Meaning in Life ~ light, dark and the conflict between them

Is Light hurt by Darkness? ~ searching for meaning in life

 (first published at my main blog http://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com )

I’ve been haunted lately by images and semi-visions of shadows, dreams of living darkness that consumes everything in its path. I had a vivid nightmare some weeks back where patches of shadow were sentient and hungry, and swallowed up both light and life. Darker than darkness, voids that reflect no light and absorb everything.

Last night I finally read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I’d hesitated first about buying it, then about reading it, simply because of associations with a person no longer part of my life, but realised that was idiotic. A book that has had a hundred or more printings and sold over nine million copies cannot really be tainted by one person’s opinion of it. So I read it and am still thinking about it. I suspect I will read it again many times before finally writing about the book itself; I am writing here about some thoughts that have been sparked by it.

One of the central premises of Frankl’s book and indeed of the psychotherapy Frankl founded, Logotherapy, is that to live, people need to find meaning in their lives.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logotherapy

Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

 

“We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” and that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”.

 

Now, Frankl survived concentration camps and therefore has in my opinion the crown when it comes to suffering and finding meaning in suffering. Anything I have experienced is nothing to what he survived. However, my old friend the Mad Priest has said on a number of occasions that comparing one person’s sufferings with that of another is both ludicrous and insulting: suffering is suffering.

 

This is what dear old Wiki says about Frankl’s views on depression:

 

Depression

Viktor Frankl believed depression occurred at the psychological, physiological, and spiritual levels. At the psychological level, he believed that feelings of inadequacy stem from undertaking tasks beyond our abilities. At the physiological level, he recognized a “vital low”, which he defined as a “diminishment of physical energy” Finally, Frankl believed that at the spiritual level, the depressed man faces tension between who he actually is in relation to what he should be. Frankl refers to this as the gaping abyss (Frankl; page 202). Finally Frankl suggests that if goals seem unreachable, an individual loses a sense of future and thus meaning resulting in depression. Thus logotherapy aims “to change the patient’s attitude toward her disease as well as toward her life as a task” (Frankl, page 200)

 

Reading this, I had a strong sense of this chiming with my own experiences and beliefs. I am not what I should be. But what should I be?

Lying in the bath this morning, I let my mind wander off by itself. It never goes very far but this time it came back with a few curious thoughts. I mused on my own name. I have two Christian names that both derive from Latin, and translated mean Living Light. It set me wondering whether light is harmed by darkness. The nightmares about the consuming shadows have shaken me rather a lot, and while I know that Light is merely a form of energy if you use purely physics, I started to wonder if in some sense darkness is something more sentient, more aggressive, an entity rather than simply the absence of light. Scientists among you might be tutting at this point. But metaphysicians and mystics have asked this question for millennia, about this apparent war between light and darkness.

Then I started musing about the word Logos. In Greek it means a number of things, and while it is often translated as WORD, it can also be translated as MEANING, hence Dr Frankl using the term logotherapy (literally, healing through meaning). In John’s Gospel, the term Logos is used as Word and refers to Jesus (probably):

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

 

So we are back to the struggle between light and dark, between life and death and between meaning and void.

My initial question, (Is light hurt by darkness) takes on a more personal meaning when aligned with this struggle. Are my efforts to exist in a meaningful way damaged by the rising tide of darkness that emerges both from within my own psyche and from the world beyond me? Can I integrate, indeed, should I integrate, my own darkness? Is life about keeping the dark at bay or is it about understanding that darkness is not evil but rather a different state of being essential to survival? Is not only my life but life on earth meaningless or meaningful?

In some of the most harrowing parts of the book, Frankl wrote of those who gave up their hold on life, those whose struggle to find meaning in their sufferings proved too much for them, and who lay down and became unresponsive to stimuli and died, even when their health was not as compromised as many. Often they would smoke a cigarette long hoarded as collateral for barter, clearly accepting that they might as well just enjoy that one simple pleasure and let go of their grip on life. I cannot help wondering now whether our collective consumerism and cultural hedonism is not somehow akin to this.

My own search for meaning in my life is a struggle right now. I had for a while thought that my writing, (which I pretentiously call My Work) might be a strong contender, but since I’ve hardly written anything worthwhile(fiction anyway) in over a year, I am not convinced this hits the spot. Perhaps my meaning still awaits my discovery of it. I can only hope so.  

 

What I am and what I am not

What I am and what I am not

I’m not a teacher, as such, and I have nothing to teach you. But we might learn together.
I don’t have any answers, not the definitive big answers to the big questions. I just have more questions. But my new questions might inspire you to ask some of your own.
I’m not enlightened; I can make no claim to such a thing being sometimes so lost in my own internal darkness that I extinguish my own small light while thrashing around. But sometimes that tiny pearl of light might be enough to guide a soul home.
I’m not awakened; I live in that shadowy penumbra of the world between worlds, caught in the trailing edge of dreams. But sometimes we may be dreaming the same dream and can compare notes.
I’m not a guru and I don’t want disciples or followers. But I would like friends and fellow travellers. I will carry your load for you while you build your muscles to full strength and I hope you will sometimes carry mine for me while I am weak.
For I am not strong. I stagger and fall and break into a million shining fragments. I can be brittle, like untempered steel. You may see the shine of polished metal but it’s only through repeated forging that true strength comes. Being beaten on an anvil is painful and I try to avoid it, and yet, again and again, I land in the furnace and the forge. One day I may be a worthwhile tool but not yet.
I’m not a saint but I may yet be a martyr, for the drive to perfect integrity takes us to strange and dangerous places where the choices we make under pressure are not always ones that are good for us as individuals. But those choices may be of greater worth for mankind than for the poor soul who makes them.
I am just an imperfect human being trying to understand who I am in this world. I make mistakes, I get things horribly wrong, and for this I ask patience and forgiveness from those I may have hurt on my journey. I have gifts but I am flawed and broken and sometimes I do not use those gifts as well as I might in a perfect world.
I’m no angel, but I may be a messenger. I stand with one foot in either world, amphibious, between the world of the soul and the world of the body, never quite sure from one moment to the next where the messages are coming from.
I’m an empty vessel, being filled by the living words of my soul, and letting them pour out and flow onto parched lands. If they water your soul garden, I am glad; if they swamp your first shoots then I am sorry and will try and channel the flow elsewhere till they have grown taller and stronger.
I am a child, looking at the world with tired eyes and sometimes a heart that is coated in jade, that is so easily broken. For all my childishness, I am older than you know and in my ancientness I see further and deeper than I should and for that I will avert my eyes if you wish me to.
I’m not a leader. No one should follow me where I am going, but I would welcome the company if anyone is going the same way. Sometimes we all need a hand to hold in the darkness.

Guest post ~ the grit at the heart of the pearl

If you have ever wondered how a book came to be written, this is my account of how one of mine did:

http://theaatkinson.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/mid-may-guest-blogger-at-gonzoink-vivienne-tuffnell/

Pain Woke Us ~ a triple-part poem for sleepy sheep

What makes a person wake up and start to become aware?

What sends them back to sleep?

I wrote the following poem initially with only one of the stanzas and then played around by changing the voice speaking from first to second then to third person.

Pain woke you

 

 

Pain woke you,

Prodded you from sleep.

From the first aches of discomfort

To the full blown agony of awareness

It stopped your slumber dead.

You tried to mask it

Tried to distract yourself

With whatever came to hand.

Anything to sleep again

Dreaming the soft safe dreams

That fill the sleeping world

With pastels colours and smooth shapes

And are void of any meaning.

So, the pain is gone,

You tell me without words

Life feels good, you say.

Sweet dreams, I say, resigned.

I’ll see you in the morning;

I’ll take the night-shift

And watch over your sleep.

Someone has to guard the sleepers,

It might as well be me.

 

Pain woke me,

Prodded me from sleep.

From the first aches of discomfort

To the full blown agony of awareness

It stopped my slumber dead.

I tried to mask it

Tried to distract myself

With whatever came to hand.

Anything to sleep again

Dreaming the soft safe dreams

That fill the sleeping world

With pastels colours and smooth shapes

And are void of any meaning.

So, the pain is gone,

I tell you without words

Life feels good, I say.

Sweet dreams, you say, resigned.

I’ll see you in the morning;

You take the night-shift

And watch over my sleep.

Someone has to guard the sleepers,

It might as well be you.

 

 

 

Pain woke them,

Prodded them from sleep.

From the first aches of discomfort

To the full blown agony of awareness

It stopped their slumber dead.

They tried to mask it

Tried to distract themselves

With whatever came to hand.

Anything to sleep again

Dreaming the soft safe dreams

That fill the sleeping world

With pastels colours and smooth shapes

And are void of any meaning.

So, the pain is gone,

They tell me without words

Life feels good, they say.

Sweet dreams, I say, resigned.

I’ll see you in the morning;

I’ll take the night-shift

And watch over your sleep.

Someone has to guard the sleepers,

It might as well be me.

 

 

 

If I run

 

If I run

 

If I run, I must run fast

Cut away the weight of fear

Untangle the confused skeins

Strip down to bare and shaking flesh.

Breathe deep, breathe steady

And begin the run towards the void.

And if I leap I must leap far

Leave behind the heavy life

Wind up the ravaged thread

Start afresh with naked bones and soul

Breathe slow, breathe steady

And trust my clippèd wings to soar.

 

The Fringe Benefits of Failure(JK Rowling at Harvard)

This is a truly inspiring speech from the world’s best selling author J K Rowling. I watched it initially expecting to hate her for speaking from the other side of failure but I saw only humility, humanity and humour.
It’s a valuable reminder that we must do what we feel is right, and take that journey of unknowing.
 
 

What am I worth?

 

 

What am I worth?
 
What am I worth?
Five K a kidney?
A snip, if you’ll pardon a pun.
Bargain bin good looks,
Reduced due to store damage
And some slight fading.
A cheap sense of humour,
Tending towards blackness
But not quite sick, not yet.
That must be worth a bit.
A Lucky Dip of hidden talents;
Go on, have a gamble.
Even I don’t have a clue
What’s hidden deep inside.
That bland tub of sawdust
May hold mysterious gifts
Awaiting your longer reach.
Go on, I dare you:
Make me an offer.
How much? You’re joking!
No way, no sale, pal!
I’m worth more than that, I think.

Snip

 

Snip

Tethered to machinery in a high dependency unit was probably not the best place to review the last couple of days, but what options did he have? It wasn’t as if he could even get out of bed unaided and go somewhere else. His mouth felt so dry; he could use a pint but all they did was give him sips of metallic tasting water. He had spent a few blank hours watching the level on his IV drip go down slowly, bringing him closer to someone coming in and changing it for a fresh full one and the chance for some human company. Once he might have despised the nurses here as not worth a second glance but now they had begun to look like angels to him and that, almost more than anything else, had begun to worry him.

Oh, he’d sent a few texts when he’d first become ill, but while his mates had replied with the usual ribald responses he’d expected, no one had actually rung. No one had visited. His so-called girlfriend had left him fresh clothes in a case at reception but hadn’t come in. The nurses said she seemed too upset and he’d been asleep anyway. That was three days ago. There was a row of brightly coloured cards on the window sill, and even a big bouquet of flowers. They’d started to fade and wilt now. Bit like him, really.

He had been glad when he’d found he was too weak to get out of bed to go to the bathroom because he hadn’t liked to look in the mirror. While the designer stubble look was one he cultivated anyway, the big black circles under his eyes and the rapid hollowing of cheekbones and the yellowing of both eye whites and his complexion made him reluctant to do what he usually did in front of a mirror. Right now, there wasn’t much to admire. Even he was forced to admit that. And not eating at all meant he was losing muscle mass; the six pack would take a lot of getting back.

It wasn’t as if any of this was his fault. He’d only been doing the responsible thing, after all.

Listen, babe,” he’d said. “The world is overcrowded enough as it is. If you want kids later, we can adopt an orphan from somewhere. You can have your pick of babies. And no stretch marks and saggy boobs, eh?”

She’d cried of course but it hadn’t really been her he’d been concerned about. It was the other three. He’d not told any of them about it, of course. And since he couldn’t have risked them turning up while she was here, he’d not sent any of them a text about what had happened. Only texts cancelling their dates. Treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen, he thought, but had a slight pang of concern about how long it might take him to recover his looks and his mojo enough to get them back on the hook. After all, he’d turned thirty and everyone knew it was downhill all the way if you didn’t watch it. A lengthy hospital stay for a severe post operative infection wasn’t going to do him any good whatsoever. Maybe it was worth cultivating one or two of the better looking nurses for a possible bit of bed-bath fun when he was on the mend. It didn’t do to lose the knack for too long.

Mind you, his consultant was a bit of all right if you liked that very severe blonde bombshell look. She had weird name too.

Atropos?” he asked. “Is that Polish, then?”

It might explain the very, very slight accent but then so many of the quacks and nurses weren’t British born.

Greek,” she’d replied quickly.

You don’t look Greek to me,” he’d said, expecting to hear her say it was her husband’s family.

Very old family,” she’d said. “True Hellenes. All the original families were my colouring. Cleopatra’s family too.”

She was Egyptian,” he’d said.

Queen of Egypt, certainly but the Ptolemies were Hellenes.”

He’d shaken his head at her ignorance. Everyone knew Cleopatra was Egyptian. Mind you, she might be ignorant of history but she knew her stuff here. He’d not been in pain at all. Uncomfortable certainly, but not in pain. She was due again soon and he relished the thought of seeing her again, even if he couldn’t do anything but try and look down her fitted blouse.

Drifting in an out of a light sleep, he wondered how much he might be able to claim in compensation when he threatened to sue the hospital. Might make a decent amount; enough for a good holiday at least. Shocking that you couldn’t have a simple routine operation without something going wrong these days; day surgery was meant to be just that. But by the time he’d got home that evening he was already feverish and the infection was clear. By midnight he’d called an ambulance and was back in a hospital gown and dosed to the eyeballs with morphine. It had been downhill from then on.

He opened his eyes and found the consultant was sitting there. He blinked at her but she didn’t seem to notice he’d woken up; she continued to study his chart and wrote a note here and there. After a second or two, she got up and went to inspect the level in the catheter bag. She frowned.

I am awake, you know,” he said, his voice sounding querulous and rough.

Oh good,” she said, but without enthusiasm.

She came and sat down on the bed and to his surprise, she took his hand. Hey, my luck is in, he thought.

Do you have any family we can contact?” she asked, her voice kind.

To his own surprise, he felt his eyes well up with tears at this.

No,” he said. “Plenty of mates but no family.”

She glanced at the row of bright cards and the wilting flowers.

Your girlfriend?” she asked.

Can’t stand seeing me like this,” he said. “I texted her to come when I’m feeling a bit better.”

The woman swallowed.

I’ve got some hard news for you to deal with alone,” she said. “The infection has spread and it’s causing a serious reaction in your whole body. Your kidneys appear to be shutting down. We’ve been giving you IV antibiotics but they have barely slowed the infection. I think it’d be fair to call it a super-bug.”

He gave her his cocky smile, the one he saved for the special ladies.

But I will be all right, won’t I, doc?” he said.

She shook her head.

That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” she said. “One by one, your organs are going to fail.”

But you can do something about that, can’t you?”

She shook her head again.

I’m so very, very sorry,” she said and took his other hand too. “You may not realise it because of the morphine, but you’re clinging to life by a tiny, tiny thread.”

He struggled to take in what she was saying.

You mean I’m going to die?” he said eventually. “All because of a stupid vasectomy? I’m going to die because of the snip?”

His voice rose with anger and outrage.

I’m afraid so,” she said gently. “It’s a million to one chance this has happened but it has. I am so sorry.”

He let the tears of self pity spill over and down his face, unconcerned for once about appearing unmanly.

It’s not fair,” he said at last.

She nodded.

Sometimes life simply isn’t fair,” she said. “You know this. Your girlfriend told me she did want children, you know.”

You’ve talked to her?” he asked astonished. “She’s been here and she didn’t come to see me? The bitch.”

No,” she said. “She’s not a bitch. She was just mistaken in you. She still cares but she can’t bear to see you this way because this was your choice. You denied her something important to her. She feels this is her fault entirely, that if she’d stood up to you, this wouldn’t have happened.”

What can I do?” he said, suddenly helpless. “I don’t want to die.”

Nothing you can do,” the consultant said. “It may take a few days or it may be a few hours. But you will die.”

Don’t let me die in pain, then,” he said.

That’s all I can do, now,” she said.

*

He lay very still, seeming deflated by death as he had been inflated by life. The consultant stood at one side of the bed, and watched the pale young woman rubbing her eyes with a scrap of tissue as she looked at him.

Was it peaceful?” she asked. “He didn’t suffer?”

No, it was very peaceful. I stayed with him to the end. He had plenty of pain relief and he just drifted off at the end.”

The girl sniffed and touched the whitening forehead.

He’d have hated how this made him look,” she said. “He was so vain, you know.”

She picked at a loose thread on the sheet that was pulled up to the dead man’s chin and broke it.

He never got to know he was going to be a daddy, either,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell him you know. But at least I have something of him now to remember him by.”

She kissed the cold face and got up to leave.

What a senseless way to go, though,” she said as she slipped passed the consultant.

Miss Atropos patted the grieving girl on the shoulder.

I’m sure your baby will be a great comfort to you in the days to come,” she said.

The girl gave her a watery, red-eyed smile.

I’m sure he’d have got used to being a daddy very quickly,” she said. “He’d have made a great dad after all.”

Miss Atropos smiled. It was what they’d all said.

© Vivienne Tuffnell 14th June 2010