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.

Signs

Isn’t it funny how certain experiences in life tend to stand out at us? We’ve all had moments that made us wonder if some higher power is at play, nudging us along or drawing our attention to something important. Whether you believe in any particular higher power or not. I certainly haven’t for the majority of my life, yet still these moments continue to present themselves. Even though I learned all about the psychology behind why we feel this way about some events, but not others, I can’t help but wonder.

If I remember correctly, the scientific explanation for these “signs” we notice, is simply that our brains are placing more attention on certain events that fit our narrative, while ignoring all the others. It isn’t that we are doing this on purpose. It’s mostly unconscious. It is similar to the way we often feel like every time we are late there is traffic, and only when we’re late. In reality there is probably traffic quite often when we aren’t late as well. We just don’t notice it as much, or make a mental note of it like we do when it’s an extra inconvenience. Or maybe a better example would be when people share all of the supposed times prayer has miraculously healed people. These miracles are attributed to prayer, but all of the billions of times prayer didn’t work are ignored.

So when we notice “signs” in our lives, this is more than likely the same mental process behind it. Even so, it is hard to ignore that tingling intuition that there is something more meaningful at play. It’s quite frustrating to be honest. I like to think of myself as a logical, rational person. However, when it comes to this one situation, all of my rationality seems to fly out the window. I’m trying not to get into specifics, but I feel it’s going to get too confusing if I don’t.

Surprise, surprise, I’m referencing my relationship with my old high school sweetheart yet again. I swear, it makes me feel so pathetic and insane to even think about him at all. Part of this strangeness surrounding him is that I do seem unable to let him go. Despite my shame and my occasional hatred of him, he is still probably one of the people I think about most. Even when it felt like I had finally moved on a few years ago, it seemed like the universe conspired against me to place him back in front of me again.

That was probably the most significant and hard to shake of the “signs” I’ve experienced in relation to him. It had been years since we’d spoken. I had him blocked on all social media. I really hardly even thought about him anymore. My heart felt like it was finally at peace. Then one night, I had a vivid dream about him out of nowhere. Exactly one week later, he made great efforts to contact me out of the blue. I even tried to ignore his attempts, but he wouldn’t stop. Apparently he had even planned to appear at my house if I continued to be silent. Although I was happy in the end to get an apology and explanation from him and to have him in my life again, I still can’t help but feel cheated by that whole situation. Why was I dragged back into his orbit, just to be set adrift once again with renewed pain?

Since then there have been a few other, less impressive “signs” regarding him. I don’t pretend to know what these signs even mean, however. Perhaps simply that he is to be an important part of my life whether I want him to be or not. A year or so ago after newly mending our friendship once again, I found a blue and purple marble on a path I often walked in the woods behind my house. This seemed significant because it was just after I decided to talk with him again. Not only that, blue and purple are the colors I once assigned to him for his aura. This marble was dead center at the start of my hiking trail. No one else uses this trail besides me, certainly no children or anyone who would be carrying marbles into the forest. I had walked it just a day or so before. Never had I seen this marble which would have been easy to spot if it had been there all along. Certainly I would have noticed it earlier.

The most recent and frustrating of these “signs” happened just a few days ago. Once again I was beginning to feel like I was managing to let him go. I have a wonderful new vegan guy to talk to and I’ve been happy for the most part. Then I discover that my vegan guy is actually going to be moving 5 hours away from me for a new job he applied to before we met. Even though we’re going to try to do long-distance, I have little hope it will work out now and am desperately depressed about the whole thing. Then just two days after receiving that heartbreaking news, I run into my ex’s girlfriend at the grocery store.

At first, like the marble, this may not seem like anything significant. But the context matters. Since I’ve graduated high school, I don’t think I’ve run into a single classmate. Not only that, but my ex and this girlfriend don’t live in my area. They live two hours away now. This girl just happened to be in the area, in the grocery store, at the exact same moment and spot where I was, a few days after my new romantic relationship took a nosedive. It just seems so ridiculous. I’m sure I still sound crazy, but at least my mom sees the absurdity of all these things as well.

The most frustrating part is when something like this happens, it makes me wonder if I am supposed to do something about it. I’ve spent the last two days wondering if I should message my ex. Ultimately I’ve decided not to. Part of me worries that I am ignoring important direction from the universe or whatever. My mom thinks that whether I act or not, the universe will have it’s way, so I don’t have to worry too much. I hope she’s right. Although I don’t even know what I want to happen. Right now I mostly just want these strange occurrences to stop because whatever they are, they cause me so much pain.

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