Turning Tragedy into Triumph

Turning Tragedy into Triumph

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“In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning,” wrote Dr. Viktor Frankl, who learned about turning tragedy into triumph in Nazi death camps. And in his timeless book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Dr. Frankl teaches his readers how to do the same.

Internment, Tragedy, and Liberation

Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) may not have developed the school of psychiatry called logotherapy if not for his time in Auschwitz. In Man’s Search for Meaning Dr. Frankl explains how the experience in the barbaric concentration camps led to the discovery and validation of his logotherapy theories.

Like so many German and East European Jews, Viktor and his wife Regina fell prey to the Nazi deportations. The Frankls were transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in occupied Poland on October 19th, 1944. After their processing, the Nazis carried Viktor and Regina to separate camps. Only Viktor and his sister Stella (who had emigrated to Australia) survived the Holocaust from among his immediate family.

Liberated by American soldiers on April 27th, 1945, Dr. Frankl returned to Vienna and soon published his internationally renowned book, “Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.” The English version bears the title, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

Man’s Search for Meaning

The book gives Viktor Frankl’s personal account of “the hard fight for existence which raged among the prisoners.”

Significantly, Dr. Frankl did not serve as a doctor in the camp until the last months of his incarceration. As Number 119,104, he dug and laid tracks for railway lines. At one time, the guards forced him to dig without help a tunnel for a water main under a road.

And so, the theories Dr. Frankl developed about finding meaning in suffering and turning tragedy into triumph came to him in the crucible of tribulation. His belief that life can have meaning even in the worst of circumstances developed into the method of psychotherapy called logotherapy.

Logotherapy

Logos in the Greek denotes, among other things, reason. Bible students familiar with logos understand it to mean word or speech, as in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word (logos).” But logotherapy uses the word to convey the idea of the motivation or reason to find meaning in life.

Most people don’t struggle to find meaning for their lives in fair-weather times. But when a dark cloud of sorrow or suffering blots out the sunlight, the struggle to make sense of it all becomes an almost impossible challenge. Dr. Frankl’s logotherapy seeks to use theories developed during his period of extreme suffering to help individuals find meaning during theirs.

Life in the Camp

They called them death camps for a reason. Death and dying prevailed everywhere. Consequently, Viktor Frankl did not fare well during his initial imprisonment. Nor did the others in his hut.

The cruel guards beat the prisoners at the slightest provocation. The excruciating work in freezing weather, malnourishment, disease, sleep deprivation, and always the specter of death hanging over the camp left the captives looking like forlorn “skeletons disguised with skin and rags.” One after another, members of Dr. Frankl’s downtrodden community died.

The inmates became adept at recognizing the approach of death in others, and themselves. Losing faith in the future led to a decline and subjected the prisoner to mental and physical decay. One morning the dejected soul would refuse to get up, just laying there, hardly moving. Nothing bothered him anymore. Then he died.  

On more than one occasion, Viktor Frankl felt himself sliding into such a state of hopelessness. But then came a turning point.

The Decisive “Yes”

One freezing grey morning in a trench, Dr. Frankl hacked away at the icy ground. He recalls, “I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying.”

But suddenly it happened. There, in a “last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.”

The “Yes” Dr. Frankl heard on that miserable winter morning was nothing less than his spirit crying out its “Yes” to life in spite of everything.

A Tragic Optimism

Viktor Frankl describes this affirmation of life during times of pain, guilt, or approaching death, “a tragic optimism.”

Optimism comes from the Latin optimum meaning best thing. A tragic optimism defines the human potential to make the best of any situation; to muster confidence in spite of tragic circumstances.

Such optimism of course doesn’t come easily. A tragic optimism in the concentration camps began with the fundamental will to survive the hardship. It might then evolve into an intention to find meaning in the experience. A person suffering from a disease or other crisis might muster the will to fight back and survive and then, in time, find meaning or purpose in the setback.

Dr. Frankl observes in “Man’s Search for Meaning” that one arrives at such meaning through three main avenues. (1) By creating a work or by doing a deed—accomplishing a task. (2) By experiencing something fully or loving someone. (3) By changing one’s attitude toward unavoidable suffering and turning a personal tragedy into a triumph.

A Task

Dr. Frankl and the other prisoners learned to accept their suffering as their task. They spoke of getting through adversity as others spoke of getting through work.

Sometimes the task of suffering may require overt action to manage or overcome the situation. Other times one might find it advantageous to use the opportunity for spiritual reflection and growth.

Viktor Frankl used the horrors of the camp to reflect on the human condition, God, and his and the other prisoners’ experiences. He wrote observations on little scraps of paper that somehow survived and became notes for logotherapy and his books.

Dr. Frankl also found purpose in helping others as opportunities presented themselves. The prison became his workplace.

I knew a man, Kelly Scarboro, who lay on a bed in a nursing home unable to move due to an arthritic condition that froze his body. But he could think clearly. And he could talk to visitors. He made it his task to provide uplifting spiritual counsel to every visitor that walked through his door. Kelly found meaning in his suffering and turned tragedy into triumph.

Every week I visited Kelly intending to cheer him up in some way. But always, I left with more than I could give. He died having completed the work God gave him to do in his suffering. Surely, he heard the words upon his arrival in Heaven, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:23).

That brings us to the second avenue through which one arrives at meaning in suffering.

Love

In prison, Viktor Frankl didn’t know whether or not his wife survived her ordeal in another camp. But thoughts of her, and the hope of someday seeing her again provided purpose for enduring his misery. 

Toward the end of the Nazi reign of terror, orders went out to exterminate the inmates. Dr. Frankl faced the immanence of death. Still, his love for Regina offset the despair and gave meaning to the grim prospects before him as evidenced by what he told his friend Otto:

If I don’t get back home to my wife, and if you should see her again, then tell her I talked of her daily … the short time I have been married to her outweighs everything, even all we have gone through here.

Dr. Frankl observes in “Man’s Search for Meaning” that those prisoners that could discover some meaning in their suffering survived at a significantly higher rate than those who didn’t. This principle extends to our lives as well and to the imprisonments of disease, grief, guilt, pain, despair, and whatever holds one captive.

Corrie Ten Boom

Corrie Ten Boom (1892-1983), who wrote “The Hiding Place,” also found meaning in her suffering through the avenue of love. Love for God, in a way that she couldn’t have imagined.

The Gestapo arrested Corrie and her family for helping Jews escape the Holocaust. The Nazis incarcerated her and her sister at Ravensbrück concentration camp. In The Hiding Place, she tells of an experience that helped her find meaning in suffering.

Whenever camp doctors conducted medical inspections, the guards forced the prisoners to stand in line naked down a long corridor. Corrie and her sister dreaded the humiliation of standing nude before the sadistic guards. On one of these occasions, however, the sisters discovered a love that countered their indignation. As they waited undressed and shivering, a Bible passage leaped to life in Corrie’s mind. “He hung naked on the cross.” Jesus suffered the same humiliation, she thought.

Corrie couldn’t contain herself. She leaned toward her sister and whispered, “Betsie, they took His clothes, too.” Betsie gasped and exclaimed, “Oh, Corrie. And I never thanked him.”

New purpose filled the sisters’ hearts as they stood before the sneering faces of their tormentors. Love for the One who willingly subjected Himself to the same humiliation because of His love for us.

Now the sisters found the opportunity to suffer for Him. Now their suffering meant something. Now they united with a long line of believers through the centuries who gladly bear their tribulation for Christ’s sake.

Suffering for Another’s Sake

Paul encouraged the saints at Philippi to remain steadfast and brave, “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29).  On one occasion, several Apostles, after being flogged by their accusers, left the scene “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:39).

Now that’s turning tragedy into triumph and transforming suffering into love for someone or a cause.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl tells of an elderly doctor in the prison camp who consulted him because of his severe depression. He couldn’t overcome the death of his wife, who died two years before and whom he loved above all else.

Rather than giving hollow advice, Dr. Frankl drew on his studies in the camp. He confronted the grieving man with a question.

“What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her, this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!”

Then Dr. Frankl replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.”

The Doctor silently shook Dr. Frankl’s hand and calmly left the room.

In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning. (Man’s Search for Meaning)

Attitude

Changing one’s attitude toward hard times means rising above and growing beyond one’s self. It should not go unmentioned that by no means is suffering indispensable to the discovery of meaning. But Dr. Frankl’s logotherapy seeks to help one discover meaning in spite of unavoidable adversity. He writes:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even in the most difficult circumstances—to add deeper meaning to his life.

Christ’s Example

The Apostle Paul records a remarkable thing about Christ and his suffering. He, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). But the night before His crucifixion, Jesus suffered as we all do when facing a grim prospect. “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

The next day, however, facing torturous death on the cross, he went forth with joy. How does one account for this? Joy, in this instance, comes from the Greek word chara, referring to a deep-seated gladness regardless of circumstances. In secular Greek, chara describes a phenomenon or feeling that represents a culmination of being that strains beyond itself.

Beyond itself. Looking beyond. Living beyond. That’s what Christ did. His eyes, always on the prize, saw beyond the Roman persecution, the cross, the ranting crowd, the pain, and death. He saw the great purpose fulfilled for which he was born. Rising above the circumstances, He turned what appeared to be tragedy into triumph.

Beyond Ourselves

Finding meaning in suffering requires going and growing beyond ourselves and being liberated from the narrowness and self-absorption suffering seems to demand of us. When the concentration camps stripped the inmates of all they had, the inner self that remained, which the Nazis could not steal, often soared to heights otherwise unobtainable.

The Little Things

For instance, Dr. Frankl and others learned to appreciate and be thankful for little things that before their ordeal meant nothing. “We were grateful for the smallest of mercies.” Little things like the kindness of a cook who dealt out soup equally instead of giving a potato to personal friends or countrymen, while the others got watery soup skimmed from the top. Or, the rare fortune to find solitude for about five minutes during which Dr. Frankl found an opportunity to look out through the barbed wire at the green flowering slopes of the Bavarian landscape.

Freedom to Choose

The harsh reality of being deprived of their former lives left the prisoners with two choices. Either wallow in their despair or exercise the one thing circumstances cannot take away. Dr. Frankl writes, “Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”

The dark experiences of life may take away health and possessions but cannot rob a man of the freedom to choose one’s attitude toward the circumstances.

Once the Apostle Paul and his traveling companion, Silas, found themselves imprisoned unjustly. Beaten, thrown into the deepest cell, and fastened with stocks, their situation looked bleak and hopeless. So, what did they do? They made a decision. The jailor took everything but could not touch their freedom to make their suffering an opportunity to exercise faith. Coming from a dark inner cell at midnight, the other prisoners heard Paul and Silas “praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).  When life takes everything away, the possibility remains to rise above it all and have church amid adversity.

Paul

While imprisoned in Rome for preaching the Gospel, Paul wrote the Prison Epistles that constitute a large portion of the New Testament. “I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!” (2 Timothy 2:9)

John

The Roman authorities snatched John the Apostle away from his home and family and exiled him to a small Greek Island. What did he do? He only wrote what became the grand finale for the greatest book ever written—the Holy Bible. There on that stark volcanic island, John received the inspiration for the Book of Revelation.

Bunyan

John Bunyan (1628-1688), author of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” wrote some of his best works while imprisoned for twelve years in the Bedford jail when he refused to stop preaching the Gospel. In “Grace Abounding,” he tells of using the incarceration as a spiritual opportunity, allowing “an inlet into the Word of God.”

Crosby

At six weeks old, Fanny Crosby (1820-1915) caught a cold and developed inflammation in her eyes. The care provider applied mustard poultices to her eyes, unintentionally damaging the optic nerves and blinding Fanny for life. As an adult, she might have lived in bitterness and despair. But she rose above that, becoming one of the most prolific hymnists in history. She wrote more than 8,000 hymns and gospel songs.

Fanny Crosby wrote of her blindness, “If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow, I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things around me.”

Bonhoeffer

Even walking through the valley of the shadow of death, one has the opportunity to rise above fear and regret and turn this last stage of growth into a meaningful event for one’s self and others.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) knew the end drew near in the Nazi death camp where the German pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident spent his last days. The young promising gifted man of God did not reach his fortieth birthday, being hanged at Flossenbürg only days before the Americans liberated the camp. The world remembers Bonhoeffer for how he died as much as for his work while alive.

Bonhoeffer ministered to his fellow prisoners, and the world through his writing, to the very end. His books yet minister to those facing death, enabling men and women to rise above the human proclivity for anger, fear, and depression. He writes:

Death is mild; death is sweet and gentle; it beckons us with heavenly power if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace … Death is hell and night and cold if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous that we can transform death.

Now that’s turning tragedy into triumph. Paul, John, Bunyan, Fanny Crosby, Dr. Frankl, Bonhoeffer, and countless numbers past and present, who find themselves behind the bars of tough times, show us by their example the possibility to find meaning in all circumstances. The potential to turn tragedy into triumph.

Two men looked out from prison bars,
One saw the mud; the other saw stars.

Frederick Langbridge (1849-1922)