Deer, drunks and the search for meaning

Another Christmas gone and another new year on the way. I woke up this morning to find three deer sleeping in the back garden. It’s quite a normal thing to see them out there, lying close together, delicate legs tucked underneath them on the thick bed of leaves we pile up back there in the woods, eyes closed, obviously believing it’s a nice safe place. I take it as a sort of compliment animals feel safe in my garden, and I only shush them away when they’re eating the roses growing close to the house. Other than that, I figure there’s enough for all — deer and groundhogs, foxes and rabbits, owls and squirrels, hawks and woodpeckers. All are welcome as long as they don’t do too much damage, which they seem to understand, oddly. Of course, I suppose the deer and rabbit repellent we spray on the tastier shrubs and flowers doesn’t hurt either.

It’s so odd how the deer seem to know when we have house guests, and make themselves scarce, even if everyone stays in the house. Perhaps it’s the extra cars in the drive that puts them off. We have had lots of guests over the past few days, with my father, step-mother and my step-mother’s sister all staying here, plus an assortment of folks dropping in. We were ten around the dinner table. Supposed to be eleven, but one guest came down with a virus. Not so many, I suppose for folk accustomed to the boisterous joy of big families, but I was raised as an only child and have no children myself, so my house is generally a quiet one, which suits my nature, prone as I am to noise sensitivity and the need for long periods of silence.

I’m not used to having lots of people in the house. I’m a rather solitary bear by nature, but Christmas is not the time for solitude, and so, apart from insisting I continue to write my thousand-words-a-day, I was a blur of conversation, cooking and tidying. It was an absolutely delightful time, although I must say, I don’t know how people live in big families every day, or dorm rooms, or prisons, for that matter. (And no, I’m not comparing spending a few days with family members to being in prison!)

Christmases can be terribly fraught times. I have a friend who is spending her first sober Christmas in many a long year, and who has had some terrible disappointments from her family. She traveled three thousand miles to see them, and it turns out none of her siblings feel the least desire to see her. How heartbreaking, to work so hard, 24-hour period by 24-hour period, to be a better person, to wrestle with the dreadful disease of addiction, and still be rejected by people we love. But you know what? She stayed sober. She made a wonderful dinner for her parents and for her husband’s parents, and she felt hurt, of course, but she understood that some Christmases past her behavior had been such that perhaps it might just be a teeny bit understandable that certain people didn’t want to risk having their childrens’ holiday ruined (again) by their drunken aunt. So she begins, day by day, rebuilding her good reputation and taking the long road to becoming a trustworthy, beloved sister, aunt, daughter, wife. She accepts and has faith and keeps going, one foot in front of the other. I couldn’t be prouder of her.

I’m proud too, terribly proud, of my father. He’s been sober for nearly seventeen years, but has only recently started going to those meetings in church basements. He’s going mostly because he has a dear friend who can’t stay sober without those dingy basements, and so my father goes with him, and maybe, just maybe, he’s learning a thing or two about how to move past some of his own pain as well. He’s certainly had enough of it, having lost both his sons to alcohol and drug-related suicide.

And so he and I went, together for the first time, to another one of those meetings and sat side by side, he with seventeen sober Christmases under his belt, and me with thirteen. I listened as my father talked about his pain, and what it meant to be sober and live through that sort of pain, and I could see other people thinking that if this man could live through the death of both his sons, and still not pick up a drink, then maybe they could get through the holidays sober as well.

And isn’t that an amazing gift to give someone? To open our hearts and display the pain so that others might see it, and give them hope and the courage to keep walking?

Auschwitz survivor Vicktor Frankl wrote a brilliant book entitled, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl, a psychiatrist, developed what he called Logotherapy – defined as Logotherapy, which has become known as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy,” after that of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. In Logotherapy Frankl posits that we find meaning in life by transforming the suffering of our lives into something that will be useful for others.

Logotherapy focuses on the future. According to Logotherapy, meaning can be discovered in three ways:

* By creating a work or doing a deed (such as say, writing a book, or helping someone overcome addiction)
* By experiencing something or encountering someone

* By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

The existential aspect of Frankl’s psychotherapy maintains man always has the ability to choose, no matter the biological, or environmental forces. In other words, even if you were, for example, born with that genetic predisposition to addiction, or mental illness, or if you were born into an environment of poverty and neglect and abuse. An important aspect of this therapy is known as the “tragic triad,” pain, guilt, and death. Frankl’s “Case for a Tragic Optimism” uses this philosophy to demonstrate “…optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential”, which at its best always allows an individual to:

* Turn suffering into achievement and accomplishment
* Transform the guilt into an opportunity to change oneself for the better
* Accept life’s transitory nature and, motivated thereby, to take responsible action

According to Frankl, life does not owe you happiness, it offers you meaning. Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the really crappy ones and, “When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves”

As I remember sitting next to my father in that meeting of folks who are trying so desperately to do all the things Frankl talked of – find meaning, turn suffering into achievement, transform guilt into an opportunity to change oneself for the better, struggling to accept life on its own terms and take right action, and help others to do the same – I can’t help but think of how they are each practicing Frankl’s philosophy even though I don’t think many people in the room have even heard of Frankl.

Isn’t it extraordinary that together, we survivors rise and struggle for meaning, and choose to away from selfishness, we who have been so terribly selfish in days gone by?

It’s a lovely gift of the season, and makes me even more grateful for the silent safety of my home and My Best Beloved, now that the holiday din winds down. And there they are again — the deer in my back garden, peaceful, safe, at rest, for now…

Copyright 2008 Lauren B. Davis For permissions:

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