THE TRIUMPH OF
THE HUMAN SPIRIT

A month ago in this church I attended the funeral of my friend Jim Jamison. Some of you may remember Jim because he used a wheelchair and in latter years used our rather unreliable lift to attend services, sitting over in the back left hand corner there.
          In his eulogy, Jim’s friend Stuart McDonell described him as follows: “You were utterly fearless, totally indomitable, fun loving, loyal friend, inveterate traveller, mischief maker, rugby supporter, eclectic reader, ferocious contrarian, global analyst and above all caring life partner and husband to Kathleen. Jim - you were all of these and more, in a rich and fulfilling life.”
          I first met Jim Jamison in 2000 when I was director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and he was the director of the Health and Social Care Research Unit at Queen’s University Belfast. Before coming to Queen’s he had been the Chief Statistician at the Northern Ireland Department of Health, a man known for the thoroughness of his knowledge of the Northern health system, the brilliance of his mind, and an inability to suffer fools gladly. He was leading a high-powered group of researchers from Belfast, Dublin and London in a research project for my Centre entitled ‘Cross-border Cooperation in Health Services in Ireland.’ This path-finding project recommended, among many other things, all-Ireland health promotion campaigns to prevent communicable and non-communicable diseases which, if they had happened, could have gone some considerable way towards minimising the impact of Covid-19 on the island.
          As I said, he was also paralysed from the waist down, and therefore had to use a wheelchair at all times. This was the result of a teenage accident a few months before he was due to go to study at Oxford University on a rare open scholarship at the unusually young age of 17. Jim had been an academically outstanding – if mischievous – pupil at one of Belfast's most prestigious schools, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where he gained a lifelong healthy disrespect for authority. After a year of hospital treatment it was decided that his physical condition meant it made more sense for him to study in his home city, and he went to Queen's. He went on to do a BSc and PhD in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, attaining distinctions throughout.
          Jim never let his so-called ‘disability’ prevent him from achieving any target he set himself or from experiencing life to the fullest. His courage, discipline and sheer determination to overcome all the great obstacles that life had put in his path were inspirational. He had been a fine young rugby player, but when that sport was denied him, he turned to table tennis. In a tournament in Dublin in the early 1970s he met the beautiful and equally intelligent Kathleen McBride, also a wheelchair user. “It was love at first sight across a room of wheelchairs”, Jim used to say. It was a match made in disability heaven. They shared, in particular, a love of travel, and were regular visitors to France and the US. Kathleen had died nine months before Jim, and I can’t help thinking in those final months that the bright light of his life had gone out.
          In her address at the funeral, Bridget quoted from ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, the world bestseller by the Austrian Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, based on his experiences of unspeakable horror in the Nazi concentration camps, where he lost his father, mother, wife and brother. Jim Jamison’s story was for me another small example of how to live a life rich in personal full-filment and public service in the face of suffering and difficulty. So I was inspired to re-read ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ and share some of its wise insights with you this morning (excuse the occasional non-gendered language – this book was first published in 1946).
          In his book, Frankl recounts how a human being reacts in an appalling situation like a Nazi death camp when he has “nothing to lose except his so ridiculously naked life.” Firstly there are coping strategies to preserve a few remnants of one's life, even though the chances of surviving are slight. Daily degradation, humiliation and cruelty from the camp guards (so that prisoners felt – and sometimes behaved – like animals), fear of death that might happen at any moment, hunger and cold and misery to an almost unthinkable degree, were rendered tolerable by closely guarded images of beloved persons, by religion, by a grim sense of humour, and even by glimpses of the healing beauties of nature – a tree or a sunset.
          But these fragile moments of comfort did not establish the will to live unless they helped the prisoner to make larger sense out of his apparently senseless suffering. This is Frankl’s central thesis: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and dying. But no human being can tell another what this purpose is. Each must find out for her or himself, and must accept the responsibility for taking the life-affirming action that this answer prescribes. If she or he succeeds in this, they will continue to grow in spite of all the suffering. Frankl quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live, can bear with almost any how.” “He or she who has a why to live, can bear with almost any how.”
          In the concentration camps, every circumstance conspired to make people despair, to give up on life and hope. Frankl watched that happening to people in Auschwitz and other camps: shattered, skeletal inmates literally turning their faces to the wall in their rotting, typhus-ridden bunks and dying a few hours or days later. What alone remains in such a hopeless situation is what he calls “the last of human freedoms” - the capacity to “choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.” This ultimate freedom, recognised by the ancient Stoics as well as by modern existentialists, takes on a huge significance in Frankl’s story. The concentration camp inmates were only average men and women, but some, at least, by choosing to be “worthy of their suffering,” proved human beings’ capacity to rise above their outward fate, however terrible. The hopelessness of their struggle did not detract from its dignity and meaning.
          This is the main argument of this short book: that “if there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete. The way in which a human being accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
          Frankl says this lesson from the concentration camps also applies to the far smaller sufferings that people experience in everyday life. “It is true that only a few people are capable of reaching such high moral standards. Of the [concentration camp] prisoners only a few kept their full inner liberty and obtained those values which their suffering afforded, but even one such example is sufficient proof that a human being’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate. Such people are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere human beings are confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through their own suffering.”
          He then takes the case of an incurably ill person, quoting a letter from a young invalid who had been told he had not long to live. “He wrote that he remembered a film he had seen in which a man was portrayed who waited for death in a courageous and dignified way. The boy had thought it a great accomplishment to meet death so well. Now – he wrote – fate was offering him a similar chance.” This young person was accepting that it was his destiny to suffer an early death, and this was his unique task in life. “No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.” Frankl found that in the concentration camps this constant thought kept him from despair.
          Frankl then writes about two prisoners who had talked of their intention to commit suicide. “Both used the typical argument – they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realise that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected from them. We found, in fact, that for the one it was his child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person. This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else, any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child’s affections...A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears towards a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ of his existence, and will be able to bear any ‘how’.
          Frankl then quoted a post-war French opinion poll which showed that “89% of people admitted that human beings need ‘something’ for the sake of which to live. Moreover, 61% conceded that there was something, or someone, in their own lives for whose sake they were even ready to die.”
          Turning to his theory of psychotherapy which he called ‘logotherapy’, Frankl warned that it was “a dangerous misconception of mental hygene to assume that what a human being needs in the first place is equilibrium, i.e. a tensionless state (what we might call today the removal of stress). What he or she actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”
          He went on: “One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment...Everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it....Ultimately, a man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.
          “By declaring that a man or woman is responsible and must actualise the potential meaning of his or her life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche...It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualises himself.”
          “According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: firstly, by creating a work or doing a deed; secondly, by experiencing love; and thirdly (and this, he stresses, is the most important) by the attitude we take towards suffering” ... “Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.”
          “What matters is to make the best of any given situation. ‘The best’, however, is that which in Latin is called optimum – hence the reason I speak of tragic optimism, that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: firstly, turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; secondly, deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and thirdly, deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.”
          I have suffered very little in my life. But I identify strongly with the arguments of this wisest of men, a man who suffered in – and survived with his human values intact and strengthened - the worst hell created by the modern world. Both his story and his psychological wisdom are for me a real triumph of the human spirit.

Andy Pollak                                        Sunday 30th May 2021
Dublin Unitarian Church


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