The Ouroboros, the snake that eats itself, a creature struggling to survive by eating itself and simultaneously creating its own suffering. Photo by JM Watson
I have been fascinated for some time by the ability of the human spirit to overcome suffering. People like Victor Frankl have suffered more than most of us ever will in our comfortable suburban ‘Hells’. He had the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of Aryan in Germany. The Nazi’s would force him to abort his child with his wife. He would also lose his wife, parents and brother to the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Despite this he survived the camps and continued with his life’s work as a psychologist. Developing and applying what he called Logotherapy. A psychological treatment which posited meaning as its central theme. Perhaps it’s a naive opinion but when a man like this has something to say, I think we should listen.
I won’t quote the entire book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. But If you haven’t read it I suggest you do so, like now! Ill distill out three quotes which stood out for me whilst lying in a hospital bed broken both physically and psychologically.
“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.” Viktor Frankl
“There are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love. Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life: 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.” Viktor Frankl
“There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one’s work or enjoy one’s life; but what can never be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.” Viktor Frankl
Life is about meaning. Without meaning we are lost. It is the thing that sustains us a humans, not value, not power, not hedonism, but meaning. There are three main channels to find meaning in our lives: Love, Work and Suffering. The last is the only constant in our lives and as such the most important. There will always be suffering to overcome.
Suffering is the Substrate of Life
We say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. I think this is a poor attempt to hide the truth. Suffering is the only certainty. If you are born (and that is far from a certainty) you will suffer, it is unavoidable. Even those born in full health and with wealth of resource to spare will fall ill and die. That’s not accounting for their peculiar hardships that they may suffer. To disregard this truth is what the core of religion describes as the path to Hell.
I am not well schooled in Buddhism but I think that the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are one of the best summaries of the fabric and meaning of life I have ever come across (believe me I’ve searched). The Four Noble Truths are:
The Truth of Suffering
The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
The Truth of the End of Suffering
The Truth of the Path That Leads to the End of Suffering
If we accept that: There is suffering. That it is essentially caused by Life or Being itself (to be specific, this differs from Buddhism a bit here but the idea is similar I think). That there is a way in which we can end that suffering without the cessation of Life or Being itself. Then the means by which we do so becomes the meaning in our lives.
Suffering is embedded in Life and transcending that suffering is the ultimate purpose of life. This is the fabric of Life, it is the substrate from which our conscious experience emerges.
The Last of my Freedoms
“The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you become the plaything to circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity…” Viktor Frankl
Lying broken in a hospital bed unable to climb, walk in the mountains with my dogs, feed myself, or even move without pain, I still had the freedom to choose. My love of life had been stolen from me by suffering. My passionate work to improve myself in the realm of rock climbing had been destroyed by suffering. But at least I still had suffering. Whilst reading Frankl’s words, I listened. As I had in ICU, I again chose to embrace that suffering, to find meaning. Before transferring to the rehab facility I did know how the journey upwards would go, but I took the first step in Vincent Pallotti Hospital. I laid down a foundational phrase which would help me rebuild my life in the dark times ahead.
When faced with Unavoidable Suffering, Suffer Bravely
Concepts are challenging slippery devils to catch hold of. Just as you think you’ve got it pinned down, poof, it jumps out of your grasp and you’re left chasing it around the room as the phone rings and the kettle boils and some wave comes crashing in to upset your day. So how to we pin these things down? Well usually we use words and symbols. Concepts about economics are encapsulated in a body of literature and symbols and it’s customary for people to spend years deciphering these. So to are concepts of life and meaning enshrined in literature and symbolism. Myth, Religion and Culture are filled with examples of these words and symbols. Through the art of the centuries people have been grappling with these complex concepts and experimenting with different representations of their form. Trying to pin them down only to be frustrated by their elusiveness. The concept I’m trying to solidify out of it’s wave state in this post is as elusive as it is important. To try to coax it from its hiding place lets first look at some of the symbols and stories which I think gravitate around it.
The Battle of Helm’s Deep
In the Lord of the Ring’s written by JRR Tolkien, a battle is portrayed as happening at Helm’s Deep. It is a ‘no way out’ nook of the land which has been fortified with garrison walls and is described as the best and last defensible location of the kingdom of Rohan. Rohan is one of two kingdoms of humans on middle earth, the other is Gondor. Both are beset by cunning and massively overpowering foes seeking dominion over Middle earth. The battle that takes place is the first of the battles in ‘The War of the Ring’ and the odds are most definitely not in favor of the humans. Rohan’s foe, Saruman, has by cunning weakened their forces and resolve whilst preparing industriously and intelligently his own force to destroy them. The loss of this battle would ultimately lead to the destruction of one of the two powers left to stand against the coming darkness. Despite the seemingly impossible odds, the humans are able to fight and defend Helm’s deep and although become greatly diminished by the effort are able to prevent the sundering of the two kingdoms of light.
Jacob wrestles with God
This is a direct excerpt from the Bible that I found online, from Genesis 32:
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[a] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” 29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[b] saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
Joseph Cambell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell was influenced by Jung and studied myths across the globe and from across time, from this he distilled out what he called the Hero’s Journey. A kind of blueprint pattern which seemed to span many myths and cultures. The video below describes it quite well. Although I have never read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I have done some digging into this concept, I would add to the video’s description that the Hero’s Journey is not complete until the new found knowledge or skill gained from the struggle that the Hero endures is reintegrated into the community or society and as such, updates the otherwise stale culture.
Infected Rain: Stop Waiting
Whilst not everyone will appreciate a spot of death metal, they do tend to write about interesting topics. Here Infected Rain use the lyrics”we are…always waiting” and “…get up…get up from your knees….fight…fight for your dreams…”
The Battle of Britain
Even in the realm of recorded history (not that myths and story shouldn’t be thought of as history of some kind), we see examples of this idea. Here Churchill is referring to the coming Battle of Britain which was by all accounts a decisive event in the history of our world. What the world would have been like today if Britain had fallen in WWII is uncertain, although I don’t believe that it would have been quite as liberal as it is today.
Do not go gentle into that good night (by Dylan Thomas)
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Resilience, strength, fortitude, or some other synonym?
So what is this crazy Watson oke getting at here, can’t we just call it strength or something similar and move on? Alas it is not quite so simple. When I awoke in ICU I was very much in survival mode, it was really autopilot stuff. I didn’t have the time or energy to sit and think about how to do things, things were happening too fast and there was too much damage, both physically and psychologically. The physical damage had nearly killed me and could still possibly do so, through infection or some other unfortunate chain of events. The psychological damage was also extreme, one moment i was balls deep in living my dream of being a fulltime nomadic climber, living in nature with my dogs, crushing projects that were beyond my imagination and meeting extraordinary people to share the journey with; the next moment I awoke in an ICU without a leg and the very real possibility of losing the other, pain that was beyond my imagination, the full death of any planned future and of any dreams which I had worked so hard to move towards (and no dogs although they were alive and well). I was definitely not in Kansas anymore. Given this extraordinary set of circumstances, how was it that I was still alive and how was it that I was still what approximates sane? Sure I was beat up, taking shots, but I didn’t feel like I had given up, like Id been crushed by the weight of it all. Not that I like comparing myself to others but there are countless stories of people who go through flood events which are much less severe and turn into little puddles of jelly. A breakup or being fired or a stock that falls can send people into the blackest of holes. But I felt strong and resolute, It wasn’t a hopeful kind of strong for sure but I somehow knew that should I survive, this wasn’t going to be the end of me. Why was that?
During the second week of ICU I had a small break of sorts in the intensity of the operations, quite what made me able to think about these things on that specific day I don’t know. But the timing was fortuitous, the next two days would be one of the biggests tests of my life and to come through it in one piece would prove to be a challenge the likes of which I had not yet encountered. I thought of my experiences climbing and how I had been humbled over the years, of how each time I had been laid low by some event or failure. Through all that I had continued to grind, continued to fight, sometimes without hope. I thought of previous failure, in projects I managed and relationships, even academic failure and more personal failures I won’t elaborate on. Each time I rebounded, I learnt that overcoming such things is paramount in life. Although this time was the most extreme thing I had been through that character, that pattern, still resounded in me. Lying there looking at the rain falling on the city beneath me, crying and utterly destroyed, I understood one thing: You have an obligation, pick up your spear damn you and fight that dragon that assailed you, the outcome matters not, it’s the fight that counts.
So lets unpack these examples above and see if we can pin down this elusive concept. Its not as simple as one might think but definitely worth pinning down.
The first thing that strikes me as obvious with regards to this pattern is that is is completely devoid of hope. Hope, as the Roharim so eloquently said, has forsaken these lands. At Helm’s deep they had no hope of victory, it was a ‘Deus ex Machina’ that ultimately brought victory. When Jacob fought with God, what hope did he have of winning, the fact that God didn’t obliterate him instantly in the story is rather fascinating, but he could certainly not have hoped to win. So to in Churchill’s speech we read a tone of desperation but also of nobility, ‘their finest hour’ speaks to valliant action in the face of overwhelming odds. Even though there is no hope and cruel death is sure to be their fate, even when the Chaos of existence is surely too much to bear and will obliterate one, there remains a mode of being that is valliant, an obligation to transform that Chaos into Order in some way, however small. These stories above are examples of what happens when we do so, we are rewarded. Sure these are examples of the successful stories and no doubt there are countless stories of people who did such a thing and were still torn asunder by the Chaos, in my mind that doesn’t kill the theory though, to do nothing, to give up has never inspired myth or Legend. There is no fairy tale which reads: …and he cracked, sat down, peed himself and began to cry, the evil dragon of Chaos took pity on him and offered him some treasure to make up for the suffering. There is a randomness at work in life that does in the would be heros in a majority of these stories, and so they end. But the stories of success, so commonly presented to us and which seem to resonate with us emotionally are those where some kind of valiant action was undertaken despite the seeming impossibility of a better future. So abandon all hope ye who enter here, it will not avail you. But enter you must.
The next thing that I have come to understand about this resilience or strength is that it is voluntary. You must make a choice to fight, constantly. In Helm’s Deep the King of Rohan has a moment of weakness, with hope lost he gives up the fight, resigns himself to failure. Aragorn reawakens this fire within him by offering him a noble death by riding out against their foe head on, an act which will surely see them killed. In the book better than in the movies, Aragorn’s character was well portrayed as the redemptive man, a Christ like figure who had forsaken his obligations only to realise his faults and rejoin the fight. This was again a voluntary choice and his actions inspired those around him to do the same. When Jacob wrestled with God, it was God who said ‘let me go’, not Jacob trying to flee. Jacob, astoundingly, was fighting with God voluntarily and would not stop before God blessed him. If there is one thing you really want to avoid fighting with its a being who’s powers are described as omnipotent. But yet there’s Jacob, wrestling with him intentionally, the story is preposterous but yet we see it repeated over and over again in many guises. Even in modern art where Infected Rain is screaming at us, ‘Stop Waiting’, ‘Get up’, its a choice we must make despite the death of hope. So choose, will you go gentle into that good night or will you rage against the dying of the light.
But for what reason? Why should we fight, continue the suffering, endure the trial if there is no hope and in all probability no future reward? The answer to that is nothing short of the closest approximation to the meaning of life as I can get to. It is the very substance of our being that guides us into this resilience. Again i paraphrase Jordan Peterson’s words to describe this: There is a mode of being which transcends the suffering of life, and that mode of being is to stand up forthrightly, pay attention and speak you being forward. In other words you fight voluntarily using your best weapons of attention and spirit (or in Peterson’s words Logos, I suggest you dig into the meaning of that word on your own). Fight to turn Chaos into Order, the continuation of which allows you to bear the immense suffering that existence requires and not for hope or reward , simply to bear the suffering, personally. To stand up under the weight and say: I accept this burden and I will carry it until it crushes me completely because it matters that I do. It is understanding this that allows us to break free of the Nihilism of defeat and capitulation. To know that everything we do matters gives us the courage to act valiantly when the world goes dark and all hope dies. It is what the moral or the core that these stories above can be reduced to: If you continue, in every moment, regardless of what came before or what comes after, to fight, to turn Chaos into Order, you will balance the suffering of Being. Perhaps not in the future as the failed stories will attest but at least in that moment you will be able to bear the suffering levied upon you, no matter how great.
So its not Hope that makes us strong, or I would truly have cracked. Its not instinct which shapes how we act, its choice, a stark choice between the light and the dark. And its not Nihilism that builds our strength, its the knowledge that everything you do matters, now, and you had better make meaning of that. Pick up your spear, damn you, and fight that dragon that assails you, because it matters that you do. That’s what these Stories, Myths and Legends are telling us. This is what I drew from, this is why I am still here.