The patterns of all our suffering


Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning has been called a life-altering book. And yet, it did not seem so to me. I did not find it giving me something revelatory; I did not find it giving me something I had never thought of.

Instead, I found it unbelievably, utterly relatable. Close to my heart and, incredibly, strangely familiar.

I discovered, to my great surprise, that in spite of never having been imprisoned or sent to concentration camp, I was already acquainted with a significant portion of the suffering reflected in it.

It would of course be highly presumptuous of me, not to mention disrespectful, to compare my own puny suffering with that of the ones who experienced the horrors of Auschwitz. 

However, suffering is universal. The ‘types and patterns of suffering’ are universal.

There are wounds that are invisible to the naked eye, wounds whose pain is known only to the one that carries them. Suffering is immeasurable, and therefore, incomparable. There are no statistical tools available to measure and compare suffering – or we would perhaps have been boasting about that too: look how much thicker or heavier my suffering is, compared to yours.

But that is not so, and therefore, suffering can only be defined from the point of view of the person who experienced it. 

The fact that this book has sold over 12 million copies, and continues to sell after 7 decades of first being published, means only one thing: all of us, whether or not we have known the inside of concentration camps, have known suffering very deeply, intimately. Maybe not the same kind of suffering, but the very same patterns of suffering. 

Thus I found that I had gone through all of the stages of suffering described by Frankl, and could identify with them to an alarming level.

Curiously, every one of these stages of suffering made me think of my forthcoming book, The Reluctant Mother. It made me think of the three years recorded in my book: those three years when I became a person entirely different from who I had been so far. 

And that is one of the impacts of trauma upon the human mind and personality, as defined so lucidly by Frankl. Severe and chronic trauma often brings about personality changes in people, making them behave in unprecedented ways, changing them from who they were under non-traumatic circumstances. That is one of the first stages of suffering.

Then there is the moment when, arriving at the concentration camp, Frankl is stripped of everything that has ever belonged to him, including his clothes–including the manuscript of his life’s work that he hid away in those clothes. As Victor writes, he understood in that moment that he had to let go of and say goodbye to everything that had defined his entire life until that moment.

In life we sometimes face moments when we are forced to say goodbye to the dreams and ambitions we had nurtured thus far. And yet, Victor made it out of the camp. As did I make it out of my ‘camp’ and found that, after a significant period of time, life brought back my dreams and meanings to me- in newer, different forms. Just like it did for Victor.

With every word of the book, I found an echo of my own experience.

In particular, the third stage of suffering, in which you imagine freedom as a moment of great and overpowering joy, and yet, when freedom has been withheld for far too long, you lose the capacity to fully experience that joy when it does come.

As Victor wrote of the time they were liberated from the concentration camp:

We wanted to see the camp’s surroundings for the first time with the eyes of free men. “Freedom”—we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it. We had said this word so often during all the years we dreamed about it, that it had lost its meaning. Its reality did not penetrate into our consciousness; we could not grasp the fact that freedom was ours.’

‘We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.’

How well have I known this! The numb void that appears when joy and hope have been dashed to the ground, repeatedly and for so long, that when they finally appear on the horizon, you find yourself unresponsive. Vacant. Blank.

I had suffered enough to be aware of these stages, though I am no psychoanalyst or logotherapist.  

At the end of my reading of Man’s Search For Meaning, I felt a great sense of peace—a sense of peace that is detached from joy, for it is possible for peace to be devoid of joy.

I felt a sense of understanding that suffering is, as Frankl says, an inevitable part of life. And that we survive only by finding meanings to it. Were it not for the meanings we seek and find in our suffering, life would often become unliveable. 

And yet, survival is not, ultimately, what brings meaning to life.

‘Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning?’ questioned Victor. ‘For if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance—as whether one escapes or not—ultimately has no meaning at all.’

Importantly, though, Victor stresses over and over throughout the course of the book, that a person’s first response to suffering must always be to find ways to remove it. To find ways to alleviate it –whether it be the suffering of others, or his or her own self. There is no courage or glory in suffering needlessly when suffering can be removed.

However, finding meaning in suffering becomes imperative for all those kinds of circumstances that life throws at us, from which we find it impossible to escape, even after our best attempts. When we find ourselves bound inescapably to suffering. In those times, the only thing that pulls us across is the search for meaning.

That perhaps is how a person may arrive at a place of peace with all their suffering—not necessarily happy, but at peace, for all the meanings it imbues their life with. Suffering shows you how much there is to learn from life. 

This realisation made me feel a tad proud of myself, too, for I did, independently and through my own reflections, discover everything that Frankl speaks of in this book, which has brought meaning to the lives of millions of people for 7 decades now. 

Perhaps I can hope, with some vanity and some naivety, that my book will also give hope and bring meaning to some people, especially since it speaks of the truths that are most often silenced. 

Perhaps that shall be the ultimate meaning of all my suffering.

How 30-year-old me stopped 32-year-old me from committing suicide


I hadn’t thought I would ever write about this. But now I am. It is refusing to let me sleep, commanding me to write.

This happened in September last year.

I went through a major traumatic event, and despite the staunch and unwavering support of my partner and my sister and my friends, I struggled to come out of it, struggled to find my centre again. I was thrown off-kilter, off-balance, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find that balance again.

One night, when my husband and son slept, I decided this was it. I decided there was no point in living on. The clawing agony tearing apart my body and my mind was too much to bear. I decided this was enough.

Quietly I got up from the bed, opened the glass door that led to the balcony and stepped up to the railing. Fingers clutching the balustrade, I peered over the railing and looked at the ground, twelve floors below.

I put one foot on the lower railing and hoisted myself up further. Half my body was above the railing’s level. I could easily topple over, with a gentle nudge to myself.

“It’s not difficult,” said my voice from inside my brain. “You’ll float down gently… like a feather.”

An image of a white feather floating down on the shifting breeze conjured itself before my eyes. Languid, unhurried. With all the time in the world.

“Oh no, you won’t.” This was a new voice. Someone else.

It came from my mind. But who was this?  

“You’re not stupid, are you? You know you’re 60 kg, which is hardly the weight of a feather,” she continued. “Don’t you remember your ninth standard science lessons? Gravitational force and the mass of bodies and everything? Don’t you remember?”

“Uh… you’re talking to me about ninth standard science right now? Now? When I’m jumping off the balcony?”

“Sure,” she quipped. “You’re an educated woman. These are the things your mind thinks about.”

Silence.

I wasn’t amused. It wasn’t funny.

“Don’t do it.” She said. “Don’t. Your husband and child are asleep right there. Imagine their faces if they woke up to this. To your body down below.”

“I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. I’m not a martyr. I don’t live for others. The witch, remember? I’m the witch. The witch lives for pleasure… and there’s no… pleasure… in my life anymore. There’s no joy. Nothing.”

“But … there’s your book.”

Silence.

She sensed my resolve wavering.

“Yes, there’s your book, right? Do you want to go without seeing it? Do you want to go without seeing the cover—and your name on the cover? Don’t you want to hold it in your hands?” She was smart, this one.

I do. I want to see it. To hold it.

“Then that is pleasure, isn’t it?”

Yes. It is.

Slowly I put my feet back on the ground. Then I sank to the floor completely. Leaning against the wall, I sat on the floor of my balcony and wept for a long time.

And then, instead of being just a voice in my mind, she came and sat beside me. She was me. Me, when I was 30 years old. When I had been writing the last few chapters of my book.

She looked at me. “Hey. Don’t you remember what you wrote in your book? About survivors being the ones who get to tell their own stories?”

Yes, I remembered. This was indeed what I had written. I had told myself at one point in my own book, that if I had killed myself I’d never have seen the day that I inked my victory onto the pages of life. I had told myself that it is survivors who get to tell their own stories.

Did I want other people to tell my story for me?

No, I didn’t. If I was going to tell my story—and many other stories—I was going to have to live.

I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against the wall. Propped my left elbow on my knee, with my open palm and spread-out fingers covering my forehead and eyes like a muzzle.

Perhaps I wept a little more. Perhaps I dozed off for a bit.

Finally, I got up, brushed the dust off my clothes and went back past the glass door into my bedroom. Quietly lay back on the bed.

As I drifted off to sleep I marvelled at the strangeness of it all—how my past self saved the life of my future self.

(Like Harry Potter and Hermoine – although it was their future selves who saved their past selves.)

Almost as if I travelled through time.

Now, I can decidedly claim that I don’t need a rescuer. I rescued my own self.

What do you live for?


Picture: Alexandra Nicolae on Unsplash

Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. Both were feminists and magnificent writers. And both committed suicide. 

Sometimes I feel afraid of how much I identify with them. Not just as writers and feminists, but as women who ended up taking their own life. I shudder at how tantalising it feels to view myself as the disturbed intellectual woman who couldn’t take life anymore. It makes me afraid.

It’s not death that I’m afraid of, though. Death and I have been strolling hand in hand for a very, very long time. What I’m afraid of is throwing away my life.

I could kill myself. Easily, so easily. And yet, I don’t.  

What stops me? What do I live for? 

I could be the virtuous mother and say I live for my son, but that would be a lie. I do not live for my son, and I do not give myself so much importance as to think that he would be lost or destroyed without me. I lost my father at 9. And yet, here I am- in a fairly good place, by any measure. A woman in a man’s world and yet I reached where I wanted. My son, along with inheriting his mother’s fire and his father’s steel, would have all the privilege that comes from being a man in this world. He’d do just fine without me as well- not that I’d wish this on him or anyone else for that matter. 

I could say I live for my mother, and it would be the right thing to say. It would also be the noble thing to do. 

But I don’t. 

I could say I live for the man who holds my venomous grief carefully in his palm, smiling like it were an elixir, and drinks it all in, just so he could save me even if he died. The man who married crazy-me and steadfastly refuses to hand me over to the mental asylum.

I wish I could say I live for him. 

But being the selfish woman that I am, I live for none but myself. 

Paulo Coelho in Brida spoke of the virgin, the saint, the martyr and the witch. The saint lives for others.

The witch, on the other hand, lives for herself. For pleasure. Purely for pleasure. 

For the myriad pleasures that life brims with. 

The last time I deliberately chose life, it was by convincing myself I needed to see my as-yet unpublished book in my hands. That was something I needed to see. It was my labour of love. It was my pleasure and my pain. I had to be alive to see it come to life.

And that worked for a long time, until the darkness closed in again, until Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf began to be tantalising again. 

The text of Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter

And I was forced to ask myself, over and over- why do I live? What is it that I live for? 

People live for different things. For family, for success, for love, for serving others.

Me? I live because I love life. Life, which brims with endless possibilities. 

A wise old man once said to me, We are all in a state, not of being, but becoming.

Becoming.

As long as you are alive, there are infinite possibilities of becoming. Every second, every breath, every blink of an eye is a new possibility. And that is the greatest beauty of life. 

I live because life is a gift. A gift of endless possibilities. 

It must never be thrown away. 

Yes, I have done all the things that are written in the good books, too. I write my gratitude journal and list the things I’m grateful for. I list all the things I’ve achieved in life. I list all the milestones, month after month, year after year. But in the end, none of those things seem enough. None of those things seem to tell me- this is what you live for. 

Even if I achieved nothing in material terms, even if I had no tall claims on life, even if I had no one by my side- even then, even then my life would be worth living. It’s not achievements, success, relationships, love, even family – they’re not the only reason for living. 

It is you. 

You alone are reason enough for you to be alive. This alone is enough- that you have the gift of life. 

All those other reasons could be fuel to the fire. They could keep the fire in you burning, they could keep pushing you ahead in life. But what’s most precious and worth living for is your own self. 

The more I searched, the more I found that the one and only thing that has always kept me alive is the endless possibilities, the endless beauty of life. 

Every second that I was alive, I have infinite chances to become anything and anyone I wanted to be. No matter how black or grey my hair turn, no matter how many fine lines I get and no matter how much my skin begins to sag. Every moment, every moment I can explore endless possibilities. Yes, every moment is going to be a fight, but every moment is also an opportunity to win that fight.

Only as long as I am alive, though. 

Death seals everything with an air of finality. Death is solid. Life is fluid. 

And that is what I live for. The fluidity of life. Oh, the witch always lives for the fluidity of life. 

There was a time, 22 years ago, when 10 year old me used to gaze longingly from her front door at thunder storms and lightning streaking across the pitch black night sky, and wish that she was standing in the huge park just opposite her house, arms flung wide open, embracing the storm. She wished she could stand all alone, drenched to the bone, enveloped by thunder, enwreathed in light. She wanted to be the storm. 

Ten years after Paulo Coelho wrote Alchemist, the story of a boy who learns to become the wind, a little girl who had never even heard of the book, stood at the door of her house, watching lightning dance, and longed to be the storm. (And Coelho wrote this book in 1987, the year this same little girl had been born.)

That intoxicating, intense moment is the one moment in all my 32 years, which symbolises perfectly my wild, witch-like love for life. 

That, yes that, is my reason for staying alive. 

All I have to do now is to take that feeling and wrap it into a gift for myself, a reminder for all the times the darkness comes crashing – a reminder that even in the midst of darkness, the thunder and the lightning can deliver you to life. To the fluidity, the endless possibilities. 


Picture: Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

All of these are just my reasons for living. What are yours? What are the things that drive you to be alive? Are you the saint, the martyr, the virgin or the witch? Tell me in the comments below!