As I reflect on my place and position in life, one way I have been taught to meditate is by doing a daily examine. I find it to be grounding, humbling and also a challenging practice. One reason it challenges me is when it reveals my privilege and biases that are born out of my own experiences and context of being a white male. Another challenge is born out of an external physical reality of comfort, safety and lack of distress (even within distressing global circumstance). I wonder if a large portion of North Americans live in that similar dichotomy where the most prevalent struggles in our lives are coming from within our own bodies as we deal with trauma, anxiety, loneliness and spiritual struggle? One of the bigger questions that may come up in a time of examine, or a time of internal struggle, is the questions of why?
I have been wrestling with that very question over the past months, being part of an online book study group that is reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl. This book study is with a group of people that are men’s group volunteers, formerly and currently incarcerated men. The book was chosen by the guys “on the inside” and is a great book to help us all reflect on the big picture why’s of life. The author is using his story of struggle and survival of an internment camp to introduce a therapy concept called logotherapy, but there are many deep aspects of humanity, spirituality and practical life lessons that can be teased out of it. There is also a common intersection of imprisonment, between the story from the book and the situations that the incarcerated guys share.
Victor Frankl talks about experiences of deep sadness, boredom, longing and near complete loss of self or one’s own humanity. With extended periods of time for almost nothing more than self-reflection, Frankl describes the most important thing he had within was the freedom of choice. His life was completely limited by his external circumstance, but he always had the option to choose how he was going to react and what kind of attitude he was going to have. It was amazing to hear the guys on the inside describe some of the choices they have had to make and to be able to have come to a realization like “I didn’t want to give up on my future” or “I decided that I could not give up on the people I love and who love me.”
The other striking thing about the book is, although it talks a lot about inner examination and personal therapy, Frankl puts a huge amount of value on external experience. He talks about meaning and purpose in life (the big why question) as only truly being able to be found in things like relational connection, service to others, experiencing nature and beauty, or the most profound of all; the act of love. If we have the answer to why we want to live and love others, then we can somehow manage to work out the how. The why gives us hope and is often associated with a sense of community and purposeful belonging. In a community, we miss those who are not there, and conversely they miss us when we are not there.
That is part of why this pandemic has us languishing as it drags on. Our intrinsic worth as humans living in community is being challenged, our resolve is being pressed and we are being forced to find hope and belonging in smaller circles and more simplistic ways. Being present can mean being risky, negligent or at very least, not fully present. Caring for each other includes listening to stories, responding with empathy and compassion, but it is so difficult to do right now. In suffering; aspects of listening, lamenting, slowing down and still finding ways to connect is challenging. The connection with self-care, God, creation and community is the way to maintaining hope and keeping us on the path of healing and shalom. Easier said than done right now… As Frankl says, our last freedom is our choice, how we are going to choose to respond to day to day situations; with what kind of attitude.
The struggle within can include trauma, pain, loss, boredom, personal crisis, but the struggle without is equally concerning. Without connection, purpose, meaning or hope… where do we turn, how do we continue? Suffering through this will change us, make us pay attention to new things and force us to act with newly defined intentions. The power to love will come from within, from our relationship with God through the Holy Spirit, but it will not come without direct action of our humanity lived out, in society together.