God, Psychiatric Illness & Uncovering Meaning

The psychiatrist Professor Viktor Frankl recounted in one of his many books an experience a student of his had whilst a patient in a psychiatric hospital.

It refers to a time when psychiatry was much less enlightened and sophisticated than it is today. Nonetheless, it is demonstrative of the fact that we can find meaning and a unique sense of purpose even in the most wretched of circumstances. In fact, such parlous conditions may accentuate and accelerate our search for meaning and bring it into sharper focus. That is after all the message of Frankl’s landmark autobiography of life in the concentration camps, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.

God is to be found as much in the despair as in the victories of life; hope is a cornerstone of faith and an understanding that there is meaning in suffering. One only needs to read Jeremiah 29:11 to understand that reality: “I alone know the plans I have for you,  plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for.” 

I’ll leave you now with the words of Frankl’s student without further comment:

‘In the mental hospital, I was locked like an animal in a cage, no one came when I called begging to be taken to the bathroom, and I finally had to succumb to the inevitable.  Blessedly, I was given daily shock treatment, insulin shock, and sufficient drugs so that I lost most of the next several weeks…

But in the darkness I had acquired a sense of my own unique mission in the world.  I knew then, as I know now, that I must have been preserved for some reason – however small, it is something that only I can do, and it is vitally important that I do it.  And because in the darkest moment in my life, when I lay abandoned as an animal in a cage, when because of the forgetfulness induced by ECT I could not call out to Him, He was there.  In the solitary darkness of the “pit” where men had abandoned me, He was there.  When I did not know His Name, He was there; God was there’.

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