Posted by Dr. Anthony G. Payne
One of the most beloved verses in the Hebrew Scriptures comes from the 23rd Psalms:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For you are with me
In Japan, where I lived and taught for many years, a general sense of “gloom & doom” pessimism pervaded the lives of many folks. This was especially evident among my university students. Japan’s protracted economic woes had apparently sapped the vision and vitality out of many of these otherwise industrious, tenacious souls. A great many kids spoke of there being “no real future” for them. Needless to say, depression and despair reared its ugly head fairly often.
Now reactive depression is a wholly expected and understandable response to intractable adversity or woe. We all have a tendency to get sorely vexed when our lives are turned upside down and held there by trials and tribulations. In such a situation, one tries to console and counsel the suffering as best one can. (A touch of satire and self-deprecating humor sometimes doesn’t hurt either). And this I ably extended to my angst-ridden student charges with varying degrees of success. But more was needed.
The “more”, I reasoned, had to lie in something that would get these kids to change their outlook or perspective on certain aspects of life. To do this I looked to a tried-and-true source for generating insight and encouraging change: history. Specifically, I had my students tackle and examine two notable chapters: Famed psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s account of his years of struggle in various Nazi concentration camps (as recounted in his timeless classic, “Man’s Search For Meaning”), and the saga of Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
Dr. Frankl and his imprisoned compatriots suffered cruelly at the hands of sadistic SS guards, all the while struggling with scarcity and living conditions so calculatingly appalling as to beggar the imagination. Mindful that he could not change his circumstances and that his Nazi tormenters could snuff out his life at any minute, Frankl nonetheless felt empowered by a single fact: They could take everything from him but his power to choose how he would react to their brutal actions! And it was this realization that essentially helped buoy up Dr. Frankl during his agonizing walk through the “valley of the shadow of death”!
Frankl emerged from Hitler’s reign of terror intact and went on to establish an influential school of psychotherapy called logotherapy (http://logotherapy.univie.ac.at/). He died in 1997 at the ripe old age of 92, having survived the Third Reich by 52 years.
While Dr. Viktor Frankl was the victim of totalitarian oppression and a state-sanctioned policy of malignant racism and genocide, Brevet Major Gen. George Armstrong Custer stood on the other side of the divide, so to speak. Custer played a somewhat pivotal role in the United State’s 19th century pursuit of lebensraum (“living space”) and its calculated program of conquering and containing indigenous peoples (American Indians). It was not Custer’s successes in the so-called Indian War that helped advance the narrow social and political agenda of his time, but rather his death along with that of over 200 of his soldiers at the Little Big Horn (June 26, 1876). The “massacre” of then Lt. Col. Custer and his troops elicited a massive military response that ultimately led to the total subjugation of American Indians during the early years of the 20th century.
After my students had fully acquainted themselves with the lives and feats of Dr. Frankl and Lt. Col. Custer, I had them conduct an open comparative analysis of the two (men) for the purpose of extracting principles they felt to be especially insightful and personally meaningful.
Of course, these bright, eager young people came up with an illustrious roster of “goodies”. Among them: The power of choice; how evil seduces people by playing up to their basic desires and egos; the futility of life spent focused on narrow, self-serving and self-aggrandizing goals; the nobility of service to others informed by prior suffering; etc.
After we had reviewed their litany of ideas and comments, I asked them to sum up what we had learned from the lives of Frankl and Custer. The general consensus was that we must all have the power to make choices that will steer us through life; choices that may decide whether we end our days with a tally sheet that favors having achieved something worthwhile,…..or its opposite.
I had only one thing to add to what their conclusion, which was this:
“Each of us is headed into the valley…to our own “last stand”. Whether you get there as a young person or during middle-age or as a very old man or woman,….we all have to the enter the valley and depart this world. No one escapes this fate. But as you correctly surmised, it isn’t that final battle alone that determines the meaning and value of the life you have lived, but what you do in the days, weeks, and years leading up to it. And yes, the impact of your life and the ripples it sets in motion are determined by the choices and subsequent actions you take while enroute to the valley.
“Now I have but one final point to make – an admonition, really – which is this:
“If Dr. Frankl could exercise choice in his dire circumstances and by so doing not only survive the fiendish horror that was Nazi Germany, but set in motion ideas that have transformed countless lives ever since,….then certainly you can lay hold of the promise that lies in the abundant choices and options you have in life.”
Of those students who have stayed in contact with me in the intervening years, most appear to have made prudent choices that have helped them forge personally meaningful, productive and fulfilling lives.
How goes your journey to the valley?
© 2013 by Dr. Anthony G. Payne. All rights reserved. Photo of Dr. Payne made & added in 2017.