Time and again in my research about what makes people feel ‘alive’ and what makes them feel the opposite, God-forbid, having a well-defined sense of purpose comes pretty close to the top of the list.
If a person really understands why they’re alive, if they really get what’s the point of being down here, then that knowledge by itself can transform their life in so many good ways. I was musing on this while I was reading Viktor Frankl’s classic work, Man’s search for meaning, where he writes about his experiences in the holocaust, and the conclusions he drew as a result.
Frankl was a secular Viennese psychotherapist who lost his parents, wife and all of his siblings bar one sister during the war. In the book, he describes how his ‘professional interest’ in how his fellow prisoners were handling the indescribable suffering of being in Auschwitz and other death camps was a big reason why he survived the war.
As soon as he could take a ‘professional interest’ and start to ponder the psychological implications of what he was witnessing and experiencing, Frankl explains that the experiences themselves became easier to manage in some way.
In one particular poignant passage, he describes how imagining he would share his new insights into human nature kept him going when he was enduring a particularly hard day of forced labour outside in the freezing Polish winter.
Another popular tactic he employed was talking to his wife in his head, and escaping into those imaginary conversations. And thus, he survived the war, and went on to develop Logotherapy, his own brand of psychotherapy where the emphasis was firmly put on encouraging his patients to find some sort of meaning to life, in order to heal their emotional problems.
While Frankl is not ‘anti-religion’, he’s clearly wasn’t an observant Jew – and that’s a real shame, because Judaism would’ve have furnished a clear-cut ‘meaning to life’ that would have prevented him from trying to re-invent the wheel.
Let me give an example I was pondering on recently:
The more I read and learn and experience, the more I realize that it’s almost impossible to raise our children without causing them some sort of severe psychological damage, with far-reaching consequences for their sense of wellbeing, emotional and physical health, and spiritual connection.
For years, I thought that if you were a healthy, well-adjusted, emotionally-balanced person, then your kids would turn out OK (just for the record, I haven’t actually ever met someone like this, but for argument’s sake, let’s pretend they exist.) But God’s been showing me recently that EVEN the most well-meaning, spiritually-connected, tuned-in, compassionate parents are STILL messing their kids up.
How can we not? Is it up to us to decide if we have to experience huge financial pressures, for example? Or severe illnesses? Or traumatic moves to different cities or different countries? Can we help it if we get depressed sometimes, or super-stressed, or overwhelmed by the difficult experiences each of us has to face? We don’t pick for our kids to have horrible teachers, or nasty bullies, or traumatic experiences with terrorists every few days.
And all this stuff leaves an indelible mark on the soul, and causes things like anxiety, fear, anger, panic, despair, and a whole bunch of other things, too.
So I was pondering: Why?
Why does God set things up that it’s impossible to raise our kids as completely whole, emotionally-healthy human beings who don’t have anxiety, panic, worry, sadness and all the rest of it?
As usual, Rav Arush gave me the answer. I was reading his new book about saying thank you and seeing miracles when he explained that our difficulties are what brings us closer to God. We suffer, we hurt, we get overwhelm, and then we actually turn around and have probably the first honest conversation of our lives with our Creator.
We realize we can’t do it by ourselves, that we need Him to help us out, pronto. And that’s the whole point of being alive.
It’s so easy to get so caught up in the secular view of the world, which sees everything as being somehow in human control and ‘solve-able’. Depressed? Take a pill! Anxious? Take a pill! Stressed? Take a pill! (You get the idea…)
But I realized that I’ve also fallen into that trap a bit, by blaming myself for all of my kids issues. Now, here’s where we hit the fine line: OF COURSE I’m to blame for my kids issues, if I take God out of the picture. I mean, I made aliya, I ran out of money, I keep moving, I’m the one who got angry, stressed, depressed, overwhelmed and who all too frequently took it out on them.
But I’ve been working on all that stuff as much as I can, and the more I clear away, the more God shows me that something had to mess them up, as that’s the whole point. It’s only in their brokenness that they’re going to get closer to God, and build their relationship with Him. So yes, God used my bad middot to do the job for a while, but now they’re receding, I see He’s still piling the pressure on my kids: terrorists are scary; ulpana is challenging and sometimes lonely; friends are frequently unpredictable and draining etc etc.
And that’s the way it’s meant to be.
To put it another way, our suffering is what gives our life meaning, and what ultimately makes it worthwhile. I know that’s a bizarre idea on many levels, but recently, it’s been coming into clearer and clearer focus.
The meaning of life, what gives our lives purpose, is to get closer to God. Full stop. That’s why God fills the world with pain and suffering, and doesn’t give us all mansions, yachts and perfect health. At some point, hopefully the equation will change, and people will want to get closer to God even amidst their bounty – I think that’s the promise of Moshiach.
But we’re not quite there yet (at least, I’m not). Which means that each day still has its measure of pain, and its share of challenges. But I’m no longer wondering why it has to be that way.