Living in Extremity

How do you die well? Can you leave this world in a way that brings meaning to your life and the lives of those around you? More importantly, can you live your life by these same principles? Some of the best advice came from the survivor of a Nazi death camp. The June 10 issue of The Christian Century has an article with a title that intrigued me: “Luminous to the end: My sister’s last 40 days.” But at first, I turned away from the piece – thinking that I had had enough of folks I loved dying around me. I also have a close friend right now who is very seriously ill with advanced cancer. So … I thought, “I don’t need this.”

On second thought, I recognized it was time for a new blog posting. And most of my blogs take up issues that in one way or another are on my mind and have some spiritual import in my ongoing life story. I am also in the middle of writing chapter five of The Fiction of our Lives, concerned with God’s lure in our lives and the role of song and narrative play in our religious shaping and engagement with the Divine. And frankly, in my mind, my friend’s very serious illness and God’s action in our lives are linked.

Immersed in my current work, I write that the ’60s and ’70s were decades of existential searching for meaning, and the songs we listened to and sang (e.g., My Sweet Lord by the Beatles) and the books we read (e.g., Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain) were expressions of life’s pilgrimage in the reach for Transcendence – our expression of longing and hope for some meaning beyond the present horror of war and civil struggle. One of the writers that meant a great deal to me at the time was Viktor Frankl, a survivor of a Nazi death camp who created a form of psychotherapy he called logotherapy – based on his wartime experience and which aimed at helping patients discover meaningful and authentic lives as human beings.

In a revised edition of his book From Death Camp to Existentialism – combined with an introduction to logotherapy under the title Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl was nearly lyrical in his description of the possibility of a noble life even in the face of extreme cruelty and hardship. I find his words still quite inspiring. He says, “The way in which [you accept your] fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which [you take up your] cross, gives [you] ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to [your] life.”1

As for the question of religion and where God might fit into all of this, Frankl himself was Jewish, and hence swept up in the Holocaust atrocity (although of course others, such as the Roma and other “undesirables,” were also transported off to camps and killed). It isn’t clear how observant a Jew Frankl was, but in one place in the book he says, “In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.”2

Finally, the overriding theme of Frankl’s lectures, logotherapy process, writings, and his life are summed up in the following:

Human life, under any circumstances [including life-threatening illness], never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death. I ask the poor creatures [his fellow prisoners] who listened to me attentively in the darkness of the hut to face up to the seriousness of our position. They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning.3

His point: Even in the extreme suffering of a death camp – or in my friend’s case, potentially facing death from disease – one can give witness to what it means to be a human being.

Getting back to The Christian Century article, the author lists four tasks for a good death – whether dying in a Nazi camp or from terminal disease: tending to ones earthly responsibilities, especially taking care of one’s dependents; giving and receiving forgiveness; seeking peace with God and others; and saying last words to those you will soon leave. But the first three especially are also tasks for living a good life for every one of us as we weave our own life story to its end. May it be so for us all.

1 Frankl, Viktor, Man’s Search for Meaning, New York: A Clarion Book, l970, p. 67.
2 Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 39.
3 Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 83.