Reprinted with the kind permission of Jude LaClaire, Ph.D.
Natural weather disasters like floods, droughts, earthquakes and, more recently the deadly hurricanes striking small unprotected islands, the United States and Puerto Rico, have left untold damage in their wake. The human suffering is incalculable and the physical damage in the billions.
Over the last four years, the United States has witnessed the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut; San Bernardino; the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and now, the worst, in Las Vegas!
As a mental health practitioner and in my personal life, I am witnessing people expressing great fear, anxiety and apprehension triggered by these events. Confronting our fears and catastrophic thinking is imperative for each of us. How can we do this?
When problems arise, I look to people who have faced horrific experiences and remind myself what they did to successfully face danger, threats and traumatic experiences. One of the first people I think of is Viktor Frankl. Between 1942 and 1945, he labored in four different Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother and pregnant wife perished. What he did do, not just to survive, but to have hope and live to inspire others until his death at age ninety-two, was to learn that when we have meaning or purpose in our life, we can endure, confront and heal from any suffering.
His training as a psychiatrist and neurologist helped him to endure his own horrific experience, finding hope and meaning in the midst of terrible trauma. His belief, prior to this experience was, “What is to give light must endure burning.”
His description of an experience in the harsh conditions of the concentration camp in Man’s Search for Meaning helps us understand his idea of finding meaning in suffering. He describes being in a group of prisoners, stumbling on rough ground, being yelled at and hit with rifle butts. It was cold and dark. He and a fellow prisoner began speaking of their wives. He began thinking of his wife and, in the fading pink light of morning, began speaking with her. He says, “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth…the final wisdom…that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire.” At that moment, his life took on meaning in a profound way as he contemplated his deep love for his wife and others.
Another person whose experience awakened and inspired me is Eben Alexander, M.D. He is a neurosurgeon who experienced a transforming experience in a life-threatening coma. He described what he learned in Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. “…I had already been taught the one thing – the only thing – that, in the last analysis, truly matters.
You are loved and cherished.
You have nothing to fear.
There is nothing you can do wrong.
…if I had to boil it down…to just one word it would (of course) be, simply: Love.”
Another person, one from our own community, continues to inspire me and thousands of others. Mindy Corporan suffered the unspeakable loss of her son and her father in the shooting at the Jewish Community Center April 13, 2014. Jim LeManno lost his wife, Terri. Mindy, spearheading a movement called Seven Days – Make a Ripple, Change the World, has led us to think about how to respond to deep loss and grief. She says “To focus on love, understanding, acts of kindness – at least for some time during that seven-day time frame. It’s something people can do very easily.” She continues, “We should not stand by and allow anyone else to be so misled by his or her ignorance of the other and let evil and hate overcome them…a wave of understanding and kindness will change our world.”
In facing adversity in our lives, or witnessing it in others, it is important to find the meaning in our lives, the center of our being, the profound love and caring. We must live fully present in this moment as we change our horror to hope and our grief into action, one step at a time.
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Jude LaClaire, Ph.D., LCPC, is a counselor, educator and author.