The Question of Prisoner #109104

For fun, I guess, I Googled “Prisoner 109104.” Somehow the first word, ‘prisoner’ was ignored and the focus was on the number. The various iterations came up with the top search results being that earlier this year the the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the New Orleans Pelicans by the score of 109 to 104. 

I was hoping to find a result

pointing to Viktor Frankl. He was a psychologist who lived from 1905-1997. He was a prisoner in the German concentration camp system (he was moved around a few times) until he was liberated by Allied forces in 1945 (most of his family, including his wife, were not so fortunate). He served as a physician and as a specialist in “psychohygiene” to help prisoners deal with their shock and grief.

After the war he wrote of his experiences. In his time in one of the more horrible and unjust settings one could imagine, he noted those prisoners who thrived and those who faded. He recognized that people who felt they had something to live for did better than those who did not. Out of this came his most famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

In his later psychological work, Frankl was known to often ask his clients an interesting question. The question was:

WHY DO YOU NOT COMMIT SUICIDE?

That sounds a bit harsh, and arguably it may be a bit too direct to be appropriate for most. However, written text fails in that it misses the context of the question, the body language, and voice intonation. It also does not take into account that it was spoken by a man who lived in a place with seemingly NO HOPE, and yet did not succomb to that hopelessness.

It is a good question. I went through a time of deep sadness many years ago, perhaps even (undiagnosed) clinical depression, where I thought about ending my life. Why did I not? As a Christian it might be tempting to say that it was because of God. If I was from a different religious tradition within Christianity, I may have thought not to end things because of fear of hellfire. But I did not, because I did not believe that. If God damned us for wasting the gift of life, all of us could be found guilty to a greater or lesser extent. Much of our lives are wasted.  God’s forgiveness to those who trust in Him is beyond our imagining.

It was that same trust that meant that I knew God’s love to be with me even if I disappointed Him. God WAS the reason that I knew that my time of sadness would eventually pass. I was not in free-fall without a safety net to catch me. So God was part of the reason that I kept going… but was not the only reason, and maybe not even the main reason.

What kept me enduring was family. I knew that there was nothing I could say and nothing I could write that would make this okay with my parents. (This was before I was married.) To take my life would have been a monstrous evil– burden– to place on them. I could not do that.

Some say suicide is selfish. In a way it is— but it is also a failure to recognize a greater meaning or purpose that transcends the momentare feelings of hopelessness.

I suppose that is part of the reason I love the book of Ecclesiastes. It honestly addresses the issues of meaning and hopelessness. I have heard many say that Ecclesiastes has two sections— a Wrong View section (most of the book) and a Right View section (the very end of the book). It sometimes makes me wonder if these people have actually read the book. It honestly addresses the mistaken purposes or hopes that people base their lives on, whether it be on popularity, power, pleasure, wealth or other things. Addressing the vain-ness of these pursuits is thoroughly accurate. They are indeed chasing after the wind.

Integrated into the entire sermon, not just the final two verses, are two answers that the writer wants us to take away from it:

      1.  Fear God (and in so doing keep His commandments)

       2.  Find joys in the seemingly meaningless thing that constitutes one’s life.

We live in a time when more and more people question having a purpose in life worth living for. According to Befrienders Worldwide (https://www.befrienders.org/suicide-statistics), suicide rates have increased 60% over the last 45 years. Considering that world population has also increased greatly during the same period, there is clearly a huge increase in actual suicides. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020, a suicide will occur once every 20 seconds. Since there is about 20 attempted suicides for each “successful” one, I guess that means that by 2020 there will be approximately one suicide attempt every second (nearing 100,000 attempts a day, and over 30,000,000 per year). 

As Christians, the hope and purpose that we have for the people of the world is NOT cool and uplifting songs. It is not Christian self-help. We have revelation of God (our Creator, our Designer) of both His benevolent intent for us eternally, and His desire to give us both joy and meaning now. We also have socialization— family— of a community of faith that contrasts the growing alienation in the world. We, as the church, should not underestimate this.

I would not be as blunt as Viktor Frankl in asking “Why do you not commit suicide?” but it is still a good question.

 

Christianity: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Meaning”

Deutsch: Viktor Frankl
Deutsch: Viktor Frankl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 The Atlantic Monthly has a great article, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” The article is AVAILABLE HERE.

It points out what has been known for a long time (including Victor Frankl‘s observations from his time in a WWII Concentration Camp, as described in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning“), People find more life satisfaction in living a meaningful life than in living a happy life.

This makes sense to me. I am melancholic by temperament. I am basically satisfied with life but I certainly would not describe myself as a “happy’ person, or a ‘joyful” person (“joy” is essentially the word that Christians like to use instead of “happy” because it sounds more spiritual), or a “victorious living” person. I find meaning in my life. I feel that in some small (perhaps very small) way, I am fulfilling my purpose and am making the world a better place.

Many parents say, “All I want for my children is that they be happy.” But let me suggest something better. “All I want for my children is that they find meaning in their life, and understand their place in God’s creation.

Drugs, sex, crime, violence… many things can make a person happy. Almost anything today seems to be justified with the basic statement, “But it makes me happy.”

Is it better to have meaning? Is it better to have purpose? Quoting a brief bit from the article,

According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high — as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy, without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”

Perhaps we need to change our own goals. Perhaps we need to change how we parent. Perhaps we need to change how we do ministry?

Many in ministry try to market a ‘happy” Christianity. Church services are relabelled as “Celebrations.” Focus is often on Victory and Prosperity. Perhaps Rick Warren has a point with the “Purpose-Driven Life” and the “Purpose-Driven Church.” But maybe we need to work more on helping people find their purpose… that might be different from others. Maybe “abundant life” has more to do with life satisfaction and purpose than it does with being happy.

So maybe in ministry we can adjust a famous quote from  the American Declaration of Independence:

  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (mankind) are created equal (by God and before God), that they are endowed by their Creator (Designer) with certain inalienable (God-given) rights, that among these are (eternal and abundant) life, liberty (in Christ) and the pursuit of happiness their unique meaning and purpose.