When you look to the sky, what do you see? When was the last time you were moved to tears? How do you face up to what life expects from you?
I want to tell you about two things that made me weep this week. They are not connected, and I am frankly not sure I can write about either in a way that successfully conveys what each meant to me. But I will try, even if I should fail.
My life is changing every day, in every possible way… You’re a dream to me. Words entirely without cynicism. In their own way quite beautiful. Uncontrollable tears came to me the day after this week’s news of the untimely death of Dolores O’Riordan. Her band the Cranberries never meant a huge amount to me, although they made an impression when I saw them playing to a handful of people back in autumn 1992.* But I find the passing of Ms O’Riordan heartbreaking. My tears were prompted by a brief BBC news obituary “package” (the technical term for a wee news-y montage) showing a recent interview clip of Ms O’Riordan discussing health problems that had beset her over recent years. These included serious back troubles, which meant she couldn’t ever play guitar on stage again. Cut to a short burst of her singing Linger on some BBC show, the smile on her face failing to conceal obvious, wrenching physical pain as she made tiny, slow, difficult steps as the music played. The definition of putting on a brave face so that the show might go on. Her voice was still beautiful if strained, her words still direct and simple, almost to the point of naivety. A tiny, physically slight – and deeply troubled – person whose soul seemed to find pure expression in singing. The cruelty both of her health issues and of her having left this world so young show how unfair this world of ours can be.
Those who were being questioned by life
I wept during and after reading Man’s Search for Meaning by neurologist, psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl. A short, beautiful book that will transform how you see the world.
His message is positive and his words are transformative, life-changing. Frankl explains his belief that meaning is vital to life, always. My words are inadequate to conveying the appalling power and gravity of the book’s subject, and to the wrenching beauty of Frankl’s response.
Frankl describes how he was able to find meaning even in the endless, crushing cruelty of daily life in Auschwitz. Finding meaning in life enabled him to survive. Stripped of his previous life, possessions, clothes, hair and even his name**, he writes that his internal ability to find meaning and dignity in life was the one thing that could never be taken away. But he had to choose this path. To identify, pursue and perhaps even to achieve “a meaning worth living for”. He says:
“[H]uman life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death”.
For Frankl, meaning in life is ultimately to be found in how we engage with life on life’s own terms. He worked to share this message with his fellow inmates. He writes:
“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it really did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Dreams also played their part in Frankl’s search for meaning. Dreams were another thing that could not be taken away. He dreamt of one day being free to rewrite and complete his first book, the original manuscript for which was taken from him when he arrived at Auschwitz. He sustained himself through endless days’ hard labour and unstinting suffering by concentrating on a sort of waking dream, conducting imaginary conversations with his wife, who he would also never see again (this detail kills me: they both arrived at Auschwitz just days before her twenty-fourth birthday). On very rare occasions, snatched glimpses of the sky, or of a tree, would provide spiritual sustenance, a dream of freedom and of healing nature, for days.
When you look to the sky, what do you see?
After what seemed an eternity (in which each day seemed to drag on forever, yet the weeks would pass in the blink of an eye), Frankl’s dream of liberation and freedom came true. He was dismayed that the depth of suffering in Auschwitz had so distorted his perceptions that he felt a kind of disappointment on the day he was liberated. But this disappointment did not last. He used his freedom to share his beautiful, life-affirming and life-sustaining words with the world.
Where do you find meaning in life?
What are you going to do with your own freedom today?
When you look to the sky, what do you see?
* I saw the Cranberries playing to very few people at a small club when I was a student back in 1992. They were low down the bill of a deeply odd package tour (which seems to have generated no google-able trace), also featuring Australian Stooges tribute band The Australian Stooges and headlined by now forgotten American shoegazers Drop Nineteens. Jon Fat Beast (not – in all probability – his real name; he was the manager and figurehead of the abysmal Carter USM) organised the tour and greeted the audience at the door, suggesting that my then very underweight frame needed and should therefore purchase from him a deeply tasteful “I’m a fat bastard” t-shirt. Thank you, Mr “Beast”, but no thank you. The completely unassuming and plainly stated innocence and sincerity of Dolores O’Riordan is my main memory of that show. Amidst the cynicism of student life and of the music scene then and now, her sincerity was heartbreakingly and almost naively honest. They may or may not have played Linger. But I remember the one song that really stood out that evening was Dreams. A few weeks later, I bought the Dreams CD single (note for younger readers: you weren’t really missing much when it came to the now long-gone CD single format). I probably played it twice, and that, I am afraid to say, was it for me and the Cranberries. Nonetheless, I am still deeply saddened by this week’s horrible news. I sincerely hope that you have found peace, Dolores.
My thanks to my friend Sean Jones for allowing me to his beautiful tweeted picture of a sky scene at the top of this post. Please consider sponsoring Sean in his upcoming #billablemarathon.