He who has a why to live, can bear with almost any how. — F. Nietzsche
Twenty-eight years ago, I was attending high school at a small Catholic school in a small town in Pennsylvania and we had daily religion class. Religion class was something I’d always dreaded from the time I started attending Catholic school in the fourth grade up until 1988, when religion class suddenly wasn’t about “religion.”
In the final two years of high school, the religion class curricula focused on real issues rather than ancient biblical text and stories of some rabble-rouser preacher who claimed to be the son of God. In 11th grade the main topic was that of finding meaning in life as related by two Holocaust survivors. In 12th grade, the topics were to social justice and a study of marriage and vocations.
The text for our 11th grade religion class consisted of Night by Elle Wiesel and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Both books detail the experiences of young Jewish men who were taken captive by the Nazi’s and who survived the concentration camps. Night was short and we read it first. To be honest, I don’t recall much of the book because it was over-shadowed by our study of Frankl’s book, which we studied from approximately October to May of the year.
In Frankl’s book, he discusses his experience in the concentration camps. He discusses the depravity of men, both the Nazi’s and his fellow prisoners who struggled to live and sometimes struggled to die. He also discusses what he would become famous for, his school of psychology called logotherapy. The foundation of logotherapy rests upon the idea that the fundamental motivation for human beings resides in finding meaning in life.
The Nietzsche quote above, has stuck with me my entire life. I’ve written before about the trauma of having lost my birth father to suicide, but that was nothing like the 18 months that lead up to my junior year of high school. Between January of 1987 and the fall of 1988, I lost six members of my family. My memories of the time are of darkness and fog. By the time I’d gotten to 11th grade, I was in a deep depression and I have virtually no memory of the fall of 1988. The entire time is blackness. Emptiness.
And so when we came across, the sentence ”He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how” in Frankl’s book, it resonated deeply within me. I understood that if I could find a reason to live, any reason, I could get through the darkness in life.
For me this sentence has always been about not dying, and more specifically about not taking one’s own life.
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend in recovery who has been struggling. He’s been struggling with his addiction. He’s struggled with the notion of a Higher Power in the twelve step programs. He’s been struggling his drugs of choice. He wants to get clean and stay clean, but he told me that he’s struggling with the sober life.
The path to sobriety can be very challenging with bumps and ruts as well as rocks and thorns that need to be cleared. There are torrents of emotions when we stop using our drug(s) of choice. We are suddenly confronted with feelings that we’ve not felt in a long time — in many cases feelings that we’ve tried to cover up, to escape, or to destroy with our substances. And there’s usually some wreckage of our past that needs to be cleaned up, and sometimes, we can’t clean it up. I’ve heard it described as walking around in the world without our skin — all our nerve endings exposed to the brutal experiences of life.
I’m reminded of another Nietzsche quote, ”That which does not kill me, somehow makes me stronger. Getting sober sometimes feels like we are dying. And in a way, we our; our old selves are dying and a new self is being born. But our lives aren’t over, they are just beginning and we are becoming stronger.
Getting sober reclaims life for us and those around us. The simple act of not picking up a drink or drug creates a new life — and many good things follow. But life is still life. We still suffer. We experience dukkha.
I believe that we need to find a reason to get sober. Life on life’s terms isn’t easy, that’s why we sought escape from it in the first place. So, we need to find our why.
For me, that was fear of certain death. My why was fear of leaving my family to fend for themselves in this world. My why was fear of missing out on things that I knew that I wanted to enjoy — spending time with my wife and truly connecting with her, seeing my son graduate, seeing my grand-children, feeling the wind on my face, smelling the earth after it has rained. Simply put, I wanted to live, and I knew that I wasn’t living. I was purely existing. Maybe even, simply taking up space.
Once we find our why the how — living sober — becomes much easier. We can deal with life on life’s terms because we know why we are doing this. We can sit with our dukkha and let it exist — acknowledge it without judging it, and move on.
I believe coming to an understanding of why we are living and, more importantly, why we want to live is the “psychic change” that is so often talked about in the rooms.