Man's Search for Something

A comment received from a prior article made us feel we had not given Frankl his due. Here we “rethink” Frankl and his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”; and, we attempt to rethink ourselves and our search for SOMETHING, as well.


Victor Frankl has become famous for his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”. It was nearly required reading in college a generation ago. It was a time when consciences were hurting over the ineffectiveness of the West in preventing harm to an entire race of people, the European Jewry in Nazi Germany. Frankl was an internee who received the typical subhuman treatment in a concentration camp and survived. Later, he reflected on the death he saw around him and on himself and what it was that had sustained him.

The suffering of so many people during the era was so great that to some it is almost sacrilegious to compare ANYTHING to that time. Yet, it remains for many a metaphor for all deep suffering. Those who understand the incredible punishment of severe Central Pain can hardly find anything to compare it to. The average public, and for that matter, the average clinician, merely downgrades what Central Pain MUST be like in order to reduce it to something he can relate to. If we define the gulag as the ultimate horror, any comparison of ANYTHING with concentration camps, with their death, exhaustion, humiliation, and desperation may seem misplaced, self-pitying, lacking compassion, or even disrespectful. However, these elements just mentioned are all present in Central Pain. Some of them are present more prominently and some less, but in a given person, you can find anything from the gulag in the CP subject. The human nervous system can go horribly wrong.

Starvation is not more evocative of the human crisis than pain. It is just different. There are those who have anorexia for whom hunger pains apparently are not a factor. So what? This does not mean starvation is not bad, inhumane, and terrible. There are those who say because a soldier, somewhere, sometime, had a war wound which gave no pain, that says nothing about Central Pain. There is no point in making a comparison and certainly no grounds for making a judgment against the macerating effect of constant severe pain on the psyche and life experience.

With severe visceral CP, the nausea makes eating a burden anyway, and in the given subject bladder filling is excruciating. Severe dysesthetic burning makes the wearing of clothing a torment, not too far from the failure to provide clothing. The comparisons are close enough that if anyone today understands mass torture during wartime, those with CP surely come close. Death is so final, but Central Pain is so long. We point this out by way of explanation why we might take a different viewpoint on suffering from Frankl. Not that he did not understand the ugliness of his environment, but he chose to portray the beauty of the human spirit in environs so degraded.

For Primo Levi in Auschwitz, the beauty was not there, even in himself. Elie Weisel, in “Night” pointed out that even a survivor has a disease, what Levi calls “survivors disease”. They cannot bring themselves back. Something has been burned out. They struggle to be human, so long had they accepted death. A pain crisis yesterday, this morning, or last week, leaves the person in shock, immobilized, and in a trance of suppressed fear. Some CP people have such an experience several times a day, and the intervening periods are always punctuated with burning, searing, pain. Levi was in Auschwitz for a period of months. There are in the survey those who have hobbled along with severe CP for twenty years or more.

A book about concentration camps is not inspiriational, as there will be moments of envy in the twisted thinking of the person in ghastly pain. The tragedy at the movie theatre, with the hero dying may affect the CP person entirely differently, as the thought flashes through the mind that it is not so bad, the hero will never have to live in pain. This wlll be interspersed with moments of incredible tenderness, with tears over the slightest sentiment in the media. Death may not emotionally strike one as tragic, while the unsatisfied childish wish may seem terribly sad. This is disordered thinking, but the emotional centers fear what they will fear and disregard what they will disregard. Emotions are contextual more than they are rational, by definition.

Central Pain people are so sick of hearing how “lucky” they are, that they want people to understand the ugliness, thinking surely indifference would vanish if people just got a glimpse of the terror. While Frankl wrote in retrospect, the CP sufferer is writing of the experience AS IT HAPPENS. It is thus not surprising that since we desperately need the public to understand that suffering is going on NOW, that we might not feel the perspective of someone where suffering resides only in the memory has much to do with the legitimate need for help RIGHT NOW.

Still, we want to give Frankl his due. Our neighbors who pile these books up at our doorstep do not understand that we regard our pain as the equal of any other suffering of mankind. This seems self preoccupied, but pain, severe pain, makes one self preoccupied like nothing else. The nearsightedness is almost total. The vision of the world extends about an inch beyond our burning skin, most of the time.

CP subjects frequently resent terribly the receipt of yet another copy of Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” because it seems to say suffering is all so romantic and spiritual, when Central Pain just does not feel that way, NO MATTER how you look at it. It is just pain. Needless and terrible, like poison building up in the soul to burst it through relentless, unending, unexplainable PAIN. Added to this is the damage to the Central Nervous System which always accompanies CP, making things so much worse.

Yet, after all of this, there is something in Frankl, that even he may not have been aware of. He called his victory a search for “meaning”, the realization that he could still choose how to react to the way he was being treated. The prservation of choice was his and could not be taken away. Now we are not so sure than pain works the same way. Most people cave in rather quickly to pain. Frankl might have been just as weak as we are in that regard.

One never knows how deep their commitment to being human really is until pain takes up residence in the central nervous system. Some are brave for a month, perhaps a year, but at some point everyone realizes they are in over their heads and they really have no foundation any more. Life is about reacting to pain, dodging its “logical” conclusion, since the taking of life is wrong. No matter how hard one attempts to hold onto caring about what matters, family, freedom, religion, compassion, or whatever, pain is a great thief and steals the precious articles from you during the night.

Some morning inevitably comes, you can’t remember the esact one, when you woke up not caring about this or that, and eventually life was changed. You were changed. Pain was bulding and growing in strength and you were both diminished and still diminishing. In the middle of this experience, trying to hold on to some fragments of the self, one does not think of meaning. Pain does not have meaning. It just is. Soon enough, in many ways, with CP, YOU just are, as well. And so it is bad manners to give “gifts” of Frankl’s triumphant work. There is no triumph where CP is concerned, since it waxes while we wane.

Eventually, we wouldn’t recognize ourselves, and do not want to remmeber who we were for it would break our hearts. Those possessions of the soul are simply not available now, and living requires that we abandon hope of regaining them.

So, does Frankl have anything at all from which we may profit? The answer, oddly, is yes. Not in the way our friends expect,which is that we will find CP meaningful, or that we will in shame say Frankl was in a concentration camp, which was SO MUCH WORSE THAN CP, so we MUST FIND MEANING in this relatively lesser suffering. CP is not relatively less suffering. It is just different. It last longer, is more painful, and is not fatal.

What IS interesting in Frankl is that he found SOMETHING that was him. THIS is also important for those with CP. We don’t have much but we do have SOMETHING. It is important to identify what it is that we have and not jettison everything here on our lifeboat, as we attempt survival. Maybe it doesn’t matter what we choose. We certainly cannot keep much, nothing that requires a lot of maintenance, but we do need something to remind us of an identity, even if it does not match what we once had.

For example, a talent. One may not really care about it, but the ability to appreciate beautiful music is a gift and one that many with cord injury retain. The problem here is that nothing is required of us. It is best to find something that requires durability on our part. It may not matter what, and each person has different characteristics. Perhaps one can develop a habit of remembering the birthdays and special occasions of family members.

In pain, we may not truly care, but the realization that we have performed this one act, of keeping a record of events and sending cards, letters, or emails is something that requires EFFORT. While we must conserve precious resources and lower our expectations to only that which is essential, we also need something, even if just one thing, that makes us feel we have exercised choice. We will probably NOT be like Frankl. We have yet to find anyone who thinks CP has added meaning to their lives, and many who feel it has robbed their lives of meaning. But still, everyone can find some act, or series of acts, or habit, which is good.

That can be our victory. We need a victory. No one will notice if we fail in it. We can pick up where we are and resume, or find a new trait, a new series of actions and suddenly find ourselves in the category of the progressive human. Maybe we can only keep a journal. Someday, that may form a help, an insight into how human life works, even after Central Pain is cured. Our collective journals may form the basis for some graduate student’s dissertation, and that may suggest how problems of the future should be viewed, how humans should be viewed.

We need something, however small, that we feel we are doing, which confirms our hope that there is good inside us. Perhaps we form a habit of smiling when possible at others. Perhaps we take not and write letters of recognition to children. While you must not wear out your abilities, it is good to have one systemmatic GOOD HABIT. There are so many BAD habits that we discover in ourselves in responding to Central Pain, that it is helpful. You need not hurry to identify what it is that you will choose to ask of yourself. However, somewhere, sometime, it will come to you. You will realize that you see something that needs doing, and that you could, if you made up your mind, attempt to do it.

Everyone has many faults and when life gives you rough going, it is just very hard to keep it organized well enough to include the good that you want to do. Things run naturallly to dissolution. Pain can certainly scatter character and resolve. There are moments when you see that the horror of pain is the blindness and chaos it imposes on how you intended to live. Goodness was lost not so much from willfulness as tumult.

Tell the truth. Wish no ill on another. Make a choice that has no deception and no wrong in it. Something you know in your heart a human chooses because it is kind. Do something that demonstrates to you that you are a decent person and not the utter trash your pain system tells you you are. If you can exercise some degree of control over yourself that represents improvement, a blessing to others, a positive in this world, it is in a way, just like before. We know that severe pain is VERY exhausting and soul robbing. We are not asking you to rebuild downtown. We are asking you to put up a flower in the tenement you live in, in the slum of Central Pain. Look around. You will find SOMETHING, and when you do, you will see in it your humanity. You will have cheated pain of that morsel of yourself, which it sought. These small, personal acts will still have meaning for others. “To the whole world, you may just be one person, but to one person, you may be the whole world.”