Have you read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning? During Nazi-era Germany, Frankl’s wife, father, mother, and brother all died in concentration camps. Frankl himself was imprisoned and under a constant threat of death.
Despite these dark – and unimaginable – circumstances, Frankl emerged still holding onto hope. His rationale, as he explains in the book, is that even in terrible circumstances, the one freedom still left to a person is the choice of creating meaning out of one’s own life.
I don’t often think of Frankl’s book when serving our street-engaged community. But it was a casual conversation with Ken, our Executive Director, about Frankl’s account that made me think of a few of our clients who find opportunities to create meaning out of their circumstances – despite finding themselves in very low places.
Take Sandra. She is on ODSP and struggles with clinical depression, at one point becoming a recluse for a two-year stretch. While her depression remains, she now manages to get up every morning to visit with friends and to volunteer at a retirement home where she socializes with seniors and, as she puts it, tells jokes and makes everyone laugh around her!
Mandy, too, finds herself in ‘a time of waiting on God,’ she says. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years ago, Mandy eventually found herself all alone after her husband left her. Now, she lives in a rooming house. She is at her lowest and, while she seeks housing, she volunteers at a local soup kitchen, serving food and clothing, and providing comfort to others in similar circumstances.
And then there’s Craig. Craig’s past is littered with self- and other-destructive tendencies: Drugs, alcohol, and childhood abuse contributed to Craig’s 30-year life of violence with stints in jail. Back then, Craig used his fists for fighting. Today, he uses his hands to fix and repair. He runs a word-of-mouth ‘handyman’ business that has him doing an array of jobs from repairing porches to painting interiors and even bike tune-ups.
Sandra, Mandy and Craig are some of my greatest teachers. They have found a way to use their challenges, their traumas, and their pain to help others. And while they have not ‘arrived’ by any means – and who has, really? – it is their continual search to create purpose and meaning in the midst of their circumstances, that constantly encourage and inspire me.