Many years ago, I read Viktor Frankl’s stupendous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. It is one of the thousands of books that I’ve read over my lifetime that has truly stayed with me.
A psychotherapist, Frankl tells his own personal story of being a prisoner in various Nazi concentration camps during World War II. And he shares his observations of what qualities he saw in himself and his fellow prisoners that enabled them to survive the terrors of the camps, provided they weren’t shot or selected for the gas chambers. How does a person wake up every day and face the light of morning, knowing what the day might bring?
Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life any more.” What sort of answer can one give to that?
Frankl concluded that one thing gets people through difficult and soul-killing days: a sense that one’s life has meaning. And that meaning is different for each person.
He suggests three things that normally give human beings meaning: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty.
But what is left when everything has been taken away?
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.
And that this is true, I am reminded of over and over again in the current state of affairs.
Thanks to the uncertainty wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m finding it hard to think of the future right now. Imagining what happens after this blast of reality is a really tough call. I’m now learning firsthand what my ancestors endured in the face of diseases. Invisible enemies, those diseases, just like this virus. No wonder people pounced on every possible cure or invoked the names of the gods.
It occurred to me as I walked through the doors of my nearby Publix – there are 15 in my town – that thanks to this virus, I’m also revisiting the notion of mindfulness, of being in the present moment. And the present moment alone. Gripping my shopping list, written with the various sections of the store in mind, I wanted to avoid my usual, “Oh, I forgot Parmesan, and here I am in aisle 6. Back to aisle 1, where I can get it!” That would cut down on the number of close encounters of the not-so-desired kind that I usually don’t mind.
Everything went swimmingly until I just about finished bagging my own groceries. A young woman manager saw me and darted over to “help.” She brushed up against me, took hold of the bag I held, so I grabbed the bag from her, muttering rather gruffly, “Thank you,” tossed the bag into the cart and raced out the door. In my car, I lathered my hands up with hand sanitizer. Once home, groceries put way, I washed my hands, took off my clothes, tossed them into the washing machine, and washed my hands again. As I write this, I think I probably should have taken a shower for good measure.
Talk about being in the present moment.
I have no plans to leave the house now for a few weeks. Except for walking in the neighborhood. I will eat what I’ve stored here, a lot of hurricane preparedness stuff that’s been waiting for its moment to shine.
But the one present-moment activity that best works for me most of the time still eludes me. Cooking.
I dug around in my freezer and came up with some lasagna I made in early February. And that was dinner.
Around 7 p.m. my niece, an E.R. nurse, sent me a Facebook message. Our county commissioners ordered a Stay-at-Home directive, due to begin at midnight. Because there’s been some testing – not as much as there should be – it seems that the county has the highest per capita infection rate in the whole state of Florida! And that should be a warning to places not testing … . And then my son called and told me that A., his wife, was denied a test, despite her symptoms and the fact that one of the managers at her place of work tested positive.
And on top of all that, given that the USA seems to be following an infection trajectory similar to Italy’s, came the rumor that restrictions might be lifted in two weeks.
So I turned to Viktor Frankl’s book.
So much wisdom in a tiny package.
It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. … The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.
I thought about my “Why?” and it’s not cooking. It’s family friends, and the work I do.
Be safe. Be well. And stay home, if you can!