Tag Archives: Viktor E. Frankl

“A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss” by Jerry Sittser

In the fall of 1991, Jerry Sittser’s life changed when his wife, mother, and four-year old daughter were killed in a car crash while he and his other three children survived. The accident, as Sittser noted later, forced him down a course “which [he] had to journey whether [he] wanted to or not.”[1] He had to find a way to adjust to his new life as “there was no way out but ahead, into the abyss.”[2] As Sittser walked into the abyss, he kept a journal of his reflections in an effort to help process what was happening in and around him. Friends would later encourage him to write a book on the subject of catastrophic loss, hence the origins of this book.[3]

While the book A Grace Disguised contains vignettes of Sittser’s personal experience, it is not about his experience per se. Rather it is about the “universal experience of loss”[4] and the “transformation that can occur in our lives”[5] through this loss. As Sittser found in his own journey, it isn’t the “experience of loss that becomes the defining moment” of life but the way in which we “respond to loss that matters.”[6] In a way, Sittser’s book is akin to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in that both writers focus on how people respond to suffering and loss rather than trying to avoid or deny pain altogether.[7] (Sittser is familiar with Frankl’s book as he references it as something that helped him on his journey through the pain.)[8]

Though the book is fairly short, I found myself struggling to make it through the pages due to the subject material. Losing my wife and/or children through a sudden catastrophic loss like Sittser is one of my secret fears that sometimes keeps me awake at night. Knowing that they could die at any moment though the sheer randomness of the universe brings all kinds of emotions to the surface. It is as Sittser comments in chapter eight, “suffering may be at its fiercest when it is random, for we are then stripped of even the cold comfort that comes when events, however cruel, occur for a reason.”[9]

I, however, disagree with Sittser’s conclusion that God is in absolute control and that every event ultimately has a reason.[10] Instead I embrace the concept that humanity is engaged in a war between the spiritual forces of good and evil. When bad things happen, they do not happen due to the will or inaction of the Creator but rather because of the war around us. Jesus, who is in the trenches with us, promises to take the negative events in our lives and use them for good through the cruciform power of his love (Romans 8:18-39). Though this war motif may not encourage everyone, it helps me deal with the pain that comes from living in this world as it means my life is part of something bigger than what I see on the surface. Which, as it happens, is similar to the reason Sittser wants God to be in control.[11] Though we traveled different paths, in the end both Sittser and myself “choose to believe that there is a bigger picture”[12] in which our lives (the good and bad) play a part.

[1] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004), 29.

[2] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 29.

[3] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 18.

[4] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 18.

[5] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 17.

[6] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 17.

[7] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 80-81.

[8] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 46-48.

[9] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 111.

[10] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 149-161.

[11] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 118-119.

[12] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 118.

“Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy” by Viktor E. Frankl

manEurope in the 1930’s and ‘40’s was a crazy place to come of age and start a career, especially if one was of Jewish descend like Viktor E. Frankl. Born, raised, and trained in Vienna, Austria, Viktor Frankl launched a neurology and psychiatry career in 1937 within the shadow of Nazi Germany. Five short years later Dr. Frankl and his family were sent to the concentration camps of War World Two wherein his father, mother, brother and wife would die. The next three years would be some of the most difficult years Dr. Frankl life; yet they also proved the launching pad for his later career as the founder of logotherapy.

Originally written over the course of nine successive days in 1945 soon after Dr. Frankl was liberated from a concentration camp, the book “Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy” is partly biographical and partly scholarly. The first part tells of Dr. Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps. The second part, which was added to the book in 1962, gives readers a basic introduction to logotherapy, a school of Psychotherapy founded by Dr. Frankl. The final section was added to “Man’s Search for Meaning” in 1984 and deals with how humanity continues to have hope in the face of pain, guilt and death.

When Dr. Frankl wrote the first section the book, he originally did not want his name associated with it as he simply wanted to let people know that “life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones” (pg. 12). To this end, he proceeded to tell the stories of the common prisoner – no “suffering and death of great heroes and martyrs” nor “prominent Capos” or even “well-known prisoners” (pg. 17). Instead, Dr. Frankl wrote about the “sacrifices, the crucifixion and death of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims” (pg. 17). Life in a concentration camp is, after all, a fight for existence, an “unrelenting struggle for daily bread and for life itself” (pg. 18).

In telling the story of the common prisoner, Dr. Frankl divided the first section into the three stages of the inmate’s mental reaction to camp life: “the period following his admission; the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; and the period following his release and liberation” (pg. 22). Throughout each of these stages, Dr. Frankl highlighted the ways in which the human psyche adapted and responded to the horrors around them. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” (pg. 84).

The second part of the book focused on introducing the reader to the world of logotherapy. Logotherapy is a form of psychotherapy developed by Dr. Frankl that focuses on the “meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future” (pg. 104). In other words, it seeks to help each person discover the meaning of their lives though either accomplishing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, or through the attitude one takes when experiencing suffering (pg. 115).

At its core logotherapy is built upon the thesis that “man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he give into conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment” (pg. 133). Humanity, therefore, has the freedom to change both the world and themselves for the better if they only choose to do so.

The third and last part of the book deals with the question of “how is it possible to say yes to life in spite of all that [pain, guilt, and death] (pg. 139). In answering this question, Dr. Frankl reminds the reader that “happiness cannot be pursued” (pg. 140). Rather, happiness is something that one finds once they have a meaning to life. It is a by-product of a meaningful life that comes naturally no matter the situations or conditions in which one finds themselves. Building upon this, Dr. Frankl explores how the three main avenues of find meaning in life – “creating a work or by doing a deed”; “experiencing something or encountering someone”; turning a “personal tragedy into a triumph” though one’s attitude – combat the tragic triad of pain, guilt and death (pg. 146-147).

On a personal note, the thing I loved the most about this book is Dr. Frankl’s view of humanity. Unlike Sigmund Freud and others like him who claimed that at individuals will cease to have an individual will when faced with extreme hunger and horror, Dr. Frankl’s experiences in “filth of Auschwitz” gave him a more Arminianism view of humanity.Namely, people have a choice in how they are going to respond to their environment rather then being pawns of their genes, fate or God Himself. As Dr. Frankl states at the end of the book, the more the horror around them grew, the more “people became more different; people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints” (pg. 145).