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Saying yes to life, even then, even now


In these crazy times, as the world changes in unpredictable ways, where do we turn to find meaning?

I don’t mean the ultimate capital “M”  Meaning, or “The Meaning of Life” a la Monty Python, but a meaning that sounds like a “Yes” within us and adds some purpose to our days. That yes can be the little boost (see the video at the end) that helps us get up in the morning and make better choices during the day.

Like staying away from crowded Florida beaches.

I understand the desire for beaches. I’m a fish. I was born to swim. My parents had to catch me before I crawled into a lake at age two. My idea of bliss is a long swim in saltwater, followed by time on a sun-soaked beach.

But not if it endangers the life of others.

This past weekend, I found it surreal (my word of the week) to see photos of Florida beaches packed with shoulder-to-shoulder bathers. And read about parties at Lake of the Ozarks now labeled by officials as “an international example of bad behavior.”

As I was thinking, “Are we completely nuts?” I learned about a “new” book by Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, arguably one of the ten most important books of the 20th century.

Frankl wrote Saying Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything in 1946, based on a series of three lectures he gave eleven months after being liberated from a concentration camp. The book had been largely forgotten and never translated until this March, when the first English translation was published with a terrific introduction by Daniel Goleman.

It was eerily timely.

Reading Frankl’s book was like discovering an oasis of sanity in a values desert. 

At the time of his release, Frankl, an Austrian neurologist/psychiatrist, learned that almost everyone he held dear, including his wife, had been killed.

How would you say yes to life from that place?

His “Yes” wasn’t the make-yourself-happy because you-can-have-it-all “Yes” touted by some contemporary authors who see the pursuit of happiness as a private pastime with no room for suffering.

I call such a book a celebration of entitlement.

Frankl would have been dismayed by these thoughts of self-indulgence, He saw the massive consumption and pleasure-seeking in pre-war Germany and Austria part of what led to their takeover by the Nazis.

He saw what Hitler did in repeating lies so often that they began to be held as truth. He knew the evils of such manipulation, and would have called our current plague of conspiracy theories, lies tossed out cavalierly, disregard for science and evidence, and the practice of leaders slandering people who disagree with them, for what it is: propaganda.

Finding meaning

As Austrian society struggled to rediscover its moral values, he lectured about our need, as individuals, for meaning.

He wasn’t talking about the purpose-for-life that we can laminate at the end of a motivational seminar. He was talking about a sense of meaning that is chosen by us, individually, moment by moment, hour by hour, as life offers us questions and invites us to make choices.

What about COVID-19?

I understand the desire to pull meaning out of the tragedy that is COVID-19. How do you reconcile its catastrophic impacts and a death count that has hit 100,000, in this country alone, with the idea of a meaningful world?

I want to believe that the pandemic is waking us to be a more conscious, environmentally sensitive world, based on respect for both individual freedom and the common good.

But it’s too soon for us to grab onto that meaning,

The meaning of the pandemic will emerge over time. It’s up to us to create a sense of meaning as we live each day.

Frankl wrote that meaning comes from three sources, and I’ll add my interpretation here:

1) Action. Are you finding joy in what you are creating? Are you saying “yes’ to what you feel called to do? Are you contributing to the good of another?

2) Beauty and love. Can you feel meaning by noticing and appreciating beauty, through nature, art, music, or, however it comes to you? Are you finding and giving love?

3) Suffering. Can you be with hardship, knowing that the conflicts we endure in the world or bear within ourselves can strengthen us? Or, as Frankl famously put, even in the bleakest of times, we can gain meaning from how we choose to use our minds. Meaning does not have to come through significant or heroic acts but can live in the smallest gestures. The tiniest “yes” to life will sometimes be all we can do.

What’s your Yes?

What’s the yes that’s giving meaning to your day today?

For me, it’s hugs from healthy dogs (Winston was sick last week), putting out this blog, fixing supper for Steve, and brilliant red poppies. I’m lucky.

It’s a beautiful blue-sky, “yes” kind of day, a time to practice yes-ing even as I cry again about another senseless, brutal murder, this time in Minneapolis.

I want to keep in practice knowing that winter rains will return and someday I may receive a tragic announcement that stuns the life out of me.

Hopefully, my efforts today will serve me tomorrow and I’ll find the strength to say yes to some small part of life, if only with a moment of song.

6 Responses

  1. Sally, Thank you for this wonderful post. I’m finding meaning in creating what inspires me which is usually in the kitchen, in the garden, or at my work studying the brain. Right now I have a strawberry rhubarb custard tart in the oven and I’m going to share it with the wonderful couple that gave me the rhubarb. It has an Alsatian batter crust which I have never made before and I find myself seeking more and more recipes to try to add to my repertoire. It is time to try something new. I look forward to reading this book. I always look forward to your thoughtful words and inspiration.

    1. I only wish I could be there to taste it. I love how cooking is such a creative expression for you and how it accompanies your other work such as your studies of the brain. You are a multi-faceted delight!

  2. Sally, thank you for this entry. Indeed, “Yes!” Yes to the small ponds of optimism and clarity during this evolving experience of pandemic. I retired at the beginning of the year. What has occurred is unexpected, but instead of needing to the voices around me saying, “hey good timing,” I am drawn to the voices that ask me to be more awake. Not just While sitting on a cushion, but as much off the cushion.

    Thank you!

    1. First, congratulations on your retirement! Well earned. I am so glad that the voices to which you listen are the ones inviting your to awaken. We need those voices all around us! Best to you. S

  3. The “Yes to Life” book was the advertised book on my Kindle (it defaults to advertisements when turned off) yesterday morning. I immediately sent a photo of this little miracle to my friend Lou Storey (Hopewell Valley CHS class of ’72) because his psychology practice is based on Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy. Lou has illustrated some of Frankl’s concepts (Lou is also an artist) and they can be found on his website. What does Jung say about coincidence?

  4. Sally, this celebration of saying Yes is beautiful and so timely in this season of uncertainty.

    I start each day with a fresh cup of coffee, my personal journal, the Bible, and prayer. Then, I make a list of 3 things I am grateful for today. The first item is always thanking God for a new day.

    The saying Yes reminds me of 2 things:
    1) The scene in Dead Poets Society – “the barbaric yawp”

    2) Saying yes to my core values like the roots of a tree before saying no to demands by others and still saying yes to my relationship with them. (“The Power of A Positive No” – William Ury)

    Today, I am saying YES to a new day and practicing new YESES to the mystery and beauty of life.

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