Is that all there is?

Published 3:58 pm Tuesday, October 10, 2023

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By Lloyd Albritton

In this 1960s song made popular by American torch singer Peggy Lee, songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller write from the point of view of a person who is disillusioned with events in life that are supposed to produce feelings of emotion, like seeing her family’s house on fire when she was a little girl, or visiting the circus, or falling in love for the first time.  Yet, she felt nothing.  Peggy sings, “if that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing; break out the booze and have a ball.”  At the end of the song she concludes that, despite her dissolutionment with life, she will not bother to kill herself because death would probably be a disappointment as well.  One has to wonder how such an expression of despair could have ever become a Billboard Number 1 hit song.  The fact that it was would seem to suggest a large number of people who identified with the song’s theme.

In his 1946 autobiographical bestseller Man’s Search For Meaning Austrian Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) described his experiences in various Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust, the genocide of European Jews during World War II.  After reading Frankl’s book I was left wondering how anyone could survive such terrible events and circumstances as he described.  Yet, Frankl did survive, as did many others.  When his ordeal was finally over, he asked himself, “How?”  How had he survived privation, torture and starvation for so long while so many others had succumbed and died?  Was it because he and other survivors of the ordeal had begun their tragic journey physically stronger and healthier; or perhaps because they were better favored by their cruel Nazi masters?

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After considering his experiences in retrospect, Frankl came to believe, and wrote in his book, that the difference between those who survived the Holocaust and those who did not survive was meaning.  Was there any meaning to so much suffering?  If so, what was it; and what was there to learn from it?  Frankl observed that those who could not find meaning in their suffering quickly lost hope and died, while even the physically weak who did find meaning and hope in their suffering not only survived, but were often able to carry on their miserable lives with a certain amount of dignity, joy and cheerfulness in their visages.

The Judeo-Christian story of Job found in the Old Testament provides Bible believers with an excellent example of a man who successfully endured severe trials and tribulation through his faith and hope in a God who loved him and had promised him eternal life in a resurrected body.  Having lost all that he had, including his family, and suffering from boils and parasites all over his body, Job refused to curse God, instead declaring, “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26).  In this classic story of redemption, Job survives his ordeal and lives to prosper again in his latter days even more than in his beginning.

It is an age-old axiom that adversity makes us stronger.  This principle is illustrated by one of my favorite poems entitled Good Timber, by Douglas Malloch (1877-1938).

The tree that never had to fight

For sun and sky and air and light

But stood out in the open plain

And always got its share of rain,

Never became a forest king

But lived and died a scrubby thing.

The man who never had to toil

To gain and farm his patch of soil,

Who never had to win his share

Of sun and sky and light and air,

Never became a manly man

But lived and died as he began.

Good timber does not grow with ease:

The stronger the wind, the stronger the trees;

The further the sky, the greater the length,

The more the storm, the more the strength.

By sun and cold, by rain and snow,

In trees and men good timbers grow.

Where thickest lies the forest growth,

We find the patriarchs of both.

And they hold counsel with the stars

Whose broken branches show the scars

Of many winds and much of strife.

This is the common law of life.

Viktor Frankl makes no reference in his book to God or religion, but focuses his persuasions on the importance of finding “meaning” in life’s struggles as the most important element in overcoming adversity.  Frankl’s reason for going on was his determination to live to tell the story of his his grueling experiences in the concentration camps.  That was his reason for going on each day, i.e., to observe and record events so extraordinary that people might not believe they happened without his eye-witness testimonial.  Other individuals might have had different reasons for pressing on when it would have been easier to just give up, lie down, and die.  Each, however, found strength in making sense of their suffering.

Sometimes it is not so much physical suffering that brings men to despair as it is the mysteries of life in general.  In fact, it is not uncommon for some people who are blessed with an abundance of good health and wealth and great promise of future success to take their own lives in despair because they do not find any meaning in their lives.

Scientific studies have indeed suggested that people who find meaning in their sufferings and adversities are generally happier, less anxious and more durable than those who don’t.  Since mortal life is but a moment in the eternal scheme of things, we don’t have a lot of time to figure it all out, so it might be a good idea to put our crossword puzzles aside and get to it!