I recently visited a friend whom I originally met in Brazil 41 years ago. I was a Christian missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time that we met. Over the years, he and his family have become extended family to me. As a young man, my friend became known as “Mr. Universe,” as he had won this title as a body builder in Brazil. I knew him more for his kind character, beautiful countenance, and his musical talent playing the guitar.
As he is now in hospice care, many would pity him and his condition. And though it was a somber atmosphere and sobering visit, I found it beautiful to see all his family gathering around him here near the end of his life. We played the guitar, sang, prayed, and cried together. It reminded me of the passing of great patriarchs in the Bible being “gathered to his people.” Family members were sharing love and stories of their lives together. All were helping with his needs in some way.
As I sat among his loved ones, I observed something that I read in Man’s Search for Meaning by Dr. Viktor Frankl.
“In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.
From this one may see that there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past – the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized – and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past…” (142-143)
At times of impending loss, it might be easy to feel discouraged or to lose hope and fulfillment. I recall my own father passing just prior to Christmas. It was difficult to watch him leave us. We read Psalm 136 which emphasizes God’s mercy. How merciful it was that my sons and I could be there with him along with his wife and other family. I reflected again on the meaning one can find even at times like these shared by Dr. Frankl.
“Then I spoke of the many opportunities of giving life a meaning. I told my comrades (who lay motionless, although occasionally a sigh could be heard) that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death. I asked the poor creatures who listened to me attentively in the darkness of the hut to face up to the seriousness of our position. They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning. I said that someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours — a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God — and he would not expect us to disappoint him. He would hope to fund us suffering proudly — not miserably — knowing how to die.”(83)
There is a dignity to living and to dying. My mother recently told me something my grandfather used to say. “Every man deserves his own dignity.” How can one find dignity or purpose in dying especially without being able to choose how we exit this existence? Again, I found a story related by Dr. Frankl as he contemplated an early escape from prison with a friend which would mean abandoning those he was treating and serving while there. He writes,
“I ran back to my hut to collect all my possessions: my food bowl, a pair of torn mittens inherited from a dead typhus patient, and a few scraps of paper covered with shorthand notes (on which, as I mentioned before, I had started to reconstruct the manuscript which I lost at Auschwitz). I made a quick last round of my patients, who were lying huddled on the rotten planks of wood on either side of the huts. I came to my only countryman, who was almost dying, and whose life it had been my ambition to save in spite of his condition. I had to keep my Intention to escape to myself, but my comrade seemed to guess that something was wrong (perhaps I showed a little nervousness). In a tired voice he asked me, ‘You, too, are getting out?’ I denied it, but I found it difficult to avoid his sad look. After my round I returned to him. Again a hopeless look greeted me and somehow I felt it to be an accusation. The unpleasant feeling that had gripped me as soon as I had told my friend I would escape with him became more intense. Suddenly I decided to take fate into my own hands for once. I ran out of the hut and told my friend that I could not go with him. As soon as I had told him with finality that I had made up my mind to stay with my patients, the unhappy feeling left me. I did not know what the following days would bring, but I had gained an inward peace that I had never experienced before.”(58-59)
What a beautiful epiphany.
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”(66)
Dignity, if you will, is an attitude about how we face all life’s challenges. That attitude is completely ours and can never be taken from us.