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Inspired by a dream in 1943, Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a heart-warming short story titled “The Greatest Gift.“ When he failed to find a publisher, the author sent it out as his Christmas card the following year, no doubt inspiring friends and family alike. You probably recognize the movie version of the story that came out in 1946 as It’s a Wonderful Life.
In the film, George plans on traveling the world and then dabbling in college before heading off to build skyscrapers. He offers to “lasso the moon” for his sweetheart. Then life, as it often does, gets in the way of his plans. As dilemmas and circumstances come at him from all angles, he is confronted with decisions to make. One by one, he makes the right moral choice. There is always a price to pay for doing what’s right, rather than what seems pleasurable. Bit by bit, George’s future is exchanged for the needs of the present. Until at last, there is nothing left of the future he once envisioned, and he becomes suicidal.
In spite of all that, George is extremely lucky. He lives in the world of fiction where a rosy-cheeked guardian angel can change his entire life by altering reality for him. Then, when the hard lessons are learned, he can change it back again so George can enjoy the rest of his life in the light of his newfound knowledge.
What exactly did he learn?
Each life has a profound impact on the world around him. His angel scolded,
You had the greatest gift of all conferred upon you—the gift of life, of being a part of this world and taking a part in it. Yet you denied that gift.
Viktor Frankl learned a similar lesson that very same Christmas. However, it did not come in a dream. Frankl lived in the real world, where some of life’s most profound lessons are not taught by kind men with peaceful blue eyes. Instead, they are learned at the cruel hand of fate and a reality that allows no escape from sorrow.
The death rate in the week between Christmas, 1944, and New Year’s, 1945, increased in camp beyond all previous experience…the explanation for this increase did not lie in the harder working conditions or the deterioration of our food supplies or a change of weather or new epidemics. It was simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naive hope that they would be home again by Christmas.
Unlike George, these men were not denying the gift of life they had been given. They were clawing for it. For the prisoners of Auschwitz, their salvation was within their grasp once they realized what it was.
It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future–sub specie aeternitatis. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.
The prisoner who had lost faith in the future–his future–was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.
Frankl goes on to quote Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how.”
The truth of the author’s observations is easily found in everyday life. Most commonly we see it in the form of losing hope when a job or marriage is lost, or when one spouse follows the other in death, “dying of a broken heart.”
The observation that we, as humans, must envision a future is obvious, yet it’s obscured by everyday life. It plays out in various ways from setting future career goals or planning a vacation or a wedding to telling yourself, “If I can just get past [insert current issue] everything will be all right.”
We all have to have a hope for the future.
But what if you can’t see past the pain of today? What if the sorrow blots out the future?
Frankl explains that when a man finds that his destiny is to suffer, and accepts his suffering as his task alone and unique,
No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.
When Frankl realized that life was not a grand vague notion, but rather a concrete set of tasks, tasks of conduct that shape our fate, he began to embrace his suffering as a work to get through. He saw each task as his unique opportunity to grow spiritually and become stronger.
Each individual had to find their own why to live. For some, it was the love of another waiting for him. The author also described those who found their why not in a person, but rather a thing — an unfinished work that could only be completed by that particular individual.
Whether it’s a book that burns inside begging to be realized, or little eyes looking up full of need, once responsibility to life is accepted, Frankl explained, then it’s almost impossible to throw it away.
Most of us live somewhere in between Bedford Falls and our own prison.
Those of you that have followed me for any length of time know that I lost a teenage son the summer of 2008. It’s an understatement to say that my world was shattered. Part of the pain of that loss, as I look back, was losing the future we thought we had been promised. His future. His children.
The threads of his future were woven deeply into the fabric of our own. The ripping of those threads of life leaves a raw sorrow that can’t be mended.
But here’s what I know. Although we are, as Frankl says, “alone in our suffering,” everyone has pain. No one gets through this life unscathed.
I definitely cried out to God: “Why me? Why must I suffer like this?” But the thought immediately came back to me–why not me? What makes me so special? Looking back, I think in that moment I did what Frankl says we all must: accept our suffering. My son was worth crying over.
I can imagine my guardian angel showing up on my bridge of despair, and offering me a choice for an escape:
I’ll grant your wish. You may have a life without this suffering. I will make it so he was never born. Or you may keep your reality. You can have your son, but you may only have him for 13 years–then you will suffer the sorrow of his loss for the rest of your life.
I would, without hesitation, take the latter. The paradox lies in the blinding rebellion against the unthinkable and the strength that only comes with the acceptance of fate.
Although we would all prefer to learn life’s hardest lessons through the safety of film or pages, the harsh reality is that those lessons only fall under the cruel tutelage of sorrow’s taskmaster.
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Photo credit Shutterstock: Jonathan Noden-Wilkinson