Excerpt from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Some details of a particular man’s inner greatness may have come to one’s mind, like the story of the young woman whose death I witnessed in a concentration camp. It is a simple story. There is little to tell and it may sound as if I had invented it; but to me it seems like a poem.

This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.'” …

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Life According to Ecclesiastes

I always feel differently about Ecclesiastes depending on the place I am in my life. Ecclesiastes starts in a place that sounds dire. Many people I have spoken to have been stuck there at one time or another; it is a place I existed for a long time. The belief that everything is meaningless. Then it gets more specific. It asks, what about spending our life seeking wisdom? Or conversely, living foolishly?

“I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” Ecclesiastes 1:16-18 

So the wiser you are, the more sorrow you come to know. The more knowledge, the greater your grief (although from observation I believe this is true if indeed our hearts are part of this growth in wisdom and knowledge). Later it is clarified that it is better to be wise than foolish, but that it doesn’t in itself create meaning. It goes on next to examine the pursuit of pleasure. This is an endeavor our society can relate to. “Do what makes you happy.” “Do what you want to do!” “…the pursuit of happiness…” and so forth.

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 

That sorrow and grief I felt made me decide that the pain I felt was not worth it. I hardened myself and decided to try to pursue my own happiness; it turns out that happiness is not obtained in such a manner, at least not for me. The more I checked off my list of things I believed would bring me happiness, the emptier I felt. I had put value on the wrong things and in the wrong places. So I threw myself into my work.

“For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless. A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” Ecclesiastes 2:21-25 

So I toiled and toiled; my nights were restless. I worked long hours in a field which I was least suited for but I did it well and I cared about serving the people with whom I worked by making their jobs better. This served them well and it grew me as a person but I was becoming more unhappy and it was effecting my health. Slowly my passion died. Then I started to get to know God, and I really began exploring what life looked like when you put God first and each aspect of my life started to shift.

“To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Ecclesiastes 2:26

God gave me sources to go to for knowledge, wisdom and happiness; and He somehow made me a source of those things to others. God began creating abundance in my life in the matter of a few crazy short years. There certainly has been struggle and sacrifice on my part but on the other side of it is crazy goodness! This is no longer a chasing after the wind. One of the keys here is that we don’t do it alone. Ecclesiastes talks about meaninglessness of the man toiling alone, longing after wealth when he has no brother or son. It goes on to look at the value you create together:

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 

After telling us that our value is found not in isolation but in relationship, it examines our relationship with God. This isn’t being terrified of God, but understanding the awesome power of God and respecting it; not making light of the covenants or promises that you make to God and that you remain faithful in the commitments you make to God. If the only thing you have with God is words but your actions don’t reflect your relationship, then it is meaningless.

“When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it…Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God.” Ecclesiastes 5:4-7

So we’ve got value in relationship with others and God (kind of like when Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God and love others). But there’s a lot of other things that come with life. Can our value be found in wealth? Ecclesiastes 5:10 says “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.” It lists a lot of ways wealth, consumption and desire are meaningless. So where is the goodness in wealth? To happily toil and be content and enjoy their gift with a glad heart from God.

“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.” Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

Contentment; to be content with where God calls us and to serve Him with a happy heart. To love the life that we have been given with the people we are with; because to not see the abundance of blessings that exist within our life and give thanks for them is to endure suffering of the most acute kind; as written, a grievous evil.

God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil. A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man— even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?” Ecclesiastes 6:2-6

We all must die. In Ecclesiastes 9:2 it says, “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.” We all leave this world through the veil of death; the question is, what do we do with our life? First, enjoy it with a glad heart.

“Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do… Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love… For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

Invest diversely and abundantly and do not be idle; although we now understand some things much better than they did when Ecclesiastes was written, the awesome mysteries of the universe are bountiful and remind us how little do we know. Even smaller is the amount of influence and control we have over the direction our investments take, whether we speak of time, assets, or energy.

“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.” Ecclesiastes 11:5-6

And lastly but perhaps most importantly, remember your Creator who blessed you with the day that you have and the breathe that you breath. Honor the covenant between the Lord God and yourself.

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Reflections on Viorst and Dying

In “The ABC of Dying” Judith Viorst writes, “For how can we live as fully conscious animals, the only creatures on earth that know they will die? How can we, in the chilling words of Ernest Becker’s great book The Denial of Death, endure the awareness that we are “food for worms”?”[1] It is a provoking question and one that philosophers, theologians, psychologists, doctors, artists, and many others have searched for answers to over the millennia.

The theory of unconscious denial of death that Freud proposed, making the yawning unknown that awaits us on the other side of death possible to be ignored, is a popular choice by many. We distract ourselves with other more “manageable” anxieties and block off parts of life in an effort to convince ourselves that we can exert some sort of control over the future. Yet it is only in the juxtaposition to death, as she points out through the words of poets, physicists and theologians, that we fully see and experience life. The character from Memento Mori probably best summed up the sentiment in this, “If I had my life over again…I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death… should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.”[2]

Viorst was forced to face her own mortality when she lost three women she was close to in the span of six weeks. Although she had once feared flying; it was no longer an issue. She realized staying off airplanes wouldn’t guarantee her immortality. Certainly, the best course of action in her mind would be to learn how best to die, if one must go through the experience of doing so. Perhaps this was her mechanism for coping with death.

She examines death in the abstract and the applied, using the example of Ivan Ilych. “The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself…”[3] Full of memories, experiences, emotions, joys and grief. And in the example, Ivan is further isolated because his community won’t acknowledge his impending death. Viorst writes that this mindset against speaking of death is being challenged in more modern times through individuals like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote on the five stages she sees people pass through towards death.

The first stage is said to be denial, followed by the anger/envy stage.  Commonly asked within this second stage is, “Why me?” The third is bargaining, something offered if they can have just a little bit more time. The fourth is depression over present and future losses. A need for others to be present and sit with them in this time is called out. Last is acceptance; this is not a hallelujah moment but an absence of emotion and struggle. Instead of resisting their end they meet it “with a certain degree of quiet expectation.”[4] Not everyone makes it to this phase, or should, according to Kubler-Ross. Dr. Edwin Shneidman disagreed strongly based on his own substantial experiences with the dead and dying, saying: “…I reject the notion that human beings, as they die, are somehow marched in lock step through a series of stages of the dying process. On the contrary… the emotional states, the psychological mechanisms of defense, the needs and drives, are as variegated in the dying as they are in the nondying…”[5] Whereas Kubler-Ross felt that acceptance was often the implied end of the journey, Shneidman pointed out more often than not life was abandoned to death without any real readying, leaving loose ends. I have yet to have the breadth of experience with those in the midst of dying to be to discern for myself whose theory might be more accurate but I certainly think the knowledge of both helps me to be better equipped for whatever state I might identify a dying person to be in.

Viorst reflected on the ways three of her close friends chose to handle their death, and on the increasing interest in assisted suicide in society today, or even those like her friend who spend their time with the people they love the way they want to and then end it on their own terms. “The wish not to suffer, to stay in charge, to be remembered by loved ones the way they were motivates some to choose the hour of their death.”[6] While I understand our society’s propensity to run from suffering, it softly rings of the warnings I heard in the book A Brave New World, in which there is a society that avoids any pain, suffering or discomfort at the cost of maturity, intimacy, faith and intellectual depth. Interestingly, she points out later that Philippe Aries studied the history of death and “the concept of the ‘good death’ has been redefined, so that instead of its being a conscious, expected, ritualized departure, as once it was, a good death today ‘corresponds exactly to what used to be the accursed death’: Sudden death.”[7] Why, as a society, do we fear the death our ancestors hoped for and long for a death that was once viewed as a curse?

There’s another section of the dying population who wouldn’t take their lives yet also don’t view death as an enemy. “Death becomes a friend. It offers the chance to lay their burden down, whether the burden they yearn to lay down is the agony of a last illness; the helplessness, uselessness, loneliness of old age; the sufferings, at any age, attendant upon an unendurable loss…”[8] There are endless reasons why one might be ready to hand over the endless drudgery of their current existence for the hope of whatever death might offer. They don’t flee life, but recognize its inevitable end. One thing that Kaufmann postulates might make this easier is that we have a project of our own that we’ve seen to fruition; that we’ve in essence beat death in one place if we cannot beat it at retaining life.

This may be why some people experience such transformation near their death. Eissler even proposes: “The full awareness of each step that leads closer to death, the unconscious experience of one’s own death up to the last second which permits awareness and consciousness, would be the crowning triumph of an individually lived life.”[9] This is where we see the meek demonstrate courage and bravery or the shy become forward and outspoken. Their final moments are their last chance to be the person that they perhaps always saw themselves as becoming but were never brave enough to allow themselves to actualize within their day to day lives.

Immortality is the only way to counteract death, and this can be done through several ways. One is religion, which “Freud argues that such religious beliefs are illusions built up by man to make his helplessness in this world endurable. He writes that just as children depend on their parents to protect them, so anxious adults depend on gods and God.”[10] Another option is through nature, through the fact that we are part of an earth that continues on long after we do. We are made up of that ancient material and will merge back with it when we are dust. A third option would be through works or acts that influence future humanity; we see things like this in the great structures built, sculptures, works of art and literature, the rise and fall of nations, etc. Lastly, there is the biological continuation through progeny or even just humanity in general. While I can’t agree with Freud in that God is an illusion, I certainly see the drive for immortality in the behaviors of people daily. They want to leave a legacy, to be remembered, to have impacted the world. Perhaps this goes back to what Kauffman was saying. If a person has the sense they’ve achieved one of these levels of immortality, perhaps it makes it easier to go with death, feeling like they’ve already defeated it.

[1] Viorst, Judith. Necessary Losses. “The ABC of Dying,” pg. 306

[2] Viorst, 306

[3] Viorst, 309

[4] Viorst, 310

[5] Viorst, 311

[6] Viorst, 315

[7] Viorst, 320

[8] Viorst, 316

[9] Viorst, 319

[10] Viorst, 321

Reflection on a Death (Class Assignment)

Although it is not my most recent loss, it is a loss I have been thinking about lately because my sister just lost a student of hers and the heartbreak I hear in her voice and tears is an echo of mine 15 years ago. Shortly after my class graduated high school, someone I cared for hung himself. I don’t have any answers for why. He had a beautiful smile and a personality that drew people to him and I liked him in spite of his knack for getting my boyfriend at the time in trouble. I certainly wasn’t perfect; I wrote papers for money in high school for a while and he had been a great customer. However, it had ended with him getting moved up into a higher level class (perhaps because they couldn’t prove he was cheating). Then they failed him through the class tests and he couldn’t graduate. He didn’t blame me but he also didn’t get to walk with the rest of us; he would have to go to summer school. He was also in love with his girlfriend but, as teens tend to do, he did something stupid and so his relationship was on the rocks. Despite all that, there had been optimism in his voice when we had talked earlier.

I had just pulled up to his house and was walking in. His old black truck, which seemed to be a part of him, had its hood up in the garage and the shiny front part of the truck was on the kitchen counter because he was in the middle of fixing something. I don’t remember exactly what transpired except that my boyfriend and I were the last two people at his house and we had a disagreement in the street next to my Explorer about leaving him. My boyfriend insisted he knew him better than I did, that his friend just needed some time to cool off. I had a bad feeling and wanted to go back in. I acquiesced to my boyfriends’ wishes and we promised ourselves we’d come back later that night to check on him. We didn’t; I was running late for my curfew. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. We found out later from his father that he was likely dead within minutes of us walking out of his garage door.

I didn’t believe in God at the time and I had been struggling with the fragility of life. This phase of my life leads me to disagree with Sigmund Freud’s perspective that we each believe in our own immortality on an unconscious level. In our reading it said “So we not only have the desire to deny the fact of our own death, but may be unable to do otherwise.”[1] While I desired desperately the ability to deny my own death or the death of those I love, I was incapable of doing so. Additionally, there was a tremendous amount of guilt that weighed on myself and my boyfriend, who began pulling away from me and started doing drugs more heavily after that night. I drank when I could to numb what I was feeling for a while. I remember his visitation was open casket and I kept looking at him because I believed all of him was summed up in that body and yet it didn’t even look like him. There were more people than they expected to attend and I kept realizing as the months went by the huge ripple his death sent through my community. I still wonder if we’ve not lost anyone else in our class to suicide because we saw how painful it was for everyone during those months. I got a tattoo a year later, still feeling deep down that I was a murderer. I wanted to remind myself to never again ignore the call to a person in pain. My family and friends weren’t allowed to talk to me about death for a long time because it upset me so much. The belief that these people I loved so dearly would one day die and cease to exist, that their essence was lost and that at the end of the universe there would be nothingness… it was unbearable to me. I was envious of people who could believe in a God.

Looking back now as a Christian, this event still brings me great sadness but I am comforted by the fact that I believe in a God that is good. I am reminded that “…it is of the utmost importance that the minister involved have sorted out his or her views with regard to a Christian conception of existence… the careful pastor will not confuse Christian criteria with whatever social norms may have characterized his or her own upbringing or, on the other hand, the latest avant-garde views of what is proper or “liberated” behavior.”[2] Building on the belief that God is good I know that I have to trust God with my loved ones and it may not work out the way I would want it to but that doesn’t mean that God isn’t beside me mourning the loss with me.

Three questions were brought to the surface in Worth’s chapter, “Do we make too much or too little of death? Is awareness of our own death even possible? Is awareness even useful?”[3] I went through times where death was such a large part of my brain space that it caused anxiety attacks, and I would say in those spans, it was too much. Now the only time I put thought into it is when I mourn with my friends and family, notice the graying hairs on a relative, or hold my dog tighter as I get ready to find out if he has cancer. I don’t know if I make too little of death now, but I certainly treasure the time I have with life and mourn the loss of being able to spend it with people I love. Awareness of death is a sure thing for me, and while it may not be in its fullness, it certainly feels ample enough. I would not assume this is an experience that is common to all people though. Lastly, the usefulness of this awareness depends entirely on how it is used. For me, it was useful because I moved from a state of debilitation to a state of appreciation for life and relationship. If people stay in a state where death is debilitating is would never gain its usefulness. That being said, it should not be a thing to be avoided. I am of the philosophy that sometimes in life we must suffer to grow and I would say that exposure to and contemplation of death is part of that.

[1] Worth, Jennifer. In the Midst of Life, pg. 14

[2] Gerkin, Charles. Crisis Experience in Modern Life, pg. 47

[3] Worth, Jennifer. In the Midst of Life, pg. 22

Reflections on “Radical Amazement” Chapter 5: All Creation is Groaning: the Process of Evolution

In Chapter 5 of Radical Amazement by Judy Cannato, we examine our self-awareness. One of the more profound statements I reflected on from this chapter was, “The consciousness of each of us is the result of the evolution of consciousness which has proceeded for eons. In us the evolving universe is capable of self-reflection.” (pg. 57) This self-awareness carries not only a wisdom but a responsibility; an understanding that our actions ripple through our connectedness and impact the rest of creation. “In the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ final words to his disciples encourages them to ‘go into all the world and preach the good news to the whole creation’ (Mark 26:15).”’ Thomas Aquinas too, saw that divinity was represented not in a single creation but in the collection of creation. In 1950, the Pope Pius saw no conflict between evolution and the faith tradition of Catholic-Christian tradition, which Pope John Paul II later confirmed.

Although evolution is confirmed more and more through various sciences, also confirmed is the reliance of various species on one another for their diversification. All creation groans together, as we read in the Bible, and participates in this creative process with one another and the Creator. “As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the part of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable.” (1 Cor 12:20-22) This too is true of our world, for where would we be without the tiny bee to pollenate the plants, or the little seeds, that produce all plant life which cleans the air and feeds so many creatures? Those things that seem the weakest and smallest are the least dispensable. This means our salvation, our wholeness, is tied up with one another, so that the world must too be brought to wholeness and we do this through a response of love, wisdom, and compassion. “Hubbard describes the universal human as “one who is connected through the heart to the whole of life, attuned to the deeper intelligence of nature, and called forth irresistibly by spirit to creatively express his or her gifts in the evolution of self and the world.” (pg. 64) Evolution, contrary to degrading humanity, makes us part of a universal creation of Love brought to life, recreating itself in greater complexities in relationship to one another until, after 13.7 billion years, it reaches a point of self-awareness and reflection in ourselves. This alone is a point of radical amazement.