A Word From the Fellows

April 12 |

The School of Suffering 

Viktor Frankl’s small but powerful book Man’s Search for Meaning was my go-to gift to give to graduating seniors at the all-boys school where I worked. For anyone unfamiliar with the work, Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was sent to Auschwitz, survived, and wrote this book after the end of the war. A bit depressing for a graduation gift? Maybe. Off the beaten path of Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go? You bet. Profound in its insights and call to respond to suffering with the good you can control? Certainly. 

Knowing that many of my students would leave their faith or face temptations amidst the distractions and nihilism of undergraduate life, I wanted to gift them something that was universal in its themes but also full of fertile soil for making sense of “the Catholic thing.” Frankl held on to hope and miraculously survived the Nazi extermination camp, and he observed that those who held on to purpose and meaning survived more often than those who dwelt on their agony and soon gave up the will to live. It wasn’t an option to “not suffer”; Frankl knew that we can’t control the time period or even the circumstances of our lives. But we can control our reactions and attitudes toward the challenges we face. To echo J.R.R. Tolkien’s wisdom in Gandalf the Grey, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” 

Everyone will suffer. This is part of our human existence, and to deny suffering (and our eventual death) is to live life in denial of all its richness. But we’ve been raised with so many technological creature-comforts that we can literally live from one air-conditioned bubble to another and assume that the food supply that fills our local grocery store shelves is never-ending in its abundance. And heaven forbid if my load times for my streaming services are too long! Inconvenience, discomfort, and suffering are the enemies to be extinguished at all costs. 

Most of my “geriatric millennial” generation (I was born in 1984) knows that we’ve gotten a bit soft and thus have to “seek out” suffering. There’s been a substantial rise in competitions designed to push one’s endurance and, well, suffer. Spartan Races, GoRucks, CrossFit, Mud Runs, etc. are now found in abundance alongside the usual 5Ks or triathlons. In the spiritual field, aesthetic programs like Exodus 90 (created specifically for seminarians) call their participants to fast from media, take cold showers, eliminate sugar, and pray rigorously. These athletic and spiritual challenges continue to grow in popularity every year: a healthy “sign of life” indeed! 

A spiritual director told me once that Jesus is always with us in the daily “School of Suffering.” We just need the eyes to see how the Lord is drawing us deeper into the mystery and participation in redemptive suffering. Reading the witness of those who endured long periods of tribulation can inspire us today. There’s been a renewed interest in the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, his Gulag Archipelago, and his warnings to the West. Fr. Walter Ciszek, who also spent long years working in the Soviet Gulag (and whose cause for canonization has officially begun), inspires us with his books With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me. In my seminary studies, I read the works of Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, who spent thirteen years in a Communist prison (and nine of those years in solitary confinement). He would celebrate Mass from memory in the palm of his hand with some crumbs of bread and drops of wine smuggled to him by a sympathetic guard. Rereading these accounts always shakes me out of my complacency and “first world problems”! 

Cardinal Van Thuan wrote, “I was convinced during the long nights in prison that living the present moment is the most simple and most secure way to holiness . . . Jesus always exhorts us to live in the present moment. He has us ask our Father for our bread, but just for ‘today’s,’ and reminds us that there are enough worries for ‘every day’ (Matt. 6:34).” Our Institute senior director Jared Zimmerer recently wrote an excellent piece on how the wisdom of Russell Kirk echoes this fact: “It is okay to realize that most of us are powerless in the grand scheme of things; Kirk notes that money and power are not needed to redeem an age.” We can’t fix the global wars or famine by our work alone, so don’t put that pressure on yourself. All we can do is fix is our attitude toward the ills we face and control what we can, “brightening our corners” of the world where God has entrusted them to us.