Victor Frankl has long been a hero of Holocaust survival, psychology and meaning among other things for many people. He’s the hero of more than one of my real life heroes as it relates to writing and thinking and this quote in this time is one of the only things that really make sense to me. It hasn’t always made sense to me. To date I have always preferred to graph Einstein into this debate, insisting that suffering is relative, always relative. My husband will simply say to me, “Katie, that just doesn’t work.” Meaning comparing ourselves to others doesn’t help relieve our own because there will always be a worse story one can point to. As Psychologist Jill Johnson-Young says, “Rule number one in grief is we never ever compare losses. They are all equal if they matter to the person who experiences them.”
While that premise was beginning to make more sense to me pre-pandemic, in the midst of it I understand it more than I ever have. I’m not sure I can say even now that suffering is or isn’t relative but I have certainly at this point landed on it not being an either/or but a both/and.
For me, as it relates to the extraordinary time we find ourselves in, it means this: look outward at what’s happening in the world and find compassion and solidarity but also look inward for what this specific time means for what’s happening within. Let me expound. Every day I read the news ad nauseam. I read the left, right and middle. I read it all. When I can’t sleep I watch 60 Minutes or Nightline in the middle of the night about the latest personal stories of what’s happening because of this virus. What this generally does is open my eyes to the layered ramifications. The inherent racial disparity. An increase in domestic abuse. Kids without the meal or loving teacher that got them through each day. Nurses, doctors, death. Death alone without loved ones. 9 people funerals or no funerals at all. Jobs, retirements, whole futures that will be changed long after things are “back to normal.” And then the less grim but also heartbreaking interruptions of the moments life are made of but now consist of weddings cancelled, hard-fought college graduations nowhere to be found. Births without fathers able to present, cancelled chemotherapies, so many things we don’t even think about.
I think that kind of awareness and compassion is good, always good, but I’m finding it can be incomplete, hence marinating on Frankl’s posit.
Most of my closest friends, via phone or zoom, express guilt. They feel guilty they’re struggling when they have so much more than others. More space, more work from home options, more child care options, more possibilities to make this not what it is for most people. I get that and in the past would have only felt the same guilt and feel some of it still.. But I believe I’m finding why my husband has always said “it doesn’t work.” It doesn’t work because the acknowledgement that one’s circumstances isn’t the gut-wrenching story of another doesn’t change the gut-wrenching story. Absolving oneself from getting to feel sadness, grief, or frustration, because it doesn’t compare to another’s heartbreak doesn’t mend that broken heart. Beyond donating money, sending supplies, helping a neighbor all of which most people I know are doing, most of the stories I lie awake reading I can’t impact.
So what can I do beyond that? What can we do? That is the point for me of Frankl’s quote. Do what you can where you can for others of course, always. But sometimes I wonder if it’s not even harder to look inward, to figure out “the specific meaning of [our life at this given moment].” That doesn’t need to mean some huge epiphany of life’s meaning as never known before. For me it simply means going back over and over to the reality that life really is an inside job. Whether that’s prayer or meditation or writing or gardening or therapy or long walks, it is whatever isn’t out there.That is my challenge to myself during this time – and you should you want to join me, love to have you along. Help where you can and in any way you can help. But don’t let this time pass you by focusing only on what’s out there beyond what you can change. Look inward to what you can. May that be our gift to those hurting in ways we can’t fathom. That we’ll use this time or space others may not have to be forever changed for the better. That the next time a worldwide crisis comes, or even just a personal one, we’ll have even more to offer because of what we did during this time. As Richard Rohr says, “ You can only transform people to the degree that you have been transformed. You can only lead others as far as you yourself have gone.”