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Ron Belgau

April 1998

This month's column is going to be pretty short. I have two finals tomorrow, but after that I'm going on Spring break. Yahoo!

One of my favorite books is Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl was a Jewish psychologist who was placed in a concentration camp by the Nazis in World War II. He survived the war, and wrote Man's Search for Meaning as a reflection on his experiences and what he had learned.

The first part of the book is a description of the camps: the death, the torture, the starvation, the way that people lost hope in life and died, and the ways the prisoners turned on each other in the dog-eat-dog struggle to survive.

The second part of the book is a reflection on what Frankl learned. While Freud would say that the most basic motivation for human beings is the desire for pleasure, and Nietzche would say that it is the desire for power, Frankl believes that, more than anything else, we need to see a meaning in our lives. Whether the meaning is found in doing a job, or in family, or in religious devotions, Frankl believes that all human beings need to feel some meaning, and that the lack of meaning will lead to self-destructive behaviors.

When he was taken to the prison camp, the Gestapo confiscated and destroyed the manuscript of his first book, which contained some ground-breaking psychological insights. As he lived through the horrors of the death camps, one of the things that enabled him to go on was the desire to recreate that manuscript, and communicate to the world his ideas, as well as the refinements he had found as he went through the death camps.

One of the reasons I loved Frankl's book is that he speaks so directly to human suffering. If the purpose of life is (as Freud says) to get as much pleasure as possible, what happens when we suffer? What possible reason could Freud give a person in a death-camp to go on? Again, if power were our ultimate goal, what hope is there for a prisoner in a death camp?

I suppose in the gay community, we've pretty much cornered the market on pleasure, at least as far as quick satisfaction goes. But as I look at my life, there is so much pain, and the idea of a one-night stand (or even a long-term relationship) just can't make up for all that. But Frankl says that, when pain seems unavoidable, face it squarely, and find a way to find purpose in it. And that has helped me immensely. I have suffered a lot. If I look at my own comfort, that seems terrible. But it has taught me what suffering is. I can reach out and comfort others who are in pain. I can strive to make a world where the gay babies born tomorrow will not go through the same pain I went through.

I have suffered. But instead of complaining about that suffering, I can look at as an opportunity. If the suffering goads me into action to help others, and I am able to save them from unnecessary suffering, then my pain has meaning.

Well, let's hope my studying has meaning. I have TWO finals tomorrow, so I'll be doing finals for four hours straight tomorrow afternoon. I'll let you know next month if I see some purpose in all that suffering...

Until then, feel free to drop me a line. My e-mail is rbelgau@u.washington.edu.

- Ron


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