VIKTOR: I have come to believe that it is death itself that makes life meaningful. All the losses along the way give us the opportunity to learn we can be stronger than we thought, take a new path, try a new skill, love again. We make a friend of our own free will and create a life of beauty from the rubble, like pearls of great price on a golden chain. Nothing is ever lost.
EDITH: Sentimental tripe, Dr. Frankl. Everything is lost for the Jews.
VIKTOR: If it takes all night, I will convince you otherwise.
EDITH: To find meaning —here?
VIKTOR: Most particularly, here.
—Timeless Night: Viktor Frankl Meets Edith Stein by Elizabeth Clark-Stern
We constitute a most universal club : humans seeking the meaning of why we are here, what is our purpose, what do we really want, how do we transcend suffering, find meaning in injustice, overcome cynicism and self-doubt? Answers seem illusive, yet we keep asking. Some grow weary of the quest and seek safe harbor in dogma, an understandable choice, and yet, as Bill Moyers once said of the “congregational polity” of his Baptist roots, in true religion, each person must forge their own relationship with God and struggle to make meaning in a world of paradoxical truth.
The breadth and depth of humanity’s meaning seekers never ceases to engage and surprise. As soon as we think we know what it looks like, who belongs to our “tribe”, someone comes along who is an unlikely candidate. A person who seems devil-may-care in all other ways, drops his voice and stares into space, suddenly humbled by a most universal question: “Why did she stop loving me?” This leads to the nature of love itself, the complexity of our need for one another, to the question of an inner life where none of us is alone in psyche. Judgments melt as common denominator is revealed.
In her beautiful book, Close to the Bone: Life-Threatening Illness and the Search for Meaning , Jungian analyst and author Jean Shinoda Bolen writes about the meaning search in one of the most challenging arenas of human experience: confronting the life-threatening illness in ourselves or those we love. She evokes Viktor Frankl, who observed the full range of choices available to humans in the concentration camps. Some gave up, some took on the role of their captors and oppressed others; some found a deep compassion for others and made sacrifices to keep others, even strangers, alive.
In facing illness and possible death, we know that some are able to face it with assertiveness and courage, while others are passive, hostile, irascible. How are we to make meaning of this? What is the meaning of choice and free will in such a context? How does the existence of death influence our attitude about life?
Dr. Bolen uses story to dramatize this journey. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth learns that her sister, Ereshkigal is suffering and in mourning in the underworld. Inanna is compelled to descend to Great Below, to be a witness. The proud and powerful goddess enters naked and bows low, looking into the baleful eyes of death. She is struck down, her body left to rot on a hook.
The once-powerful Queen is humbled, as we are all humbled by endless cat-scans, x-rays, blood tests, and surgeries that leave us feeling like meat on a hook. Inanna symbolizes the part of us that is successful, ego-satisfied, master of our world. Her sister, Ereshkigal, is the part of us consigned to the underworld of life, not top of the class, smartest, fastest, much adored. She is the bad patient all doctors and nurses dread, whining, fearful, blaming, self-pitying. She is the person in our lives, or the part in ourselves, we most want to avoid. And yet, to find meaning in the mending of our souls, we are called, as Inanna was called, to enter the underworld and make peace with our inner Ereshkigal.
We are aided in this by a third character in the myth, Ninshubur, Inanna’s messenger, warrior, faithful servant, messenger, minister, general and adviser. She accompanies Inanna to the gate of the Great Below, and when she learns of her Queen’s fate, Ninshurber cries her lament loudly, beats her drum in the assemblies and seeks help from the father gods. The first two gods cannot be bothered, but the third feels compassion for Inanna and acts immediately – in a curious way. He cleans under his fingernails and brings forth the dirt and lint and fashions two small creatures, neither male nor female, small as flies, who can pass through the gates of Hell unnoticed. These tiny flies find Ereshkigal and mirror her very particular woes: “Oh, my back!’ “Oh, my belly!” “Ahh my breast!”. The little fly-creatures respond, empathetically moaning, groaning and sighing with her. Ereskigal feels seen, understood, and cared for. Her petulant, wrathful behavior transforms to gratitude and generosity. She offers the little fly-like beings riches and jewels. They ask only for the piece of rotting meat hanging on the wall, and thus Inanna, is restored to life, able to ascend from the Great Below to the Great Above.
Each of us must find meaning in our own way. My search has brought me to the meaning-source himself, Viktor Frankl. Surely the enduring popularity of Man’s Search for Meaning is a testament to the universality of our club, as broad and deep as humanity itself.
I discovered that Viktor Frankl and philosopher/Carmelite nun Edith Stein travelled parallel paths in phenomenology, psychology, philosophy, and human rights. They were also in the concentration camp at the same time. They could have met…
In my new play, Timeless Night, they are troublemakers tossed into an old storage shed in Auschwitz. They have one night to get to know each other, to tell stories, to learn, to explore, to laugh, to remember, to feel. With the dawn comes liberation or extermination. They don’t know which, but have opinions and theories about that, and everything else.
A teacher once told me, “All death scenes are life scenes.”
Nothing is lost.
And so the journey continues.