the more poignant to me how much this sign stuck out and refused to be silenced.

Over a month ago, I was in a training and one of the instructors mentioned the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. As she said it, I glanced at my bookshelf and realized, I had that very book! I hadn’t purchased it. I had gotten it secondhand from a psychologist that retired from my last job and left piles of books to give away to whoever was interested. I took a lot of those books, but hadn’t read many of them yet. I decided that I just had to read it now, but I was in the middle of another book so I put it off. Then I heard it mentioned on a few podcasts. One podcast host, just as I was thinking it, made a comment to the effect of “if I was playing sign’s from the universe bingo, two of the squares would have to be Viktor Frankl and neuroplasticity.” Chills immediately ran down my spine. Neuroplasticity was another pivotal concept I’d learned about in school that had changed my life and seemed to be endlessly talked about wherever I went afterward. I knew this book had something for me, maybe exactly what I was needing.

It’s not a very long book so I got through it pretty swiftly. Much to my delight, there were even notes in the margins from the psychologist that I had inherited the copy from. I took my own notes as well, and this is what I’ve taken away from Frankl’s text. What is the meaning of life? Or rather, what things give life meaning? Love, nature, humor, and suffering. These are the things that make life meaningful.

Frankl brought me to tears with his descriptions about how even in the face of the most horrific suffering anyone can imagine, inside the concentration camps of Auschwitz, with seemingly nothing left to live for, the image of his wife’s face in his memory was enough to give him strength and keep him going. It wasn’t necessarily that he felt he had to survive to see her again. He didn’t even know if she was still alive. But it didn’t matter. The love he had for her was real and could not be taken from him. The love itself was enough to keep living. I think we’ve all tasted the incredible power that love gives us, but his descriptions really drove home how inherently meaningful love is, that it truly can conquer all, even our own immense suffering and hopelessness.

He went on to explain, that despite the numbness the prisoners succumbed to after so much time engulfed in pain and suffering, the beauty and majesty of nature was still able to grip them. As they stood in agony in a filthy train car, supposing they were on their way to the gas chambers, they still crowded around the tiny window just to see the breathtaking image of the distant mountains against the horizon. He also recounts the story of one prisoner that tells him before she dies that the scraggly limb of a tree that she could see through the window at camp kept her going. She said the tree spoke to her. It said, “I am here. I am here. I am life, eternal life.”

As morbid as it may seem, Frankl also recounts the humor he and his fellows found even in suffering. Starvation, pain, humiliation, death, and disease were not enough to take away their ability to make light of it all somehow. Regardless of the situation, no matter how dire it may seem, we still have the power of perspective, even if only in fleeting moments. We can find the humor in even our darkest hours. And sometimes that is enough to get us through. No one is demanding we take life so seriously. There is so much power in laughter, especially dark humor and laughter at our own misfortune. The gift of humor is transcendent.

Finally, Frankl explains that there is meaning even in suffering itself. Although we try to find happiness and avoid suffering as all living beings do, there is still inherent value in the suffering that touches each and every one of our lives to some extent. Suffering can be seen as an opportunity. It can be a fortifying fire that turns iron into steel. Sometimes our suffering can be seen as a sacrifice, a way to protect someone else from the fate we now bear. What could be more meaningful than that? Love can make even the most bitter suffering a beautiful gift. While we don’t wish for suffering to stain our lives, it is not an evil if we can transmute it into a source of strength and spiritual transformation.

Near the very end of the book, when I thought I had already seen what the universe had directed me here for, I was moved more deeply still. A concept I had been incubating for a while now was presented to me in the most perfect phrasing, in words I hadn’t quite been able to grasp yet myself. Frankl used the example of a chimp being experimented on for a cure, but as this left a bad taste in my mouth, I thought of a better one. Consider a honeybee and its life’s work. As it flies from flower to flower, the bee is only concerned with collecting pollen to make honey for its hive. It has no hope of becoming privy to the larger significance of its daily labors. The bee will never know that in addition to providing for its fellow bees, it is pollenating the plants it visits. It is making it possible for an unimaginable abundance of life. It is giving life not only to the flowers and vegetation, but also the beings that consume them to survive. The bee is unwittingly the humble servant of all Earth’s life.

Faith for me is learning to trust that this grander scale of significance also exists for human kind, even if I’ll never see it or be able to understand. “What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life; but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.” This quote, right here, is the reason I believe the universe directed me to this book. This is the confirmation of the inner truth that I have been searching for. This was the universe patting me on the back and saying, “You finally got it. You’re on the right path.” My task in life is not to understand it all, like I once thought. My task is to keep going despite my lack of understanding, to learn to trust in something beyond myself. When I lost the belief in God, I also thought that I lost this higher purpose. But that isn’t true. I may not see an omnipotent being beyond myself, but there is still something. I don’t need to give it a name to feel the truth behind it. There is peace and beauty and strength in learning to surrender to the unknowable meaningfulness of life.

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