‘When I Needed A Neighbour?’

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It often strikes me just how convoluted we make our Christian faith appear, when in reality, at its core, it is relatively straightforward. Granted, the Disciples often misunderstood Jesus and struggled with the countercultural essence of his narrative; and so do we. But in essence, Jesus’ message was clear, especially when we consider the pragmatism of his ethical teachings.  His exhortations to reach out to the marginalised, to love the unlovely and to respect the dignity of the person, were profound. There are many examples in the Gospels where Jesus talks, in strident terms, of the neighbourliness imperative and the demands placed upon us; to embrace the stranger in our midst and to disaffirm restrictive tribal affiliations.

One such example of this is found in Matthew 25:44-45 –

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

And then there are the lyrics of the hymn ‘When I Needed a Neighbour’, sung by so many over the years, the first verse of which is reproduced here:

When I needed a neighbour,
Were you there, were you there?
When I needed a neighbour, were you there?
And the creed and the colour
And the name won’t matter,
Were you there?

Each hour, day, week and lifetime we all experience the situations and circumstances where we can be proactive neighbours. Moreover, how we engage and who we engage with is a very personal task; we all have unique skills that are there to be utilised in the service of others.

I think Viktor Frankl, Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and founder of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, captured the essence of that uniqueness when he wrote:

 “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

A Call To Service

The concept of self-transcendence and service to others is at the core of Christian belief and practice. Consider as an example Isaiah 58:10 – ‘If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday’. Or in the New Testament, 1 Peter 4:10 makes the point very succinctly –  ‘Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received’.

It would be erroneous however to think that religious belief has a monopoly on self-transcendence; it has a rich secular hinterland.  In Viktor Frankl’s classic book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ he addressed his understanding of ‘”the self-transcendence of human existence.”‘ and wrote: ‘It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter’. And crucially, ‘The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”’

The Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was cognizant of the fact that service need not be complicated or restricted to particular occupations; it is open to all of us, regardless of who we are and how we are categorized by society:

 

The Perennial Quest For Ultimate Meaning

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As a Logotherapist and a Christian Minister it comes as no surprise to me that Logotherapy is compatible with, but not exclusive to, the practical expression of a Christian worldview.

The best book on the subject, in my opinion, is ‘Logotherapy and the Logos of God in Christic Wisdom’ by Jeremiah Murasso, a Priest and Therapist. Murasso briefly elucidates the key similarities between Jesus’ ministry of healing, and the principles of the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, that is Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy and Existential Analysis.

These words from Murasso strike me as being particularly meaningful (note: he uses masculine references as gender-generic):

Although man has often become distracted and at times despondent in his search for ultimate meaning, he has never abandoned this quest.  The reason for man’s persistence lies in the resiliency of man’s spirit, which although buried and at times bruised by the world, yearns for wholeness and completeness. The Christic Wisdom of the New Testament describes Christ nourishing the bruised yet yearning human spirit as he seeks to rekindle man’s awareness of his noetic core.

Meaning & Wellbeing: Looking to the Future

For those who are interested, I have a second website dedicated to my role as a Logotherapist & Existential Analysis. Logotherapy was developed by Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor Prof. Viktor Frankl; its premise is that humans are motivated by the pursuit of meaning throughout their lives and in individual circumstances. In his book ‘Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning’, Frankl writes: “Man is originally characterized by his “search for meaning” rather than his “search for himself.” The more he forgets himself—giving himself to a cause or another person—the more human he is. And the more he is immersed and absorbed in something or someone other than himself the more he really becomes himself.” 

Logotherapy can be characterised as ‘healing through meaning’ and has a broad range of applications, especially in relation to navigating existential problems e.g. career choice, retirement, relationships, bereavement and living well with chronic ill-health.  Logotherapy helps us to take control of our loves by accepting that “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” (Viktor Frankl).

You can visit the website here: www.scottpeddie.com

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Learning from the Past; Looking to the Future

It was English poet Alfred Tennyson who wrote: “Hope Smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier'”

And so we embrace that hope as we move inexorably towards a new year. For many though, it can be difficult to focus entirely on the future. The year gone by may hold painful memories of illness, bereavement, broken relationships and other negative experiences.  We like to think that a new start and a new year will signal a time to forget that which has left its mark. But by trying to suppress the depth of our true feelings, and ignoring their existence, we make the likelihood of suffering greater.

The American Poet, Theodore Roethke, once reflected: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” He was right. In the midst of darkness and suffering there is meaning to be found and wisdom to imbibe; by applying those lessons to the present and future we can make progress and develop our true potential. Or, as the Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl wrote in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’: “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

With these words I wish you all a peaceful, meaningful 2018, my prayer for you is that whatever difficulties you experience, you take comfort from the knowledge that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”. John 1:5.

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Combating Holocaust Denial

‘Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour’. Romans 13:7

This verse came into my mind as I watched the 2016 historical drama film ‘Denial’. Based on Holocaust Historian, Prof. Deborah Lipstadt’s book, entitled ‘History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier’, the film is a dramatised version of the ‘Irving v Penguin Books Ltd & Deborah Lipstadt’s’ case. David Irving, an English writer of military and political history, filed a libel case against Lipstadt, disputing her depiction of him as a ‘Holocaust Denier’ who manipulated and misrepresented historical evidence to make his case.  In April 2000, High Court Judge Mr. Justice Charles Gray, found in favour of the defendants.

Holocaust denial is a pernicious assault on the dignity, and memory, of those who were murdered in their millions during the second world war.  By denigrating the survivors and the validity of their experience, Holocaust deniers violate the Apostle Paul’s admonition, in his letter to the church in Rome, to show respect and honour to those who deserve it.

As someone who has read many memoirs of people who survived the nihilsm of the concentration camps, and having visited Auschwitz/Birkenau and other concentration camps myself, the historical record, and the weight of personal testimony, is clear and consistent. It behoves all of us to remember the horrors of the Shoah and to be on our guard against antisemitism, racism and discrimination of any kind. After all, we are all made in the image of God/imago Dei and are therefore called to love and respect one another; hatred has no place.

Holocaust Survivor, Psychiatrist, Founder of Logotherapy and author of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, gives his perspective on Holocaust denial in this short clip (Source: uploaded to Vimeo by Mary Cimiluca);

‘The Courage to Suffer….’

As a Logotherapist and Existential Analyst I’m often asked what my favourite Viktor Frankl quote is. Such a difficult question! There are so many profoundly moving and insightful words contained in his writings and now very firmly ensconced in his legacy.

If I had to choose though, it would be a sentence I’ve clung onto many times as I’ve faced adversity, failure and unavoidable suffering:

But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” (in Man’s Search for Meaning).

No further comment or exegesis is required…….

Reflections on Death & Dying: How to Journey Well

Death, and dying are not topics that we discuss freely in our Western Christian culture; we tend to live life with the certainty of death hidden in the recesses of our mind.  It is all around us, but we dare not think of it in case the impact of it is too much to bear.

We have made enormous advances in openly discussing other existential issues – relationships and human sexuality immediately come to mind.  We have matured in our various faith (or non-faith) communities to the point that we can, at least in many quarters, discuss issues that were previously taboo, or ‘brushed under the carpet’ as we would colloquially refer to it.

But death……death is still stubbornly knocking at the door that we dare not open.  From an early age, we have been taught not to talk about it – perhaps this has not be conveyed to us consciously, but sub-consciously through the culture we live and move in, or the avoidance of the issue in our homes and places of worship.

We fear death.  Most of us, if we were truly honest with ourselves would admit to this as a factual reflection of our emotional status.  We fear the unknown, or the ambiguity, or the fact that we take that final journey alone.

Yet, if we face death head on, we find that we can liberate ourselves from the shackles of fear and meaninglessness, and instead walk in the light of peace and contentment.  Yes, that might sound clichéd, insensitive and lacking in pastoral tact, but it does have a biblical basis and a sound psychological underpinning.

Viktor Frankl, the eminent Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and best-selling author made the point ad infinitum, in his writings and speeches, that there is meaning in all circumstances and situations, including death and the process of dying.  Our will to meaning may indeed be enhanced when we face the finitude of our earthly life and contemplate what lies ahead.  We may be, in the words of NT. Wright’s book title, be ‘Surprised by Hope’, or in the Franklian sense ‘Surprised by Meaning’.  Those of us to minister to others in such circumstances can attest to that, although we may find it difficult to articulate the profundity of our observations at the time, or to grasp its import fully without a period of prayer and reflection.    We have seen it in front of us, in its rawness and unpredictability, therefore we can attest to it in our convictions.

As part of my training as a Logotherapist & Existential Analyst, my colleagues and I were required to write a  ‘spiritual autobiography’ (with the spiritual aspect not being confined to the ‘faith dimension’, but rather in the much wider sense as delineated by Frankl to include all of those experiences that make us uniquely human). This autobiography took us from before we were born to how we might envisage our death , and importantly, our legacy – not, at first glance, a particularly easy thing to do!  Nor was it in truth.  But it was, as I’ve alluded to a few seconds ago, not only enlightening, but it was uplifting.  As Frankl understood, it is only in the shadow of death that life can be seen for all its beauty, and the opportunity to realise meaning in its myriad forms presents itself more clearly and urgently.

In our Christian faith, our tradition has much to say about the topic of death, particularly in terms of continuity and a new mode of being. But how that manifests itself in practice is often difficult to pragmatically articulate, and crucially, to employ as part of a wider roadmap that can be consulted as we inevitably go astray from time-to-time.

By far the most helpful book I have come across in that respect is a small volume by Dr. Ann V. Graber, author of the incredible ‘Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy: Method of Choice in Ecumenical Pastoral Psychology’ and a Professor of Pastoral Logotherapy.  This book, published in 2009, entitled ‘The Journey Home: Preparing for Life’s Ultimate Adventure’ is nothing short of phenomenal; Dr. Graber combines a detailed, and a times very personal insight with her talent for writing simply, yet profoundly, distilling a wide-range of pertinent issues into an accessible format.

Dr. Graber asks those questions we are sometimes so reticent to ask: 1) how can we help a loved one who is dying, 2) does death frighten us, and 3) how would we, as unique individuals, deal with the reality that we were about to die, if and when, that situation arises?

Now you might be forgiven for thinking that such questions would inevitably result in a book that is very difficult to read! Instead what we find is a book that represents a journey, or an unfolding adventure that begins with an exploration of Dr. Graber’s own transformative experience, where she confronted mortality following a traumatic injury.  She writes convincingly of an ‘expanded awareness’ that she encapsulated in this short reflection: ‘There is a wondrous life to be lived, here and beyond, as we love and serve each other!’

Throughout, Graber skilfully and gently offers practical suggestions as to how those who are facing death can do so in a meaningful way, thus confronting uncomfortable emotions that can be characterised by fear and uncertainty. As Dr. Graber describes this ‘transformation of attitudes’, it can be facilitated and understood in terms of one’s belief system, but crucially, can also go ‘beyond the rites and rituals available to a person’.  She identifies these as ‘attuning to nature, imagery, stories, art, music, and whatever helps one cultivate an inner peace in which fears melt away’.

Preparation then, is central to the process of understanding the nöetic dimension of the dying process.  Graber rightly points out that, as Viktor Frankl himself noted, we need to prepare ourselves for death before we can venture to help others.  Part of that process includes acquainting or re-acquainting ourselves with the insights of religion, science, poetry, literature and philosophy and how they enrich and underpin the ‘transitoriness of our mortal existence’.

Key to Graber’s approach, as explained in her own words, is that ‘the transformative process will take on a hopeful note if it is accepted as a presupposition that spirituality is central. And that a person’s particular religion is supplemental’.

In journeying with others, Graber posits altruistic love, or self-transcendent caring, where the soul of another is touched at its core, as a liberating experience; how that works out in practice differs between individuals.  Although the overarching meta-narrative is the same, the micro-narrative differs from person to person.  Thus the ‘familial encounter, friendship, or therapeutic relationship’ is moulded to suit individual personalities, needs, desires and fears.

In reflecting on her own experience, Graber refers to the journey into one’s own ‘interior castle’ where meditation and the invocation of particularly meaningful imagery leads to a ‘communing with one’s ‘higher self’, the point at which we experience peace and wellbeing within.  This state of acceptance then is a powerful antidote to the fear of the unknown that often characterises death.  Moreover, by facing our fears directly, they lose their power to manipulate and direct our wider emotions.  Graber moves beyond ‘meditation’ and examines the role of storytelling, the arts and music as a repertoire of accessible tools which can lead to a gentle acceptance of fate.

Graber briefly touches on the conceptual elements congruent with a continuity of consciousness beyond death, based on religious insight, particularly that of Christianity.  That personal and empirical insights can be instructive to those facing their own mortality is a point well made by Graber. In that respect, I am reminded by a few short words penned by Søren Kierkegaard: ‘The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but are to be lived’.  One could apply such insight into the spiritual process, and experiential value, attendant with dying and death.

At our Journey’s end, Dr. Graber draws on Prof. Frankl’s maxim that our lives are a monument to our experiences and values.  It therefore makes good sense that Graber discusses memorialising and ways that the needs of the living can be expressed healthily in their grief and attendant loss of a treasured friend, relative or colleague.  In-so-doing she touches on various practices such as candle lighting ceremonies, prenatal loss memorials, commemorating body/organ donation and memorial plantings and gardens, among others. Throughout Graber emphasises sensitivity to individual preferences, a practise that is increasingly important in an evolving society that becomes more pluralistic by the day.

Perhaps the most touching part of Dr. Graber’s book is the example of one person’s specific preparation for ‘the journey home’ as explored in the final chapter entitled ‘Kay’s Legacy’.  She asks the question ‘how do we assist people who seek us out to be available to them, soul to soul, as they explore inner territory that is unfamiliar or hitherto untraversed?’  That indeed is the crux of the matter for those of us who minister to others.

Kay’s preparation was a very conscious one – she began by withdrawing from ‘earthly’ attachments such as property and business interests, prioritising healing relationships by expressing thanks for those who enriched her life, and extending forgiveness to those who had wounded her. She embraced those ‘spiritual companions’ who loved and supported her.  Her specific journey thereafter consisted of a ‘final farewell’ get-together, was surrounded by those who meant most to her.  Her funeral included participation by loved ones and a garden was constructed as a lasting memorial to her life.

Graber ‘s last sentence in her epilogue sums up succinctly the purpose of her book, that it ‘was written for anyone who may be willing to consider death as a doorway one passes through when physical life comes to an end and new vistas on the continuum of consciousness open up’.

For those who are searching, for those who are afraid and unsure of the contours of the ‘journey home’, how to live well and to die well, this book is a must read.  Our final earthly journey is an opportunity to realise meaning in profound and unexpected ways; Dr. Graber’s book provides us with the opportunity to reflect deeply on our own mortality, the continuity of consciousness and how we can embrace others.

May you journey well, Scott