After my father died suddenly nine years ago, I thought I was a model of stoic grief. I wrote his obituary, delivered his eulogy, and I believed, tastefully handled the sadness that spread over the week of his funeral. None of that prepared me for the suffocating depression that overtook me like viral pneumonia six months later.
I didn’t realize that grief is a tsunami and what looks like low tide is really a gathering wave. When the full force of the loss hit me, I could only manage to lie in bed and cycle through alternating periods of crying or apathy. After weeks of this, the only thing breaking through paralysis was anger. It settled in the center of my chest, near my heart, warping my personality, overriding my senses to see and believe that everything was black and hollow.
A tiny pilot light of hope somewhere inside my head reminded me that books are my best medicine. “Why don’t you find a book that will make this make sense to you? If it makes some sense, then maybe you’ll start to feel better” it seemed to suggest.
And that is how I came to read Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the few books to change not only my thinking, but my life. Written in 1959 by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, the book describes his understanding of why certain people, like himself, survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust. The short version is a paraphrase of Nietzsche: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.”
For Frankl, the “why” centers on three actions: engaging in meaningful work, caring for another person, and courage in the face of fear. These choices – and they are a deliberate choice, Frankl believes, are what give our lives purpose and meaning. Reading the book helped me to choose a loving action, even if it were something as small as being able to smile at my daughter or be brave enough to get dressed for work. Reconnecting to why I decided to teach who and where I did helped me find my way out of the despair. Most of what I know about how to live a life of purpose and meaning, I learned from his book. For me, purpose and meaning come from connections to my family and friends, engaging in the meaningful work of teaching and working with teachers, and in choosing to feel the fear, but still do whatever it is that scares me.
Day Four: What I’ve Learned About Service
- “…being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.” – Viktor Frankl
- “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.” Shirley Chisholm
- “I don’t know what your destiny will be. Some of you will perhaps occupy remarkable positions. Perhaps some of you will become famous by your pens, or as artists. But I know one thing: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” – Albert Schweitzer
- “What is to give light must endure burning.” – Viktor Frankl
- “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others.” Gandhi
- “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl
- “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men – go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families… Walt Whitman
My challenge: Pick something off of Whitman’s list and create a small act of service to it.
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