He understood then that someone who has absolutely nothing left except suffering may know bliss, if for a moment, in the thoughts of those he loved. He realized then man’s greatest secret — “salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Yet another time, as Frankl worked in a trench, he spoke quietly with his wife, wondering why he suffered so. He was slowly dying. Suddenly on the horizon a light was lit in a distant farmhouse. He sensed something. Once again he felt his wife’s presence – felt he could reach out and grasp her hand. She was “there. Then, at that moment, a bird flew down silently right in front of me and perched on a heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch and looked steadily at me.”
The practice of dentistry affords us innumerable rewards and satisfactions. We are indeed blessed. Along with its joys, however, are the realities of running a business while
providing a product that people often do not want in an environment that can sometimes be hostile. How about that for suffering?
We have, and Viktor Frankl and all other holocaust survivors had, the ultimate freedom — the freedom “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”. Every day, every hour, decisions are made in our practices. We should make those decisions based on strong convictions and on an inner strength which prevents us from becoming “a plaything of circumstance”. This inner strength in the face of troubles can sometimes raise us above our outward fate. We are all confronted with fate, but also with the opportunity of achieving something through our suffering.
The movie “Saving Private Ryan” speaks to this in its finale, when James Ryan, with his family by his side, finds the gravestone of Captain John Miller. Captain Miller and his men had saved Private Ryan from certain death during WWII. Private Ryan had since committed his life to achieving something from their suffering — “to earn it”, as Miller had whispered in Ryan’s ear just before he died.
Difficult situations both in our offices and out give us all the unique opportunity to grow professionally, personally, and spiritually. How do you bear these burdens?
Frankl describes our past as “full granaries to be continually salvaged of all our deeds, joys, and sufferings. No one can take this from us.” What we have done, what we have thought, what we have suffered — all this, though past, is not gone. “Having been is a type of being and perhaps the surest kind.” So don’t be a pessimist turning the sheets of the calendar with fear and trepidation that your days are passing. Instead, as the months go by, make notes of your life — lived to its fullest, though imperfectly — on the back of these sheets, and reflect on them with pride.
In the end, Frankl says it does not matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us. We should stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead allow ourselves to be questioned by life. How does life want us to act, think, and talk? Life demands we find the right answers.
And what about us? Are we the end point of the evolution of the cosmos? Is there possibly another dimension beyond us where the question of the meaning of a human life could be answered?
* Information, ideas, concepts, and quotations for this article are from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, forward by Harold Kushner, published by Beacon Press, Boston, MA, copyright 2006.
*Dr. Churchill is the immediate past-Chair of the Minnesota Dental Association’s Committee on Ethics, Bylaws, and Constitution. He is a general dentist in private practice in Minneapolis, Minnesota