“The world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming it.”
– Helen Keller
– Helen Keller
October 10, 2012 (Unmaskingchoice.ca) - Viktor Frankl witnessed and experienced the far reaches of human suffering. “Life in a concentration camp,” he wrote, “tore open the human soul and exposed its depths.” Man’s Search for Meaning—his reflective recounting of his imprisonment by the Nazis—has much to tell us about life, suffering, and what it is to be human.
Frankl and his fellow prisoners had everything taken from them that could be taken. They were forcibly removed from their homes and separated from their families. Their possessions were confiscated. Even their names were replaced with numbers. Others told them when and where they could sleep, when they must arise, what work they must do, and even how much (or how little) they could eat. And yet we find many heroes among the victims of the concentration camps; for, as Frankl tells us, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I, and probably most people who read this, have never experience the depth of suffering Frankl and his fellow prisoners experienced. Our lives, nevertheless, are not without suffering in some form or another, and so I want to examine how suffering affects opinions and choices in our society. In particular, I often hear suffering given as a justification for abortion, whether the suffering be that of the mother or of the child. Does the suffering of either justify abortion?
Abortion to alleviate the suffering of women?
So many times I hear people condoning abortion out of a sense of compassion for women. An unexpected pregnancy can be a terrifying thing. Sudden responsibility for another human being, if she accepts this responsibility, may reshape a woman’s life—both present and future. Fear, uncertainty, and lack of support are just some of the factors that may contribute to the suffering of a pregnant woman. For some there are further difficulties to deal with—her child may have been conceived in rape, or her health may be in danger. If a woman is considering abortion, it seems reasonable to infer that she is suffering in some way, and that she sees abortion as an acceptable means of alleviating that suffering.
Viktor Frankl witnessed many men, who when confronted with difficult circumstances sought only to alleviate their own suffering, with no regard for the wellbeing of others. He tells of the Capos—men who betrayed their fellow prisoners and took the side of the Nazis. They made their own lives easier, but increased the suffering of others, even condemning some to death by their actions. While we may sympathize with the desperation that led people to behave in this way, these are certainly not the people we remember as the heroes of the concentration camps. We look up to those who chose the harder path—that of retaining their dignity and moral conviction in spite of their suffering, those who sacrificed in whatever ways they could for the benefit of others.
We admire people who do hard things when the right things are hard. We admire people who suffer with dignity, and who suffer for the sake of others. And yet, as Frankl points out, admiring this noble suffering in others is no assurance that we will respond this way when faced with our own sufferings. Most people can probably relate to this. Even in the simple things, we may blame our circumstances for our irritability, impatience, or our failure to help another. While suffering can be an opportunity for courage, so often we use it as an excuse. Frankl, on the other hand, maintains that to be worthy of suffering is to seek the ways our unavoidable suffering can benefit others.
While removing (in the case of abortion, killing) another human being whose presence is causing us difficulty is something we can do, and is a decision which some may sympathize with because they see the difficulty of our circumstances, this is not to say that it is something we ought to do. Acting to alleviate our own suffering at the expense of the lives of others is something many people have done throughout history, but on a deeper level we know that this is not a choice we would commend or even condone in other situations—why should we do so with abortion? Why should our society say that because one human being is suffering, she has the right to end the life of another? The answer is, we should not. We should instead do our utmost to alleviate the suffering of women in crisis, and to preserve the lives of their children.
When we talk about people having freedom to choose, we should always consider what is being chosen, and should strive to challenge one another to choose the highest good. For a woman in a crisis pregnancy, this may mean choosing to see her child as someone to fight for, rather than as something to be gotten rid of. Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Living for her child will not take away a woman’s suffering, but it can help to give that suffering meaning.
Abortion to alleviate the suffering of children?
There are times, according to some defenders of abortion, when abortion is what is in the best interest of the child. “The child is going to have a terrible life. The child is going to suffer. The mother is choosing what’s best for her child.” And what’s best for her child (according to these people) is death.
If someone is going to suffer—perhaps to suffer greatly—are we doing that person a service by ending his or her life? Is abortion justified in cases where children are very ill, or will be born into difficult life circumstances? Is sparing them this suffering an act of compassion?
What was the correct response for Viktor Frankl when confronted with the challenge of speaking to fellow inmates who were in despair? He knew with certainty that if these men remained convinced that their lives had no meaning, if they remained without hope, they would die. Their suffering would end. He could have told them this. He could have said that they were all better off to give up on the miserable lives they were forced to live and simply die. Instead, he challenged them. He challenged them to consider not what they expected from life, but what life expected from them. He challenged them to find a “why” worth living for. He could do little to eliminate their suffering short of ending their lives, but he did much to alleviate it, to help them see meaning in their suffering.
Sparing others suffering when we can is, most certainly, an act of compassion when our means are moral. Sparing someone suffering by ending her life, however, is a misguided attempt at compassion. To deny someone a chance to live will indeed prevent her from suffering, but it will also prevent her from experiencing joy, from loving, and from having the choice to overcome her suffering with dignity. You are the only person with the choice to see meaning or despair in your suffering. You are the only person to make that choice of how you will respond to your circumstances. Why would we deny this choice to others?
We live in a culture that abhors suffering. Suffering is to be avoided—almost at all costs. Life is seen as good and valuable when it is pleasant, comfortable, and pleasurable. We may admire the noble way in which others suffer, but most of us would rather avoid suffering altogether for ourselves. No life, however, is devoid of suffering. There are times when it is inescapable. What then does this mean for our life? Every living human being will suffer in some way or another. Is life then less valuable? On the contrary, Frankl reminds us, “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed… When we are no longer able to change a situation… we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Every human life will have suffering. Every human being will be faced with choices as to how to respond to his own unique suffering. Some will allow their suffering to chart their course, to dictate their thoughts and actions. Others will be the masters of their suffering. Some will hurt others because they themselves are hurting. Others will face their suffering as a means of protecting others from harm.
What did Frankl discover in his time in the concentration camps? “The truth—that love is the ultimate highest goal to which man can aspire.” To love is to choose the highest good for the other. If we love someone we certainly do not want to see that person suffer. We may do all we can to alleviate the suffering. But when we cannot take the suffering away, to love is to walk beside them and help them recognize their dignity, to help them suffer with their head held high.
To love a woman in crisis is not to offer her death for her child in order to take away her suffering, but to empower her to live for love, and so to find a meaning for her suffering. To love a woman in crisis is to walk with her so that she may not say “My circumstances forced me to do what was wrong,” but rather, “I had the courage to do what was right.”
To love one’s child is not to deny her life so that she may never suffer, but to give her life so that she may experience it in its fullness, and to teach her to suffer with dignity when suffering cannot be avoided.
We live in a culture where people seek to make their lives easier by ending the lives of others, but to love our culture is to constantly call people to live for something higher, to recognize their own dignity and the dignity of others. Humanity is capable of great cruelty, selfishness, and evil. We see this now with abortion, as we see it throughout history. Humanity, however, is capable of still greater love, selflessness, courage, and good. We must decide how we will respond to our own sufferings, and to the sufferings of others.
“We have come to see man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”