Because the written word has been so important to me, and since people often ask me about book recommendations, I thought I’d take a few weeks to write about some of the most influential books I’ve read, especially those that opened me up to the inner journey. I can remember times in my late teens when I would put books I loved underneath my pillow so I could have them near me while I slept. If that sounds a little weird, it probably was, but that’s how lonely I was and how much I longed for connection. Another gift of great books is that they taught me to view the world from multiple perspectives, helping me understand that others human beings and creatures had an interior life as well, making them worthy of compassion and respect.
One of the first books to have a profound impact on my life was Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” As I’m sure many people are aware, the book chronicles Frankl’s experience in a Nazi concentration camp at the end of World War II. Frankl developed a new school of psychological thought based on what he learned from the horrific struggle, then went on to influence many thinkers of the last half of the twentieth century. One of many observations that Frankl made about human behavior was that when the prisoners of the camp lost their purpose they began to lose hope. Those who believed they had a reason to live, whether it be family, religion, or love, could somehow endure the unendurable. So many times working with people in their addiction, it becomes apparent that they have lost purpose and passion, leaving them to cling to intermittent periods of sensual pleasure to make life bearable. When the drug finally loses its ability to deliver on its promise, the addict is nearing the last stage of the disease.
Another powerful lesson from the book comes from the perspective it gave me in regard to suffering. Even now, as I reflect on the words of Frankl, I’m struck by how petty most of my problems really are, as well as how little time I devote to the practice of gratitude. There are times when it seems like the human brain creates problems out of boredom, that there is almost an addiction to worry. It is easy for me to sit on my couch and talk about the greed of corporate billionaires or politicians, but what about my own greed? What about my greed for comfort, for attention, even for spiritual insights? Frankl talks about how grateful he was if he could find a piece of meat in the watery soup they served in the concentration camp. This is what he says about gratitude, a version of which can be heard around 12 Step Meetings: “Pain from problems and disappointments is inevitable in life, but suffering is a choice determined by whether you choose to compare your experience and pain to something better, and therefore feel unlucky and bitter, or to something worse and therefore feel lucky and grateful!”
For me, the most impactful part of “Man’s Search for Meaning” came from what he saw happening after the camp was liberated. It speaks to the destructive nature of both unresolved trauma and smoldering resentments. This paragraph has stayed with me for twenty years: “A friend was walking across a field with me toward the camp when suddenly we came to a field of green crops. Automatically, I avoided it, but he drew his arm through mine and dragged me through it. I stammered something about not treading down the young crops. He became annoyed, gave me an angry look and shouted, “You don’t say! And hasn’t enough been taken from us? My wife and child have been gassed—not to mention everything else—and you would forbid me to tread on a few stalks of oats!” Only slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”
I experienced significant trauma in my late teens, obviously nothing like Frankl, but it affected me deeply. Unfortunately, for many years afterwards, I projected that pain externally, which impacted those around me in ways I probably don’t even realize. But when I read “Man’s Search for Meaning,” my thinking began to shift. I could no longer claim ignorance, and had to admit that if a man who was a tortured by Nazi’s didn’t justify resentments, neither could I. Frankl stated that the greatest of human freedoms is the ability to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances. Though he sets the bar very high, I am grateful for teachers who expect greater things of me than I sometimes expect of myself.