“Experiences too deep for deception”

I’m reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, about a psychologist’s experience in a concentration camp. I was immediately struck by this quote from Gordon Allport’s preface:

[Living in the concentration camps,] how could he find life worth preserving? A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to…..Dr. Frankl’s words have a profoundly honest ring, for they rest on experiences too deep for deception.

That sums up exactly why I wanted to read this book. I want to hear why life is worth living from someone who has seen the most suffering that life can offer. I want to hear from someone who can truly understand the temptation to suicide or despair. I don’t want to hear from someone who feels hopeful because they see some good that came out of their suffering, or some lesson that they learned from it, or because they see it as some form of discipline or redemptive suffering that will make sense from the viewpoint of heaven. I want to hear from someone who was able to find meaning and joy in the middle of absolute desolation.

Auschwitz_survivor_displays_tattoo_detail.jpg

I first started thinking about this when I read this beautiful article by a woman who held her dying newborn. I was really captivated by it because she did not write about the happiness that came from knowing her daughter was going to heaven, or a positive outlook that allowed her to appreciate the few hours she had with her, or because she learned a spiritual lesson from her experience; instead, she was granted the grace of feeling the joy of heaven on earth, right in the middle of her suffering.

I was flooded with peace. I was filled with the deepest joy I have ever felt. I could not understand why sorrow and grief had occupied any inch of my body before that instant. This was a different world….We were right inside the heart of God.

To me, this was an assurance that the promise of joy is true. Because of her situation, this mother’s story was “too deep for deception.” I have never felt this joy, but I believe her, because the circumstances of her witness make it reliable. As she writes:

[I]f I could share only a sliver of what it felt and breathed and loved like in that NICU room, you would never again fear any doubt of the divine or the existence of an afterlife.

Even when I’m angry at God, I still love the saints. I love their witness of holy joy in every possible circumstance of life. I love Corrie Ten Boom, because she gives us this same assurance of the joy to come: “I’ve experienced His presence in the deepest darkest hell that men can create. I have tested the promises of the Bible, and believe me, you can count on them.” I love the apostles, because, as my mother once told me, the fact that they were willing to be martyred for their faith in Jesus shows their witness can be trusted. They must have seen it with their own eyes if they were willing to die for it, and pass their faith on to others. I love Laura Fanucci, the mother whose newborn died, because she shared with us her firm reason for hope in the midst of unspeakable suffering. And I am loving Viktor Frankl, for the hope he gives me. I’ll leave you with this beautiful image of Frankl’s wife, who became a vision of heaven for him:

Tilly Frankl

My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness….A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way–an honorable way–in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.

 

 

 

Image of Tilly Frankl on her wedding day: source

Advertisements

False Dichotomies

Men, Arrow, Red, Contrary, Group, Action, Protester

False dichotomies! I just love using that phrase. You’ve seen the memes: “Why are we paying for illegal immigrants when there are veterans without homes?” “Why are we all talking about genders and bathrooms when the real scandal is those fat cats in congress?” “Why do we care so much about saving animals when babies are dying every day?” It’s the same mindset that says “why are you complaining? People in the third world have it way worse than you do.”  There are two problems with this:

  1. If you follow this line of reasoning out to its logical conclusion, there is only one thing in the world worth caring about. You want to work for social justice? How about first making sure everyone has a right to life? You care about human life so much? Isn’t salvation more important? For me, this is a seductive line of reasoning. But if everyone in the world only cared about The One Most Important Thing (whatever that is!), where does that leave everything else? God gave people different interests, gifts, and callings for a reason.
  2. It’s possible to care about two worthwhile things at once! Just because someone cares about animals (or breast cancer research, or political reform, or domestic violence…) doesn’t mean they care less about people; they’re just budgeting their limited time and energy to one cause at a time. I believe this is why Pope Francis often talks about an integrated world view: a Catholic can, and should, care about social justice, the environment, just government, care for the poor, and discrimination as well as abortion and gay marriage. They’re all connected and they’re all important. And when it comes to your own suffering, that’s important too. Just because you don’t suffer as much as someone in a prison camp or a homeless shelter doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about what you’re going through.

This mindset is also handy for getting yourself off the hook. Who cares if that football player cheated? A lot of other football players raped people! Who cares if that criminal got beaten in jail? Our brave soldiers face worse every day! Again, this forces everything into a hierarchy, until you only have one crime worth caring about, and everything else can be ignored.

This way of viewing the world does have some truth in it, of course. Rape is worse than cheating, and we should focus more energy on preventing and punishing it. But that doesn’t mean you should be able to get away with cheating scot-free, and it doesn’t mean that people who investigate alleged cheating are petty or don’t care about real justice. I struggle with the amount of money, time, and energy that people devote to things like cancer research, when I consider grave issues like abortion much more important; but when I stop and think about it, I realize that we are both concerned with the same thing: the welfare of our brothers and sisters.

We should be able to talk about what’s neutral, what’s important, and what’s non-negotiable without forcing everything except the worst crimes and sufferings out of sight. It’s an easy way to look at the world, but it doesn’t do justice to the complexity of our individual vocations. Instead, it’s a perpetual excuse to skim the surface of important questions just deep enough to glean a satisfying dose of outrage.

Only Heaven

I like to sing hymns to my babies at night: they make nice lullabies, and they’re a good shot in the arm for an exhausted mama.  Tonight I was singing “…and I will raise you up, and I will raise you up, and I will raise you up on the last day,” and I thought sure–on the very last possible day.  I’m not trying to be funny here.  Sometimes it feels like God waits until the last minute.

My mother’s Alzheimer’s is progressing terrifyingly fast, and every morning she suffers through an attack of spiritual doubt and misery.  This morning she told me “everyone keeps talking about mercy…all about mercy….”  She couldn’t finish her sentence, but I thought I caught the implication: where’s the mercy for me?  I didn’t know what to tell her.  I believe in God’s mercy on the last day, but I don’t know why, for some people, He doesn’t send it earlier.  Where is the mercy in my brilliant, wise, eloquent mother spending the last ten years of her life in confusion and humiliation?

I know I’m missing something here.  I know–I believe–that a life of hardship can have more joy and peace than just the promise of heaven.  But I don’t see it right now.

Sometimes a crumb falls
from the tables of joy,
sometimes a bone
is flung.

To some people
love is given,
to others
only heaven

–“Luck” by Langston Hughes