“What is to give light must endure burning.”
I saw this quote from World War II concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl in the most unexpected of places: taped onto the ceiling of a chiropractor’s office, as I lay flat on a vibrating table seeking some relief after a month of lower back pain.
Frankl, whose best-known work is his book Man’s Search for Meaning, certainly knew what it was like to endure and survive the “burning.” The light of his insights, models and discoveries has shone brightly for more than 50 years in the hearts and minds of those fortunate enough to stumble across his story.
As I lay on the table, somewhat emotionally and physically worn down after weeks of hurting, I began to parse the quote into bite-sized pieces. This is a helpful contemplative exercise that should ideally take place more often than the occasional trip to the doctor.
What is. I reflected on the term “is,” and not in the spirit of Bill Clinton’s late 1990s sworn testimony before lawyers. There is an “is-ness” to all living things, all intricately connected to the ultimate Is, that divine consciousness. The wonder of life, ultimately, is the marvelous reality that things are, the miracle that anything is in the first place. Is has no beginning and no end, and cannot be fully wedged into a rational box. It simply is.
To give. What does it truly mean to give? There are many categories of gifts—birthday presents, money gifts, gifts of your time, gifts of sharing one’s wisdom, gifts of mercy and forgiveness, and so forth. To truly give, I believe, involves some kind of temporary loss, some sacrifice of what is dear or important to you. Israel’s King David vowed that he would not give Yahweh “something that costs me nothing.” True giving is from the heart, mind and spirit; in essence, you are giving a piece of yourself through the tangible expression of your gift.
Light. What is light, and what does it do? Electromagnetic radiation across wavelengths, visible to the eyes of all whom are able to see. Light creates more awareness of the objects interacting in space all around us. It provides warmth. It can be a mood lifter. And light creates contrast, allowing shadows to emerge. It is symbolic of truth and hope. Jesus declared himself “the light of the world.” Mister Rogers remarked, “All I know how to do is light the candle that has been given to me.” Martin Luther King Jr. commented, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.”
Must endure. The indigenous call to action for all who are a part of the “is” and choose to “give light,” is not optional. We must endure. The light will never be as luminous, as penetrating, as inspiring as it could be if not refracted through the lens of suffering. Frankl knew this. What does it mean to endure? To hang in there. To learn something from painful experience. To stay focused on a north star, despite the violent winds and storms hurling all about. To bend but not break, to be, as St. Paul put it, “struck down but not destroyed.” Think of the people you most admire, and each of them has endured something quite challenging and emerged on the other side a better person. A person able to give light.
And what must be endured? Burning.
Heat can remove impurities. Fire can refine precious metals. Controlled burns are utilized by foresters as a disciplined, pro-active means for preventing violent, out-of-control wildfires. Burning can and often does leave scars. Burning has been done to books espousing controversial ideas. Burning was the means by which many of the six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis, including people near and dear to the heart of Viktor Frankl. Who endured.
What is the burning I am resisting today? I ask myself even as my fingers tap out these words and nudge them passionately into cyberspace for anyone to read, like a message taped across the ceiling of the digital universe. And if I surrender to it, what light can I offer that might drive out just a little more darkness?