(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
I have spoken before about my admiration for Victor Frankl, the holocaust survivor and author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning. His theory for how to find inner peace is to discover one’s purpose for living. We all can have a life purpose, Frankl believes, but it must be found and then developed.
Frankl relates his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp where it goes without saying that he and millions of others suffered horrible conditions. As a student of Sigmund Freud, Frankl was forced to leave behind his greatest achievement in life, an almost finished book on logotherapy which is his theory that we are most fulfilled through finding life meaning.
Frankl realized in the concentration camp, however, that his suffering gave him the perfect opportunity to test his logotherapy theory. In the midst of relentless hardship, could he find some meaning for his condition and thereby gain inner peace? Were there others that did the same?
Frankl concluded that by focusing on things greater than himself, and not on his misery, he was able to find peace, compassion and even strength. For him, that meant focusing on two things that gave him meaning. First, he endeavored to reflect repeatedly on the great love of his life – his wife who had already been killed. His reflections were not on her loss, but on the love and mystical connection he had with her. He was able to sense her presence and feel as if he could hold her hand and speak to her. The joy he felt in focusing on her – and the meaning love for her gave him – helped him greatly.
Frankl did the same with his life work on logotherapy. He spent hours recalling all of the research he had done and the conclusions he’d made. He endlessly pondered those and arrived at new ideas such that he was able to mentally continue his work.
By focusing on his wife and his work, and the meaning that each gave him, this enabled Frankl to survive and even find some joy. As he wrote in his book about the concentration camp, “People forget that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.” Meaning, he believed, comes when we transcend ourselves to instead think about others.
Frankl noted that it was not Nazi against Jew, but rather simply people against people. He saw guards exhibit great compassion toward the Jewish captives just as he witnessed brutality by some Jews toward fellow inmates. Those who were at peace, who defined the best in humanity, were those who helped others. They were kind, shared their meagre food rations and lifted up the spirits of others. Such people found satisfaction not in feeling sorry for themselves, but in love and compassion for fellow inmates and guards.
And that simple concept is the basic premise of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu in their Book of Joy. Compassion for others is the foundation for overcoming obstacles to joy – which is my topic for today. Indeed, that is the stated purpose for their discussion and book – to offer specific ways people can overcome suffering, fear, anger or envy that prevents a deep contentment with life no matter one’s circumstances – a state of mind they call “joy”.
Fittingly, the Dalai Lama concluded the discussion about obstacles to joy by jokingly saying he hopes to go to hell instead of heaven. In hell, he said, he will still be content because there are people whom he can help! That comment highlights what the book tells us is the key to finding joy. Life is not about us and our needs. We were not born, we are not the products of millions of years of evolutionary development, just to seek pleasure and suck up resources. We live for a purpose to help others and help make the world better because we lived. We must discover our answer to the single most common spiritual question people ask: why am I here?
How we answer that question will not only guide us in how we live, it will determine our quality of life. As both the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu agree, life is about loving others at least as much as we love ourselves. It all boils down to the Golden Rule shared by every world religion. The meaning of life, and the way to overcome obstacles to joy, is to think less of self and more about the other.
That is a simple prescription, but it is not simple to achieve. Thinking less of self and more about the other, according to the Book of Joy, is an attitude and way of living that develops slowly and with dedicated intention. We can’t expect to immediately and perfectly be compassionate in all we do. We must strengthen our compassion muscles, so to speak, by continually reminding ourselves – and meditating – to step away from thoughts and emotions about the self.
For every obstacle to joy that the two men discuss, the bottom line solution is always the same: find empathy for others. When we are anxious or stressed, that is almost always caused by fears for personal well-being. But the cure to those fears is to instead think of others – how they suffer and the compassion one feels for them. When our boss is too demanding, our partner has a few imperfections, someone pulls out in front of us, or we feel overwhelmed by the busy-ness of life, we can step away from the anxiety those circumstances cause by cognitively reframing our thinking. We might compassionately think: “My boss has life challenges too and I must think of ways to help her.” “My partner is not perfect because of past hurts he experienced. I must love him all the more.” “The person who cut me off in traffic is probably rushing to the hospital or a similar emergency. I must think compassionately toward him.” The irony of stress is that it leads us to think and worry about ourselves – which leads to even more anxiety. We can step out of that vicious cycle by thinking of others.
The same is true when we are angry. We need to ask ourselves, why are we so upset? In almost every case it is because we feel offended or challenged. To feel hurt by another is a natural response, but the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu ask us to turn our anger into compassion for the one who hurt us. As it is with stress, anger is a poison to our minds and bodies. Anger causes more anger. Why would we not want to feel a positive emotion instead?
Dispelling anger was the amazing example set by Desmond Tutu and black South Africans when they held reconciliation councils after the end of apartheid. Tutu asked white oppressors to publicly and truthfully confess the full extent of their past hateful actions. By doing so, he helped initiate feelings of forgiveness toward the whites that allowed black people to move past their anger – feelings that could not continue if they hoped to heal. Honest confession and contrition by some of the whites allowed them to unburden themselves and develop love and respect for blacks. Both groups purposefully sacrificed their needs for the sake of reconciliation and peace.
We can do the same with jealousy and envy. Such feelings are again caused by selfish desires and a feeling we deserve what others have. It is a difficult task to undertake, but the antidote for envy is to develop joy for another’s well-being. When someone drives by in a beautiful new car, the answer to jealousy is to instead be happy for what the other person does have.
Sadness is another obstacle to joy. Much like suffering is the pathway to growth, sadness is an emotion that directly leads to compassion. “We don’t really get close to others if our relationship is made up of unending hunky-dory-ness,” Desmond Tutu says. “It is sadness and grief that knit us together.”
This is best exemplified at funerals. We find in shared grief with others an intimacy that is comforting. We also find, I believe, greater appreciation for the one who was lost. That is why I encourage people not to be afraid of mourning – if it is focused on remembering the deceased individual and the blessings they gave. That is what Victor Frankl did. He could have sunk into despair over his wife’s horrible death, but he instead continually meditated on his abiding love for her.
The greatest fear and cause of suffering most people have, according to the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, is the fear of illness and death. I’ve been sadly honored to officiate at many funerals. One was for a former member of the Gathering, Mary Jo Campbell, who also attended here and whose funeral was held in this sanctuary. She suffered from Type I diabetes. She’d already had a kidney transplant but that was failing and she was left with no options for getting better. In the months before she died, she began talking with me about death and remembering the good things in her life. She had once been a minister so she and I formed a close friendship.
Mary Jo faced death matter of factly. “It’s my time,” she told me. “I’ve had a really good life.” Several months before she passed, she performed the marriage ceremony for her son and his new wife. She asked me to attend so a current minister could legally sign the marriage certificate.
A month before she died, the couple gave birth to Mary Jo’s first grandchild. She was once again thrilled. She was failing quickly but she told me one day that performing the marriage ceremony and meeting her first grandchild reinforced the satisfaction she felt about life. She spent years joyfully serving and thinking of others – and she died doing the same.
Unfortunately, we think the pathway to joy is to pursue pleasure and thus eliminate pain. But the Book of Joy tells us it is paradoxically the opposite. Contentment comes by looking past our pain. Suffering is all in the mind. It’s we who tell ourselves “poor me” or “he makes me so angry”, or “why can’t I have a bigger house and take exciting vacations?” That whining voice in the head only makes one hurt even more. We must tell that voice to shut up and replace it with one emanating from our better selves – “I’m blessed to have all that I do.” “I want to help those who suffer.” “I love my partner and friends – despite their few flaws.” “I forgive those who have deeply hurt me. I will hope the best for them.” Let us fill our hearts and minds with compassion and love. By doing so, we will create an attitude of peace and joy toward life, and toward the entire one human family.