Viktor Frankl’s words provide guidance as we search for meaning in time of uncertainty

By Student Rabbi Remy Liverman

“When we can no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

— Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl

Early this year, we observed Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yorn HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), all addressing tragedy and loss, as well as triumph over suffering and oppression, ending on a note of freedom.

Noting the duality in the way our tradition remembers the past, I considered the stark contrast of my current situation to that of a year earlier, when on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, I stood still on King David Street in Jerusalem as sirens blared for two minutes.

All is silent but for the sirens

These remain some of the most significant memories of my year in Israel. I watched the people around me on this busy street and patrons in cafes abruptly ending animated conversations, tour guides pausing mid-sentence as they led groups through the nearby Mamilla Mall, taxi drivers stopping their cars and climbing out to don kippot and look to the skies.

This enforced solitude adds meaning to our silence while honoring the memory of those lost in the Holocaust.

This year on Yom HaShoah, I sat at my computer mid-Zoom class at 10 a.m. (5 p.m. Israel time). There was no siren; one of us set a phone alarm and those who weren’t still wearing pajama pants stood next to our electronic devices.

The moment could not have been more different than last year, and yet the stillness was familiar in this time of self-isolation and voluntary quarantine to acknowledge the presence of COVID-19.

This enforced solitude adds meaning to our silence while honoring the memory of those lost in the Holocaust. In Israel at this time, no one sings Hatikvah or recites the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Enforced solitude offers opportunity to look inward

Instead, Israelis turn inward, allowing space for individual meaning and emotion. Those two minutes were significant for me as well. Not only do I hold the millions of lives lost in the Shoah deep in my heart, but the lives lost to COVID-19 worldwide, and the loved ones left behind.

Still, a constant sense of fear and mourning would not leave us in a healthy state. What we need are moments of meaning that allow us to recognize the beauty and joy in what we have and the parts of our lives we can control.

What we need are moments of meaning that allow us to recognize the beauty and joy in what we have and the parts of our lives we can control.

I have considered how I might apply this concept elsewhere in my daily life, bringing intention and mindfulness to new and old routines. Eventually, I made sense of the solitude and uncertainty we are all facing.

I found gratitude in my good fortune to have a roof over my head, food to eat, means to continue my work and study, my two dogs, and my partner Daniel (not necessarily in that order).

Opportunity may exist in suffering

Still, something was missing. I could not find sufficient meaning in the mundane. Many of us have grown more and more anxious and impatient after extended time in the confines of our homes.

Consider, then, we might find meaning in the possibilities our futures hold, as strained and tenuous as that may seem now.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl presents a particularly relevant concept in what he identifies as the meaning of suffering.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl presents a particularly relevant concept in what he identifies as the meaning of suffering. He writes:

“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation … we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Viktor Frankl’s words of therapeutic guidance might seem impossible to take at the moment, or at least a little unreasonable. How can we find triumph or victory in the face of tragedy?

Pay attention to the details

I propose a different attitude that requires a truly personal trial as we identify triumphs and achievements in the smallest details of our confinement.

This includes anything and everything from maintaining momentum in our work and responsibilities to spending a few minutes longer on the phone with loved ones, even appreciating the extra moments our new routines allow us.

This is a time to pay attention to that uniquely human potential within each of us.

This is a time to pay attention to that uniquely human potential within each of us, when we might actually find “making the best of it” can become more than a cliche.

When these moments arise, where we see aspects of our lives in a new light relative to this trying time, mark them down. Share them with me the next time we meet virtually and I hope, eventually, in person.

Every silver lining we find is both a triumph and an achievement.

May there soon be refua ichol haolam — healing for the world entire.

Student Rabbi Remy Liverman served United Hebrew Congregation during the 2019-20 academic year.

Featured image credit: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

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