What Makes Us Stronger
Welcome to 2021!
Especially as we crest the start of the New Year, I am thinking about what I’ve learned from this period and what has made me (and the people around me) stronger.
LAST FALL A GROUP OF THERAPISTS and I did a slow read of Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” There is one story from the book that renewed my sense of resolve in counseling during the pandemic, and I want to share it.
Frankl was a psychiatrist who spent four years in a Nazi concentration camp, a time when he formed many of the theories of psychological healing that guided his later work with clients and provided the substance of his famous books. Mostly he kept his status as a psychiatrist secret. When it was discovered that he was a doctor, he worked with typhoid patients, but he still didn’t want anyone to know he healed souls. When his profession was discovered, on a day when morale was low, he was asked to deliver an encouraging talk to his fellow prisoners.
God knows, I was not in the mood to give psychological explanations or to preach any sermons–to offer my comrades a kind of medical care of their souls. I was cold and hungry, irritable and tired,…
Sound familiar? Like many psychotherapists, counselors, and other helping professionals working today, Frankl was enduring the same calamities as the people he was asked to counsel. He lacked emotional distance to view their experience objectively and to generate insight. This is an exhaustion particular to the experience of collective trauma, a calamity that touches a whole population, sparing no one.
“…[B]ut I had to make the effort to use this unique opportunity,” he writes, mustering his inner strength. “Encouragement was now more necessary than ever.” Looking at the haggard prisoners staring at him, he tells them about hope and resilience, how they are rooted in hard experiences, that suffering and sacrifice are parts of life that underscore a deep sense of existential purpose. “They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning.”
As he does continually throughout the narrative, Frankl finds his own strength in an unwavering sense of purpose and duty to his family and community, reminding himself of these core aspects of his identity–moorings we often forget when we are struggling, daunted, and uncomfortable. This is who he is.
I saw the miserable figures of my friends limping toward me to thank me with tears in their eyes.
Like many people I’m cautiously optimistic that the end of the pandemic is in sight; however, we’re not yet out of the thick of it. Like many of you I go in and out of periods when I feel worn down by the unrelenting-ness of it. Many of my clients battle anxiety, depression, and isolation. They’re struggling with family and living situations that have become unbearably stressed. This story from “Man’s Search for Meaning” gives me a kind of “tough talk,” reminds me who I am, what makes me strong.
Even when I am at risk of forgetting that I am strong.
These are questions we can ask ourselves and our clients in the last months of the pandemic: What have we learned from this experience? What makes us stronger?
OTHER BLOGS ON MANAGING PANDEMIC STRESS