Classics Club: Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)

This year, I decided to add some categories to my Classics Club list. Though I’m still aiming to read 50 books in 5 years, there are now 80 books on my list from which I can pick and choose. This helps me feel a little less constrained.

One of the categories I added was “Rereads from school,” i.e. books that I first read as a school assignment, but now want to encounter again at a more mature age. Many of these are from a wonderful double-period honors class I took as a senior in high school called “Humanities Block,” which covered many of the canonical works of philosophy, drama, poetry, and fiction, from the ancient Greeks to the twentieth century.

This had the benefit of introducing me to many great books at a young age, which I would certainly not have picked up on my own, being more drawn to sword-and-sorcery fantasy at the time. On the other hand, it had the drawback of giving me the impression that I had actually read these books, when at age 17 I surely picked up only a fraction of their deep and complex significance. I’ve revisited some over the years, but there others that I feel I really need to give another go.

Our very first book for the class was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, the classic work by a concentration camp survivor who founded the “third Viennese school of psychotherapy,” which he called Logotherapy. You have very likely encountered it as well, as it’s one of the most-read, most-assigned, and most-influential books of all time — and it is well worth reading. In the face of so many forces that seek to degrade and dehumanize us, it’s an important chronicle of one who has truly been through the fire and come out not with despair, but with renewed faith in humanity and the will to heal what is broken in our world.

Frankl was convinced that the fundamental human drive was not for pleasure, nor for power, but for meaning; and his internment in four camps served only to strengthen this belief. Shortly after his release, he published a brief account of some of his experiences and of his resulting observations about the human soul and spirit, which formed the basis for his later therapeutic work. To this was later added a more thorough description of the principles and practices of Logotherapy, and even later a short “postscript” based on a lecture further summarizing Frankl’s world view. The e-book edition I read also adds a foreword by Rabbi Harold Kushner and an afterword by William Winslade that includes a biographical sketch of the author.

This collage of contents is valuable for the way it expands and elaborates on Frankl’s life and work, but the heart of the book remains the original seed-text, which in German was called “Say Yes to Life in Spite of Everything.” Adding scientific precision to a deep sense of compassion, Frankl vividly describes scenes exemplifying the extreme conditions of camp life, and draws from them observations of how paradoxically the inner core of the human being has the possibility to shine forth in such dark circumstances. That this happens only in a few cases did not matter to him; the radiance of what he observed was so powerful that its reality outweighed all the forces that were trying to hamper and obscure it.

Other than its basic premise, which has always rung true to me, I had almost completely forgotten the specific contents of the book in the 30 years since I last read it. I would not name it as a book that deeply affected me, and yet as I read it for the second time I had a strange, recurrent sense of familiarity. I had met ideas similar to Frankl’s in many places and many ways, and also confirmed them with my own life experience, paltry as it seems in comparison with his. Meeting them again was like coming home to a place I had never really left, as perhaps it must always seem when we find eternal truths in the ever-changing circumstances of life.

I’m glad I read it again, and that I can mull it over more consciously in the years to come. I’ll look forward to doing the same with more of my teenage reading.


Four books to feed the spirit

Everyone has an individual way of dealing with all the bad things going on in the world. For me, it’s very important to stay connected to a spiritual point of view, which helps to restore perspective, awaken hope, and foster joy and gratitude in the face of darkness and despair. In fact, it’s been a surprising but welcome fact that this long-standing interest of mine has lately received a welcome jolt of activity, and that forces of renewal and inspiration have sprung forth in areas of my life where I was not even aware they were lacking. This is a strange but very wonderful phenomenon, one which gives me a sense of responsibility, as well as of thankfulness.

To make each crisis fruitful, to take advantage of the wake-up call it’s meant to be, I look for guidance from wiser minds and hearts who can help me navigate through stormy times toward a better future. Fortunately, there are many excellent books which do just that, and I’ve read several lately that I’d like to share with you. I’m always interested in your suggestions, as well.

Human beings have always sought to connect with the divine world, and those who took up this path were called initiates. Is there still a legitimate form of initiation today? In Old and New Mysteries (Floris Books, 2014), Rev. Bastiaan Baan explores different forms of initiation that have existed in the past, the radical transformation that took place through the deed of Christ, and the renewed form of spiritual awakening that can enable us to meet the challenges of our world today. When we are able to see what is happening outwardly in the world and in our personal lives as trials that can lead to a heightened sense of meaning and purpose, we may find the courage to face them more steadfastly. Drawing on the words and experiences of many mystics and seekers throughout history, as well as his own lifetime of spiritual practice, priestly service, and pastoral care, Rev. Baan opens a door for the modern person to connect in a new way to this eternal quest.

On the occasion of His Holiness The Dalai Lama’s eightieth birthday, he spent five days with his dear friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu to discuss the theme of how, in the midst of so much evil and wrongness in the world, we can find our way to joy. From the contents of these meetings, along with references to supporting scientific research and other commentary, author Douglas Abrams has composed The Book of Joy, (Viking, 2016) a wonderfully inspiring distillation of the wisdom of two men who have come through some of the most difficult and tragic events of our era, and found the true sources of inner strength. Though they come from very different spiritual paths, they demonstrate that no conflict is necessary when one has progressed far enough along the way; their delight in each other and in the mysteries of earthly existence shows that when we are able to pass through opposition and struggle without allowing it to kill our humanity, there is a place where we can meet, and that place is joy itself. A very useful section of inner exercises and meditations ends the book, giving us a set of practical tools we can put to immediate use in the search for a more joyful life.

Why on Earth? Biography and the Practice of Human Becoming (SteinerBooks, 2013) by Signe Eklund Schaefer gives even more tools and practices for finding meaning and purpose in life, this time through the particular lens of our human life story. Out of the world view known as anthroposophy, which she has worked with as an adult educator and researcher for more than thirty years, the author describes how individual biographies are embedded in a much larger spiritual reality, as well as in the complex web of relationships with all the other people we encounter in life. Learning about some of the recurring patterns and soul types that occur throughout this journey can help us to better understand ourselves and others, to tolerate and even celebrate our differences, and to find peace with some of the difficulties that meet us along the way.

Though Hermann Hesse’s fiction is well known in English, most of his poetry has not been translated into English, depriving us of another facet of this deeply spiritual author’s wisdom. To remedy that lack, The Seasons of the Soul (North Atlantic Books, 2011) presents over sixty newly translated poems, divided into five thematic sections — on love, imagination, nature, the quest for the divine, and the seasons and cycles of life — that are each introduced by the translator with information about Hesse’s life and spiritual perspective. In describing Hesse’s poetry, I can’t do better than the words of translator Ludwig Max Fischer:

“Hesse wrote to strengthen the will and the value of the individual, not toward selfish ego gratification, but toward a greater understanding of life. He teaches from experience, from wisdom acquired through many trials and tribulations, many great adventures, and deep, inner explorations. Hesse presents a rich harvest of insights and practical advice, but refrains from easy solutions and rigid, dogmatic ideologies. His gentle voice, full of truth, reminds us of the greater dimensions, the larger forces acting in our lives, beyond the immediate dramas of fear and desire.”

I can think of no more necessary mode of being, no more vital path of learning today. In very different ways, each of these books speaks the same message and seeks to lead us on a path toward these larger dimensions, toward greater strength, wisdom, and joy. If any of them calls to you, I hope that you will find it a helpful guide on your own journey.

New Release Review: May Cause Love

Kassi Underwood, May Cause Love (2017)

At the age of nineteen, Kassi Underwood had an abortion. She was a directionless college student, drinking too much and pursuing a road-to-nowhere relationship with a drug dealer in the absence of her childhood sweetheart from her Kentucky home town. Abortion seemed the only logical, the only compassionate option, yet she could not let go and move on. Her choice continued to haunt her, especially after her ex had a child with another woman. How could she find peace, go through the grief and pain that the world told her she either shouldn’t be feeling or was feeling for the wrong reasons? How would she get through to the other side without losing her mind?

One problem was that it was so difficult to find other women who were willing to talk honestly about their abortion experiences, even though according to statistics they should be walking around everywhere. Kassi desperately needed to feel she was not alone, that she was not the only person who had terminated a pregnancy without wanting to either subsume herself in religious shame or toe a feminist party line. But those voices seemed to be silent, including her own.

I was sorry about the abortion, not necessarily because I’d made the wrong choice, but because other voices had been so loud that I hadn’t been able to hear my own. Nineteen years of listening to the schizophrenic collective conscience about girls and pregnant people and motherhood and money had filled my head with opinions that did not belong to me.

It took years and much searching and soul-work for Kassi to find her voice, but through many small steps she has come there — and in the process created the community she was looking for. Her account of her “unexpected journey of enlightenment” is woven of her learning from therapists and healers and religious leaders, from protesters and haters as well as listeners and supporters. It’s also an account of her life and love and work journey during this time, of her own growing confidence in writing and speaking about her abortion, of encouraging others to do the same, and of her evolving relationship with God. It moved me to tears at times, but also made me laugh at the ridiculous antics we go through in running away from who we were meant to be. With honesty and trust, Kassi lays it all out before us, and may help us to look at some of the buried truths that lurk in our own pasts.

Some will complain that most women don’t have the resources or the opportunities that Kassi did, that not everyone can attend multiple retreats or have personal rituals created for them or fly across the country looking for answers to their questions. But that doesn’t mean that Kassi shouldn’t have done those things. The fact that she needed to take extraordinary and sometimes expensive measures in search of healing simply indicates that finding our one true self is worth everything we can give, whether that everything be much or little. For Kassi to share her story lays her open to attack and misunderstanding, and may even endanger her life. She does it not as an act of self-aggrandizement or pride, but in the hope that it will empower and strengthen others, and for that I personally can only be grateful.

Not everyone will want to read a book like this. You’ll need to be willing to read at length about abortion, and to consider it not as a fixed, immutable watershed of moral virtue or political values, but as a gateway to the complex, unstable, confusing business of what it means to be a human being in this world. You’ll also need to be willing to contemplate the contributions of many different religious traditions to the journey, along with psychics, energy healers, and a “midwife of the soul.” There are swear words (even if some of them are disguised with asterisks). There are drinking and drugs and addiction and infidelity. But if you can keep an open mind and heart, as Kassi so beautifully does, you may find that it’s all part of the quest to disentangle the mixed-up mess of joy and pain and ecstasy and suffering that is this earthly life, and find the thread of love.

Why was I here? Because I had quit running. Because you can run from grief and sorrow and responsibility and rush headlong into a new relationship or a new city or stalwart friends who will love you while you run, but if you want happiness, if you want love, if you want to become the figure you see in the distance, the future self calling your name, if you want to live the life you chose, one day you will have to stand still and hold all of it — scorched heart and broken brain, bones and skeletons of the past, the black wave of grief and the lucid thoughts of forgiveness.

Like Jacob with the angel, Kassi has wrestled her torment to the ground and extracted from it a blessing of untold value. May her story inspire each one of us to do the same, knowing that truly, we are not alone.

Thanks to the publisher and to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review May Cause Love. For more stops on the tour, click here.

For information from the publisher, HarperCollins, click here.


New Release Review: Marrow

Elizabeth Lesser, Marrow (2016)

marrowWhat are the ties that bind us as human beings? Can our thoughts and feelings influence our bodily well-being, even that of another person? How does releasing personal hurt, anger, and misunderstanding bring healing to our relationships and the world? When confronted with loss, betrayal, and death, can we learn to actually “love our fate”?

These are some of the questions that Elizabeth Lesser engages in with this memoir of the time she spent with her beloved younger sister during the last stages of Maggie’s long fight against lymphoma. To her own surprise, Elizabeth was found to be the rare “perfect match” for a bone-marrow transplant for Maggie, which meant that all of Maggie’s blood would be replaced with that produced by stem cells harvested from Elizabeth. It became more than just a medical miracle for both of them, as they sought to support the procedure with therapeutic conversations that strengthened their new identity as “Maggie-Liz.” By speaking their own hurt and forgiving one another, hearing and honoring the truth of each other’s experience, they come closer to the marrow of their true selves.

In recalling their journey, Elizabeth intersperses memories of her sister and other family members with the spiritual wisdom she’s gleaned from a lifetime of searching (she is the founder and director of the Omega Institute, a renowned center for spiritual development). She does not set herself up as an infallible expert or guru, and her way of writing about the soul and the human quest is humble, open, and honest. The truths of the spirit, which are in essence simple yet in practice so hard for us imperfect human beings to work out, are expressed in connection with her own experiences. Though in some ways these are extraordinary — not everyone can call up Deepak Chopra for advice — Elizabeth keeps the emphasis on the universal, everyday, basically human details that we can all relate to. For me, this was the most compelling aspect of her work.

tlc-logo-resizedThere are still failures and loose ends to take up — in caring for one sister so intensely, Elizabeth tended to come across as controlling to her other siblings, and that caused some further hurt. But what she learned from her time with Maggie only strengthened her faith in the power of the soul to work through such challenges, when we connect with our deeper selves. In the end, this is a story of hope, and of a love that truly became stronger than death.

Thanks to HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review this book.


Elizabeth Goudge Day: The Rosemary Tree


Elizabeth Goudge was born on this day in 1900, and went on to write many beloved novels that are still read today. In her honor I’ve invited anyone who is so inclined to read and post about one of her books. You’ll find my review below, and I’ll be posting a round-up in a few days. Drop me a line in the comments if you’d like to be included.

In the meantime, be sure to enter the Elizabeth Goudge giveaway, generously sponsored by Hendrickson Publishers — a chance to win your choice of one of their new paperback Goudge reprints. Just click on the link for details.

Elizabeth Goudge, The Rosemary Tree (1956)

RosemaryTreeIt was odd how they had been drawn together like this, their lives intertwined to their immense happiness and advantage, all in a few weeks of this unusually lovely spring. Did rhythmic times of fresh growth come in the lives of men and women, as in the world of nature? And did one growth help another, as birds build their nests where the new leaves will hide them? What was the motive power behind it all?

As this passage from near the end of The Rosemary Tree suggests, you’ll find in its pages a warm, hopeful story about how a group of people are brought together, seemingly by chance, for a brief but intense period of transformation, change, learning, and growth. The story takes place in Devon, in the postwar world of the middle of the last century, in one of those lovely villages complete with church and manor house that are so marvelous to visit through Goudge’s work. It centers around the vicar, John Wentworth, his wife Daphne, and their three young daughters.

John is by rights the lord of the manor, but in typical self-effacing fashion he’s relinquished it to the great-aunt who has lived there all her life and loves it more than life itself. Daphne, impatient with John’s clumsy goodness, wishes he would take it back and sell it to improve their finances; too fastidious to send their children to the village school, she’s chosen a private school for them that is in fact much worse. John and Daphne are sadly unaware that one of the teachers is bullying their most vulnerable child, and remain caught in patterns of misunderstanding and blame within their marriage, until a stranger comes to town and things begin to move…

Old wrongs are brought to light and their pain dispelled, relationships are created and strengthened, and new resolutions for reconciliation and healing are made. Some might find such a tale lacking in bite and conflict, and the solutions Goudge offers too simplistic — but they have hidden depths. Is it really possible just to decide to love someone instead of hating them? If so, it’s not as easy as it may sound, and might be the most important thing we are able to do as human beings. As we come to know and sympathize with Goudge’s characters, we take on their struggles as our own, and we have the chance to learn along with them. Maybe we do have the choice to be the good we want to see in the world. The rosemary tree, symbol of memory, stands at the center of a story that’s about remembering who we really are.

Rosemary for remembrance. Source

“What was the motive power behind it all?” is a question that resounds throughout the book, and Goudge clearly believes in a divine power: the creative Word that mysteriously manifests itself in our human struggles and sufferings. This is one of her more overtly religious books, with much musing and discussion on themes of prayer, sin, and repentance, and if you find such language and ideas bothersome, this book may not be for you. But as usual with Goudge’s writing, I don’t find that she’s espousing a rigid system of morality and passing judgment on those who fall short. Rather, she wants to tell about how people experience the brokenness and emptiness of life without love, and how they move toward healing, the wholeness that is the real meaning of “holiness.”

Goudge does provide a rather startling example of the refusal of such healing in the character of Mrs. Belling, the owner of that dreadful school. Frozen by fear, unable to turn aside from her own inward selfishness and cruelty, she comes to a horrible end that is really only witnessed by us, the readers — for she has deliberately cut herself off from all other people, and thus from the divine mercy. If we have the choice to move toward good, we also have the choice to fall into evil, and Mrs. Belling is a chilling portrait of the fruits of that choice.

On the other end of the spectrum we have the endearingly fallible, imperfect characters who learn that loving one another, though not always simple or easy, really is the only way to wholeness. Chief among these for me was the vicar, John, a chronic bumbler who considers himself a failure, but whose humility and kindness shine more brightly than he himself realizes. I also especially enjoyed his housekeeper Harriet and his great-aunt Maria, two of those wonderful elder women full of life’s wisdom that Goudge draws so well. And of course there is the house, Belmaray, a character in its own right and a lovely place to spend some reading time.

I’m not sure this will become one of my favorites — the story was occasionally bogged down by the religious meditations that, while beautiful, sometimes seemed to belong to another kind of book, as well as by too much “telling” of the characters’ history and motivations. I find these elements more gracefully woven together with the narrative in some of Goudge’s other books, notably The Dean’s Watch, which she wrote just four years later. But I am certainly glad that I finally read it, and its message of hope and healing will remain with me for a long time.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

New Release Review: Ways into Christian Meditation

Bastiaan Baan, Ways into Christian Meditation (2015)

WaysChristMedFor readers who are interested in religious and spiritual subjects, here is a wonderfully clear, accessible introduction to the topic of how the practice of meditation can play a role in Christian life. Bastiaan Baan was a priest for many years in Holland and is currently the leader of the North American Seminary of the Christian Community (Movement for Religious Renewal) in Spring Valley, New York. He starts out by explaining how meditation can help us recover ourselves when we can hardly breathe due to stress and anxiety: “Meditation is the royal art of remaining free under all the changing conditions of our lives.” Indeed, it has become almost a necessity in today’s world, when we feel ourselves standing on the edge of an abyss. But how to begin?

In brief, clearly-written chapters he goes on to describe the conditions necessary for meditation, such as the creation of inner calm and the strengthening of our will. A second section covers some of the forms of meditation: at different times of day, in connection with loved ones who have died, and so on. Finally he gives examples of how the “I am” statements from St. John’s gospel can become a subject for meditation. Rather than prescribing a single way of working, he conveys principles that can be applied in our individual lives in a way that is useful and meaningful for us. Each one who starts out on this path has to find his or her own way; it is a lonely road, but one that leads to our true self.

With complete respect for Eastern paths and traditions of meditation, Baan also indicates what is special and particular about the Christian way. It is a way that leads through the senses, seeking to transform and ennoble the earthly world rather than shut it out as a source of illusion. It also leads to a closer, deeper connection with the being of Christ, who came to earth to give the small human “I” a new content, the great “I am” that overcomes the delusions of egotism. Christ wants to dwell in us, and through meditation we create a place for him. Awareness of his presence is both the method and the fruit of this kind of practice.

In his writing and religious practice the author is informed and inspired by the work of the spiritual thinker Rudolf Steiner, who is quoted throughout along with many other examples from Gandhi to Dag Hammarskjöld to Simone Weil. Some relatively unfamiliar ideas are thus introduced, such as reincarnation as part of a Christian worldview, but readers who keep an open mind may find their thinking expanded and enriched by these insights. The emphasis throughout is on simple yet profound practices that aim to give health and strength to the modern soul.

Having had the privilege of meeting and working with Rev. Baan, I am so pleased to find his gentle wisdom captured in this little book, and highly recommend it to all who seek a guide on the path.