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.

Making Up Stories for People

Years of yoga and meditation have helped me a lot when it comes to overcoming my anger impulses. The one area of my life where my anger still tends to flare up and overwhelms me is while driving. I don’t know why, but I have never gotten more angry than I get at people driving like assholes on the highway. Road rage is such a perfect term because it does seem to go straight past anger or irritation and straight to blinding rage. I have really lost myself a couple times, blaring my horn, flipping the bird, driving recklessly out of spite, etc. Just some real stupid stuff. I always feels so embarrassed and ashamed of my behavior later, but in those moment I have completely lost myself.

Normally when someone cuts me off or is driving under the speed limit in the passing lane, I immediately jump to thoughts such as “what an idiot,” “this person is a complete fuck,” “why doesn’t anyone know how to drive,” “this person has no consideration for anyone but themselves,” etc. These thoughts continue to race through my head as I become more and more angry. Often one small incident can have me fuming for the rest of my 30 minute drive. I keep going over it in my head, justifying why I was in the right and the other person was in the wrong. Often even assuming that the other person was driving like as ass on purpose just to piss me off.

One thing I have been trying to do to address these triggering scenarios is to turn them into a game of sorts. I’ve tried this in the past a little bit, but I think I was still taking it too seriously. I would try to come up with excuses why this person may be driving the way they are, but another voice in my head is usually screaming “that’s ridiculous,” “it’s so unlikely,” “how can there be THAT many people with reasonable excuses.” It feels like I was missing the point of the exercise. Originally my goal was to inspire sympathy for the person. Now my intention is just to entertain myself and maybe even make myself laugh. The truth of the matter is I have no idea who this person is or why they may be driving the way they are. I’m certainly not a perfect driver and have made excuses for myself in the past. So instead of immediately demonizing them and listing off to myself all the reasons they are a garbage person, I’m going to start making up elaborate life stories for them instead.

This doesn’t have to be something you only use while driving either. You can use this technique for any difficult people you encounter in life. It doesn’t matter how “true” or “likely” the stories you come up with are. The point is to turn an angering situation into an opportunity to have fun and invite some levity into your life. Sometimes it even helps for me to imagine someone else is asking what that person’s story is and I am coming up with one to tell them. Get creative!

Your story could be as simple as what is going on in this person’s life today that has them out of whack, such as just breaking up with their girlfriend or maybe they have a new puppy they just adopted in their car distracting them. Your story could also go all the way back to the person’s childhood. This person was raised by wolves and just reentered society a few years ago, managing to get their license, good for them! Make it as realistic or utterly wild as you like, whatever brings you the most joy and serves best as a distraction for your anger.

Certain emotions just can’t seem to coexist. The opposite of anger is compassion, so if that works for you, make up a sob story for the difficult person. However, for me, it’s often impossible to switch off my anger with compassion in the moment. It is more easily diffused with humor. The most important thing is to remember your intention. I tend to take everything too seriously, so it can be hard for me to let go of what I have deemed the “reality” of the situation in favor of something more silly. Remind yourself that it doesn’t matter what the “true” story of this person is, you’ll never know it anyway. There is really no reason to assume your negative perception is more true than a funny or compassionate one. Ultimately the only thing that matters is how you want to feel.

Reality is often stranger than fiction anyway. I also genuinely believe that the vast majority of people are not intentionally trying to be problematic. We all believe we are the hero in our own story. We all have justifications for even our worst actions. As tempting as it is to paint ourselves as the victim and the other person as the villain, what good does that really do us? It is much more fun to take the opportunity to be lighthearted and play pretend, and that’s what life is really about, just finding ways to enjoy every moment. I’ve already wasted far too many being angry.

Road Rage: Legal Definition & Incident Statistics

5 Things I Love About Myself

In an effort to incorporate more loving kindness into my life, today I am going to write about five things that I love or admire about myself. I am always thinking about the flaws I have or areas in which I need improvement. I’m sure I could easily make up a list of at least a dozen things I dislike about myself. But when it comes to what I do like, it takes me much longer to consider. It feels very awkward even. I have always shied away from any type of praise, especially from myself. I am embarrassed and terrified that people will think I am conceited. But I’m learning that it’s okay to love yourself, and it’s okay to be proud of your accomplishments and your positive characteristics. I hope that by writing about a few things I love about myself today, it will make it easier for me to remember them and be kinder to myself.

Intelligence

Even since I was a toddler, I remember people telling me how smart I am. This has always been my most cherished attribute, the thing I am most proud of. I’m certainly not the smartest person out there, but no matter where I go in life, I seem to be recognized for my intelligence. Learning and knowledge are quite valuable to me. I have a consistent ravenous hunger for information that never seems to be sated. I am always looking for new interesting topics to read about. I’m definitely a firm believer that knowledge is power, and I must say, I feel quite powerful in that regard.

Curiosity

For most of my life, I didn’t think that my curiosity was anything special. I assumed that it was just natural to want to explore, learn, and understand as much as possible. As Ive gotten to know more and more people in my life, I’ve come to realize that this is actually a somewhat special characteristic of mine. I am very grateful for this aspect of my personality. I definitely wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today without it. Curiosity is one of my greatest motivators. It has guided me forward my entire life.

Compassion

Even though I’m not necessarily a very emotional person, I do consider myself to have extremely high levels of empathy and compassion. I just don’t always portray this side of myself outwardly to the world. I actually think I come off as cold and unfeeling to a lot of people. Quite to the contrary, I care deeply about all living things. (Occasionally even inanimate objects.) This is one of the main reasons that I have been vegan for nearly a decade now. I want to do all that I can to avoid causing suffering during my time here on this earth. I am constantly striving to do better for those I share this planet with.

Physical Fitness

Even though this one may sound silly and shallow compared to the other things I’ve listed, the health and power of my physical body is something that I really love. I have worked very hard for years to develop my current state of physical capability. I have an insane amount of stamina and cardiovascular strength. Most days I am able to breeze through my hour long HIIT workouts with ease. Often I’ll even be dancing around and singing along to my music instead of resting between moves. I am also quite proud of how far I’ve come in my yoga practice. My body can now do things that I never dreamed I’d be doing when I started. My body may not look the way I want it to, but overall it is still simply incredible. And I am so grateful for all that it does for me every day.

Humor

Last but certainly not least, I love that I am funny. You probably can’t tell that from my writing. I guess most people probably find themselves funny, but the people around me seem to agree. There is nothing more satisfying to me than having a witty back and forth with someone. Banter is probably one of my favorite forms of play. Laughter is the best medicine and I’m happy to be able to provide that to the people in my life. My quick wit and often dark sense of humor have gotten me through a lot of tough times.

And there you have it, five things that I love about myself. Writing that actually took me a lot longer than I’d like to admit. But it has put me in a slightly better mood and given me some things to consider the next time I am feeling unworthy. Along side my many flaws are an equal amount of amazing traits. It is only because of the combination of all these things that I have become the person I am. A person who is worthy of kindness, compassion, love, and understanding. I hope that this exercise will make it a bit easier for me to remember that and treat myself with the gentleness and respect I deserve. Try it yourself and leave me a comment with five things you love about yourself! I would love to find out.

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