There are some books that you read and suddenly something that you have almost- known for almost-ever becomes so absolutely clear that it is hard to believe you have been teetering on the brink of realisation for so long.
That’s what Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” has just done to me.
A description of life in a concentration camp, it should be a harrowing, almost-impossible read.
It should leave you feeling so emotionally drained that lifting your head so you can feel the warmth of the sun on your face should seem wrong.
And yet….it’s none of these.
Because, despite the horrors described, the atrocities experienced, this is a story of survival, a study in resilience, an unlikely description of hope.
“He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How,” Frankl says, quoting Nietzsche, and that’s how he survived. By finding a Why that could give his suffering meaning.
” I”ve read Man’s Search for Meaning,” I tell the colleague who first introduced it to me, “and am currently searching for my “Why.” I take it you know yours.”
“I think my “why?” goes no deeper than ” why not?” he replies.
Now “why not?” is pretty much the mantra by which I live my life, but it is not my “Why” and and I don’t believe it is really his.
But I also understand when I am being told to pry no further.
Because that is the thing about our “whys’: they are one of the most deeply personal things about us.
Asking someone why they do what they do, are how they are, is like asking them to hold out their heart for inspection by a complete stranger.
Our reason for being or doing is often buried so deep inside us it is almost unreachable.
It is not something we often think about.
Perhaps it is only when we come face to face with our own mortality, with seemingly inexplicable cruelty or unfathomable tragedy, that we start questioning what makes us carry on.
In a concentration camp, the only way to bear the “how,” is to know your “why.” That’s what Frankl tells us.
And once you have read that, it is impossible not to start thinking about your own reasons for doing things, to start searching for your very own “Why?”
” Why do you always volunteer for things when you are so busy,” asks my husband Ninesh.
” Why don’t you just say no?” asks our daughter,Mia.
“Why are you always moaning about how much you have to do?” asks our son Joss.
All good questions.
And what’s really freaking me out about reading ” Man’s Search for Meaning,” is that I think I might know the answer, I think I might have found my reason Why.
I think, deep down inside,I know what it is that has made me the person I am today.
I think I’ve known it since I was 14…it’s just that most of the time, I’d rather forget..
” He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”
But sometimes it’s not the How but the Why that’s almost unbearable.
So here it is, my heart held out for inspection by strangers ( who said that blog writing wasn’t cathartic?)
Georgina lived round the corner from us when I was at secondary school . Every day we would travel home together on the bus or train and walk the last part of our journey lost in companionable chatter.
Often she would stop off at our house on the way home because her mum and dad weren’t back from work until late.
Ours was the kind of friendship that just happens, growing from convenient companionship into comfortable familiarity .
What I remember about her is her dark, dark eyes and the way they seemed to shine when she smiled.
When I picture her I see her freckled face grinning at me and hear her infectious,bubbling laughter.
What I remember doing is sitting on the top of the climbing frame in our garden, chatting for hours and hours.
What I remember about her is how oversensitive she was, how there would be days and days when she wouldn’t talk to me and I didn’t know why.
How her anger would suddenly flare and without understanding what had happened, we would be arguing and shouting at each other.
I remember how much it hurt when I walked into a room and she turned away from me and rolled her eyes.
I’m sure I was as much to blame as her, we were teenagers after all, full of angst and raging hormones and uncertainty.
But the volatility of our friendship confused me.
Perhaps if I had known that she took drugs for her asthma which made her moody and tired, it would have been different.
Perhaps if someone had told me that much of the time she was exhausted by her struggle to inhale enough oxygen, I would have learnt to be more patient, more understanding.
Perhaps, if I had known that, I would have a completely different ” Why.”
But no one told me.
And on the day before we went on holiday to France, we had an argument.
Our car was almost packed, the huge metal framed tent balanced on the roof, clothes thrown into bin liners and squashed amongst the pots and pans and camping equipment.
And on the phone to Georgina, I could feel the tension rising, our words beginning to wound until once again we were shouting at each other.
” I hate you,” I said as I slammed the phone down.
I have no idea what we argued about, I don’t think it really matters now, I don’t think it ever did.
All I know, is that while we were on holiday Georgina died.
There were no mobile phones back then, there was no way of contacting us.
By the time we got home from a radiating sun and sand and camping mayhem, the funeral had already happened.
I never got to say goodbye to my friend.
I never got to tell her that I didn’t hate her.
I never go to say that I was sorry.
At school we were told we could not mention Georgina’s name, that if we went to see her parents we couldn’t talk about her class or teachers or other friends, that we should get on with our lives.
We had to pretend that nothing had happened, that all was right with our incomprehensibly, irretrievably shattered world..
However often we tried to collect the splintered shards and put them back together, the world we re-created had something missing.
No one told us it was OK to grieve.
And so instead we tried to turn our sorrow into action.
We planned a charity week to raise money for Asthma Research…..until the school told us that wasn’t going to be allowed, that we had to choose another charity.
Looking back on it now, I think that was the moment I found my “Why?”
I couldn’t say sorry to Georgina but I could be part of the fight to raise money to stop it happening to someone else.
And so, with our parent’s help, we fought back and we won.
Our charity week for Asthma Research raised more money than any other charity week.
Frankl and Nietzsche might say it was because we had such a powerful “Why,” that the “How,” took care of itself.
And perhaps that’s true.
I know that we felt raw and vulnerable and sad and helpless.
I know that working together for a shared cause helped.
I know that we missed our friend.
I know that that was the year I grew up.
Anyone who has experienced the intense emotions of grief and loss will tell you that nothing is ever the same again.
That your priorities shift, that the world becomes less permanent, that life seems more fragile and precarious, that certainties dissolve.The only certainty I had, was that I could never say that I was sorry.
I spent years with that ” I hate you,” ringing in my ears.
But what is strange, is that those words have become a force for good ( at least I think they have). They have made me the person I am today. In my constant desire to undo what I did, I have somehow found a set of values to live by.
I can never apologise to Georgina, but I can make sure that everything I do is for reasons I believe to be right.
I try very hard to listen to my heart, even when the world outside is telling me different.
I try to see everything from the other person’s point of view.
I try to listen unconditionally.
I try to build bridges instead of walls.
I try always to make time for the people that truly matter to me.
I never stop valuing the love that comes with being a partner and a parent.
I have learnt that life is a gift, that love is a treasure, that friendship is a soft blanket threaded with gold.
I have come to believe that things only seem impossible because we imagine them to be so.
If I could unsay those long-ago words, I would.
If I could pull them apart and bury them where they can never be found, I would.
But words cannot be unsaid and I will never have the luxury of your forgiveness.
Instead I take comfort from the knowledge that you have become my “Why.”
I am not proud of what I did then, but I am sometimes proud of what I do now.
The day you died, I changed.
I hope it was for the better.
It is so easy to hurt those we care about the most.
I understand that now Georgina.
But I think what I am saying is, that when it is meaning I am searching for, it is always you I find.
RIP Georgina, my long-ago friend