Saying Yes – In Spite of Everything by, Kelly Murphy Mason
SAYING YES –
IN SPITE OF EVERYTHING
Sunday Sermon 27 February 2011
First Unitarian, Brooklyn, NY
In 1977, in Berkeley, California, Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was given the Albert Schweitzer award for embodying the spiritual quality that Dr. Schweitzer himself dubbed “reverence for life”. The award was presented by the past president of the First Unitarian church of Berkeley, a Viennese émigré named Joseph Fabry, who had tremendous respect for both of the two physicians. Those here today who are unacquainted with these popular heroes of the Twentieth Century may not be realize the web of connections that was being spun then in Berkeley, but it I believe it merits closer consideration, since it is well worth our remembering in our faith communities today.
Numerous readers of the best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning recognize Dr. Viktor Frankl as a remarkable survivor of the Holocaust. Frankl alone emerged from the concentration camps where he was sent along with his mother and father, his brother, and his young wife. In his memoir, Frankl recalled his horrific experiences in the camps as well as his ingenious strategies for psychic survival. Yet he was also known in professional circles as an especially innovative psychiatrist, the founder of a major Viennese school of psychiatry called logotherapy, translated variously as “therapy through meaning” or “healing through meaning.”
Like Frankl, Joseph Fabry was a Jew living in Vienna during the ascendancy of the Nazis. Like Frankl, Dr. Fabry lost his parents in the concentration camps. Unlike Frankl, however, Fabry chose to emigrate from Austria while he still could, eventually making his way to New York and then onward to the west coast. In Berkeley, where he worked as an editor for the University of California press, Fabry and his wife Judith joined the first Unitarian Church of Berkeley, where Fabry later served as church board president. In 1977, the basement of the First Unitarian Church would become the first national headquarters of the Vicktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy – which Fabry himself founded.
The founding of this namesake institute was heralded by Viktor Frankl’s visit to Berkeley to receive the Albert Schweitzer award. Winner of the Nobel Prize, Schweitzer was a prominent public figure of the time. The Alsatian was renowned as a brilliant polymath who began his career as a Lutheran pastor and Christian theologian, then became famous as a pipe organist and musical scholar, and finally trained as a medical doctor before undertaking a humanitarian mission to the Belgian Congo.
As his theological views morphed into a more philosophical position on reverence for life, Schweitzer had his preaching privileges revoked by the Lutheran church. Long suspected of Unitarian leanings, Schweitzer decided to become a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship while in Africa, although the Lutherans – to their credit — did continue to sponsor his medical mission there.
So the unlikely award ceremony in 1977 managed to link a practicing Jew with Universalist sensibilities to a Lutheran missionary with Unitarian sympathies because of the determination of one recent convert to Unitarian Universalism who could discern the commonalities in their worldviews. These commonalities are not readily apparent, to be honest. Ironically, Schweitzer was considered far too secularly minded by his colleagues in ministry, while Frankl was considered too religiously motivated by his secular colleagues in the medical sciences. But these two had radically life-affirming stances that appealed to Joseph Fabry, personally and professionally.
Fabry was so inspired by Frankl’s work that he would leave his post at the University of California to become a proponent of logotherapy for the masses. The zeal that had marked Fabry’s religious conversion would also mark his career change to logotherapist. “This was an existential philosophy whose time had come in… hedonistic and affluent America,” Fabry concluded. “Life offers us the potential for good and evil,” Fabry wrote. “It is we who choose.” He believed in logotherapy as a powerful instrument for the good.
In his book-length meditation titled Making Sense: The Meaning of a Life, Fabry confessed that he was not able to have a coherent sense of the meaning of his own disjointed experiences until he discovered Frankl’s work in the 1960s. Fabry catalogued the “three pillars” that upheld the “affirmative philosophy” of logotherapy: first, that human beings have freedom of will, that they are capable of making both choices about their actions and interpretations about life events; second, that humans have an inborn will to meaning, a drive toward meaning-making; and third and finally, that there is a meaning to each individual human life.
Frankl himself remained adamant that life had meaning “up to the last breath,” to quote a favorite phase of his. This particular physician recognized no valid reason for either suicide or assisted suicide for so long as one could draw breath. What seemed to Frankl a sane and reasonable thought process was whatever logic provided a person a rationale for resilience, whatever logic might promote someone’s ability to persist in living and to hope for more life still. Employed as a doctor in the only Jewish hospital left in Vienna during the rise of the Third Reich, Frankl routinely resisted state-sponsored euthanasia by falsifying benign diagnoses for his patients.
In the war-torn Europe that Frankl inhabited and in the equatorial Africa that Schweitzer served, where life was perpetually in jeopardy, people had to struggle mightily to survive. In contemporary America, all too often, “people have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning,” Frankl observed. Yet none of us has been given license to hold life cheaply simply because living comes so easily for so many. “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is being asked,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life.”
Lately, my husband has taken to joking that is impossible to outsource giving a damn. How true! According to Fabry, “the meaningful life has to be found through a tireless personal search.” That requires people to set an intention and hew to it, whatever obstacles may arise. “Life is real!” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow proclaimed in his “Psalm of Life.” “Life is earnest!” Indeed it is so. The German title of one of the earliest books Frankl published was: “Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything”. Yes, we presume, despite calamity, violence, inhumanity, massacre, violation, tragedy, loss, betrayal, abandonment and grief. Unfortunately, this is just a partial listing.
We can perpetually find items to add to this catalogue, without a doubt. But we are also faced with the challenge of finding a clear meaning that we can affirm, an obligation that we can assume, or a personal devotion that we can practice despite all these earthly devastations. We need to know what exactly we will embrace in, with, through our lives. This is the spiritual task we have been assigned simply by virtue of being alive. Do we understand that it is a privilege to have such a responsibility? If we are fortunate, our life is no brief candle but a long taper leading us into a brighter future.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Hebrew preacher Qoholet proclaims: “There is hope for someone still linked to the rest of the living.” Even the smallest bit of hope can carry certain people farther than they would ever have suspected. They can travel unimaginable distances in their lives – physically and psychically. Fabry remembers Frankl telling him that sometimes, “we have to view our lives from all sides until we detect [their] meaning.” From all possible sides…
It is these precisely these kinds of investigations that occupy my community ministry. For a couple of years now, I have worked both as a clinical pastoral psychotherapist and as director of the Pastoral Care and Counseling Programs at the Blanton-Peale Institute. Frequently, I myself have directed students, clients, and spiritual seekers to Frankl’s writing and thought, usually to tremendously salutory effect. Recently, my own knowledge of logotherapy was deepened by doing doctoral work in pastoral care and counseling psychology and uncovering the commentary of logotherapists like Fabry.
However, few logotherapists are as explicit – and as lyrical – as Fabry is about claiming a religious rationale for the therapy. Characterizing himself as a so-called “searcher for a divinity that made sense,” Fabry believed that logotherapy offered a possible cure to – or, at the very least, some inoculation against – the spiritual dis/ease he sensed pervading American life. The cultural emphasis on the pursuit of happiness seemed to him plainly counterproductive, if not altogether nonsensical.
“Sometimes the happy endings are within us,” Fabry wrote, in our subtle attitudinal shifts, in fleeting opportunities for reconciliation, or brief moments of individual resolve. Any of these instances might be heroic in their own right. We may never fully appreciate the magnitude of such almost imperceptible, emphatically personal accomplishments. But we can cultivate a greater sensitivity to them in ourselves and others. “When we find meaning by doing and experiencing… we change the world around us,” Fabry wrote. “But when we find meaning by triumphing over adverse situations, we change ourselves. We become better persons.” Logotherapy encourages this sort of spiritual development across the lifespan.
A little while ago, when I was relocating my Manhattan therapy office, I was carrying a small blue vase that a client had given me which held some bound bamboo shoots. An unfamiliar woman standing beside me in the elevator demanded to know why I was growing bamboo. “I suppose you think it’s lucky,” she said. “It’s not lucky, you know.”
“I don’t think it’s lucky,” I told her. “I just know it survives.”
Of course, it can be incredibly difficult to tease those things out from one another, luck and survival. The bamboo stands as hearty in my new therapy office as it did in my old one. Without fail, it reminds me of my therapy clients, all of whom have survived hardship, some of it quite astounding. They have my admiration for that, though I would not consider them particularly lucky as a result. Instead, they are people who hold out some hope for life. I know them all as good people determined to be better still.
In his classical spiritual treatise titled The Reverence for Life, Schweitzer wrote that “evil is what annihilates, hampers, or hinders life. And this holds good whether I regard it physically or spiritually. Goodness, by the same token, is the saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its highest development.” Imagine that this is the good or evil we choose from every day, the ethical and philosophical, moral and spiritual choice placed before us day after day. Throughout his years in the camps, Frankl wrote, he daily saw people making different choices, some opting for the good as blatantly as others opted for the evil. In some very paradoxical cases, it gave meaning to their lives even as it cost them their very lives.
After the war, Frankl generated considerable controversy by his rejection of the collective guilt concept; he was accused by some of not being Jewish enough in his self-identification, not mustering sufficient condemnation of the German people as a whole. Rather staunchly, Frankl maintained, “there are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; both penetrate into all groups of society.” According to him, we are free moment by moment to count ourselves in either number.
By Frankl’s accounting, truly decent people do indeed “form a minority. More than that, they will always remain in the minority,” he wrote. “And yet I see therein the very challenge to join the minority.” Fabry’s added encouragement to logotherapists and qualified optimists everywhere is that the influence this admittedly small number exerts is outsized and enduring. “This seems proof to me that the ‘grain of the universe’ is toward the good and that those who go with the grain have a lasting impact…” Fabry concludes. “It also seems … an indication that the grain goes with the positive, the caring, the constructive, the yes-saying”, naysayers be damned. To be sure, our Protestant heritage encourages us to be exceedingly clear about what we find objectionable in this world. But if we say ‘no’ too often, it acquires a hollow ring. In all likelihood, we will in the end be remembered by what we affirm and promote, not by what we oppose or refute. Our ‘yes’s echo across generations.
Quite tellingly, those who lean into this yay-saying bent also seem capable of connecting with each other across cultural, continental, and a wide variety of divides. “Wherever love and devotion are glimpsed,” Schweitzer declared, “reverence for life is not far off.” In 1977, a Viennanen, an Alsatian in Africa, and a recently naturalized Californian were somehow gathered into the same set. Although it was a highly advanced arithmetic that tallied from Frankl, Fabry, and Schweitzer’s association two Jews, a Lutheran, and two Unitarian Universalists, they were one another’s co-religionist regardless. Beyond that, they were co-conspirators for the good, these firm believers in what might be, three outspoken devotees of saying yes: yes-in-spite-of, yes-despite, yes-even-though, yes-anyway, yes-anyhow. Yes, wholeheartedly. Even knowing full well what the human race as a whole could stand to lose? Yes, and again, yes. God help us, yes!