Thanksgiving Thoughts & Half a Book Review

Note: Obviously, I began writing this last week. But I was unable to finish it in time. Life, and Pet Rescue, often get in the way. 😉

thankful

It has been a trying year. Next year doesn’t look much better. I am not a person who takes seriously the idea that things will get better. Or even that there is always something for which one can be thankful. I have watched the suffering in the world for far too long to allow myself the pleasure of being that naive.

I find it troublesome, in fact, that many look at the pain and suffering of others and are thankful that they themselves have not suffered in that way. It is a false compassion that smacks of the Pharisee thanking God that he is not a sinner.

Yet I have always been one to find the good in the bad. It’s a dangerous trait, I’ve learned; one that can be manipulated to control me. After I realized this, for several months this year my usual capacity to find good in life was gone. What had happened to me now seemed insurmountable. The future was bleak as I began to contact shelters to see if I could find one that we could all live in together. There isn’t much out there (read: nothing) for a family our size, with a young adult child.

My old therapist (she has moved and I have a new one) wanted me to find some sort of vision for our future. But I simply couldn’t. I had tried that route my whole life, dreaming and trying to create a better future, always to have it destroyed by those who take delight in abusing others. I was afraid that if I allowed myself to even hope for the smallest thing, I would completely fall apart if it didn’t happen.

Slowly I have been trying to regain my old view of life. In the middle of that attempt, a post from Matt Papa on my Facebook feed directed me to the book Man’s Search for Meaning.

Viktor Frankl wrote his autobiography soon after the end of WW2, of which he spent the majority of years imprisoned in a concentration camp. The title suggests it’s a self-help book, but it is the rare self-help author who is as open and honest as Frankl, and that is what has probably been the force behind the longevity of this book. While most “life application” books carry an air of superiority, Frankl’s honesty about how his beliefs collided with his acts in the concentration camp are more realistic and relate-able. He does not lift himself up as some model of righteous behavior, but includes himself among the “those of us” who sometimes did what they could to survive.

His description of camp life and the effects it had psychologically on himself and his fellow prisoners is one of the best I’ve read to describe what continuous trauma does to the mind and spirit of a person. Other accounts are often written by doctors whose only knowledge of such trauma is through the stories told them by their patients and they always seem to be missing something. Maybe it’s because they are so far removed from the event(s) that it has become a dry statistic instead of the living nightmare trauma always is.

With Frankl, and quite possibly all of the films I’ve watched over the years, I can well imagine the decrepit conditions that drove men to despair. With my own history, I can understand the reactions and the things people did in order to survive. I can also relate to his shame as he found himself doing the same. There is an added suffering in trauma to those of us who know that what we are doing to survive or to gain favor with our abusers is wrong.

The core of the book, his main idea, however, is something that is not often discussed outside of psychology these days, sometimes not even in religion. Our society has, as the book jacket suggests, adopted Freud’s view that sexual pleasure is what drives people. This is why “eros” has become the highest form of love. It’s manifested in the latest trends of “friends with benefits” and “polyamorous” relationships. It is why Christians think that porn is acceptable, and adultery isn’t that big of a deal, and that the Song of Solomon is a sex manual.

But Frankl points out early on in his story of his years in prison that sexual drive is actually one of the first things the people lost. If Freud was correct, this would not have happened under this circumstance, instead their drive would have become greater as they sought to find meaning for their life in the midst of their meaningless existence.

Instead Frankl speaks of the choice for hope, the choice of one’s reaction to do good or evil under dire circumstances. After pointing out all the terrible things done in the camps and all the psychological results in the prisoners, he writes of the few who rose above. He writes of men who encouraged and comforted, of those who gave away their one piece of bread for the day to a hungry comrade. He finds that there was a choice to be made. One could lose sight of the future in the absence of a certain end of their imprisonment, or one could decide to keep a shred of hope alive. He says that was often the difference between life and death, between moral behavior and turning into an animal.

I wonder now, as I read though this book, if this is the difference between one who retains their faith in God regardless the evil suffered at the hands of people claiming to be His, and the ones who walk away. It is certainly the difference between people who come through trauma to live on the other side, and those who wallow in despair and truly end up dying of a broken heart.

I was surprised and encouraged particularly by the stages of trauma he described. Each stage I have experienced myself throughout the years. What he wrote about what happened to the prisoners when they were suddenly freed at the  end of the war, there were, again, stages I could understand. I have been through them, I have watched others go through them.

The description of the stages of trauma makes this book a useful read for anyone, whether you have lived through a lifetime of trauma and need a validation of your experiences and reactions you are unlikely to find anywhere else, or if you’ve never had anything happen to you that would constitute trauma and find yourself annoyed that your friend just can’t “get over it” and quite talking about it. While each persons experience is different, the stages and the reactions are similar and I think it would be helpful if “normal” people understood that. Then maybe they can understand why flowery platitudes of “everything is going to get better” and “there’s always something to be thankful for” fall on deaf ears and create chasms in relationships.

Over the next weeks I’ll be writing a few more posts about the stages of trauma and how the validation of my own experiences as a result of reading this book have radically altered my life. I hope that some will find it useful either in their own lives or in trying to be sympathetic and understanding to those going through severe trauma.

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