My eyes fluttered awake. Feeling the early morning chill, I pulled on a sweater and drowsily trekked into the living room. I turned on the Christmas tree’s twinkling lights, filled my diffuser with a festive scent, and flipped on the morning news. I smiled as the weather reporter announced a light snowfall would be coming later in the afternoon. As the hosts transitioned to a new segment, detailing creative ways to wrap presents, I spotted a small byline at the bottom of the screen: storms continue in the midwest, four killed, more injured. All the while, above the streamline of critical news stories, two smiling ladies taught viewers how to decorate wrapping paper with glitter glue.
The winter season brings the arrival of many festivities. I’ll be the first to admit, I love celebrations and cookies and chats by a warm fire. However, I’ve begun to ask if my “perfect” holiday picture, provides any room for the realities of everyday life. This semester, I had the opportunity to be an intern with ICTG, hearing accounts from multiple survivors of trauma. I learned that at every level of society, among young and old, powerful and powerless, trauma occurs and it does not respect a schedule. This December, likely, we all have neighbors who, in some way, are mourning, anxious, depressed, hungry, heartbroken, angry, or without support. Many of us may even identify with these things above, yet choose to, or feel we must, ignore or compartmentalize our pain. So where in the holiday season is there room for suffering?
This past month, I was introduced to the writing of Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who was imprisoned in a series of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl describes his process of making meaning out of his suffering. He continues to encourage his readers and friends to view suffering as not an end to one’s story. Although terrible and painful, suffering also shapes a person into who they will become. He recalls speaking this message to a room of prisoners, as everyone lays in their bunks, in relative despair. He states “I told my comrades...that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have meaning and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death...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.” (p.83)
At every level of society, among young and old, powerful and powerless, trauma occurs and it does not respect a schedule. This December, likely, we all have neighbors who, in some way, are mourning, anxious, depressed, hungry, heartbroken, angry, or without support. Many of us may even identify with these things above, yet choose to, or feel we must, ignore or compartmentalize our pain. So where in the holiday season is there room for suffering?
Although Frankl acknowledges selfishness as an abundant means of survival in the camps, sacrifice was also something he witnessed. Despite the cruel conditions of the camp, some prisoners were able to create a community of strength. Frankl includes tales of prisoners sharing moments of humor, cooks who gave him extra scoops of peas, prayer groups and religious readings, and officers who occasionally showed compassion. It’s as Frankl shares: “the salvation of man is through love and in love” (p. 37). In one crucial scene, Frankl has to choose between escaping the camp or to continuing to care for patients in the hospital tent. When provided with an opportunity to choose to love himself or love another, Frankl chooses to love his patients. He attests to have “gained an inward peace that I had never experienced before. I returned to the hut, sat down on the boards at my countryman’s feet and tried to comfort him” (p. 59). To receive love, and return love, he found peace even in the midst of great trauma.
The life of Viktor Frankl is a testament to the healing power of healthy community, a chemistry that Frankl shows can be established even within the most dire of circumstances. Throughout my semester with ICTG, I have seen the beautiful, slow beginnings of recovery in communities in Southern California. After wildfires, mass shootings, and other forms of collective trauma, survivors and responders have worked hard to create support networks for those suffering. As I have attended some of these events, including serving survivors of the Conception Dive Boat tragedy, learning from first responders of the Thomas Fire and Montecito 1/9 Debris Flow, observing community care events related to the Rt 91 Las Vegas shooting, Borderline Bar shooting, and Hill and Woolsey Fires, and providing care to children impacted by the Cave Fire in Santa Barbara, I have witnessed the strength of love and compassion amongst survivors and their family and friends. They have taken time to listen to one another’s stories, to celebrate birthdays and mourn losses, and to dream about better futures they can create together. Their conversations exude grit, real hurt, but also great joys. In all of this, I have been amazed and challenged to rethink my approach to suffering. I am beginning to see suffering not only as pain and loss, but also as an invitation to grow and to deepen relationships with others.
I recognize that I am only just beginning to grasp what that means. So, this holiday season, I want to reflect on my year’s experiences honestly. I desire to acknowledge both the joy and suffering in my midst. I hope to create compassionate spaces in which others can feel welcome to do the same. May we all accept the approach of the holidays as an opportunity to practice healthy community living, to be supportive for those struggling, and to draw strength from relationships when we ourselves are in need. For the communities who have lost loved ones because of storms this week, we see you, we acknowledge your pain, and we mourn with you. May you be surrounded with the support and comfort you need this holiday season.
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From 2012-2020, this blog space explored the changing landscape of long-term care.