In the last post I described how Chassidic philosophy makes the assertion that “where we are today is exactly where we need to be in order to bring G-d’s universe to completion.” I introduced the idea that we are all caught up in hashgacha pratis (Divine Providence), in which the Divine Will purposefully plays out in seemingly random events. Our task is to see our difficult life situations through this lens and react joyfully to them, knowing that they are sent to us from a Holy Source (G-d) and are for our own benefit.
I can imagine that someone might take issue with this attitude. “That’s all well and good,” this person might say, “for someone going through annoying or even troubling life circumstances. But what about those of us living through truly horrific events?” Unfortunately, our world is replete with wars, famine, torture, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, etc. Can we really believe that this is somehow “for our own good” and comes from a “Holy Source?” The answer, according to Chasidic philosophy is an emphatic, “Yes!”
A prominent Jew and holocaust survivor once asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, how he could believe in G-d after the Holocaust.
The Rebbe's response was: "How can you not believe in G-d after the Holocaust?"
If the world is just a product of random chance where any person can brutally oppress another just because he happens to be stronger and more prone to cruelty, the Rebbe asks, what kind of world is that? How can we even exist in a world like that? There's got to be some meaning behind it, some hidden and ultimate reason to it.
This is more than just wishful thinking. The purpose of our lives is to make this world a better place, and in order to do that we must be vital and hopeful. The attitude of finding meaning in the darkest moments can spur us on to great deeds while the opposite attitude most often leads to a pessimistic nihilism that inhibits purposeful action because, “What’s the point?”
Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, has been so powerful and influential for so many people because he was a witness and victim to the most unfathomable cruelty. Yet he came away with an approach to life that says it is up to us to define and give meaning to what happens to us. He demonstrated how this attitude got him through the horrors of the camps and helped him pick up the pieces of his life after he was liberated. He used this insight to empower literally millions of people around the world. As he famously wrote, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
I have been consistently amazed at the resiliency and determination shown by my clients who have suffered severe trauma in their lives. The culminating moment of our work together is when they realize that they can thrive, not in spite of the thing that happened to them, but because of it. They explore the implications and lessons that can be gleaned from the experience and often end up directing their energies and efforts toward helping others who have gone through the same kind of tragedy. They realize that they have become deeper people because of what they have gone through. When they are able to move away from the defense mechanisms they have employed to keep themselves safe, they open up to an overwhelming empathy for the suffering of those around them.
There is no question that they will help others in pain – and because they are coming from a place of such authenticity themselves – their help is useful and productive. Through these kinds of actions they are able to transform the ultimate darkness into the greatest light. Those of us who have never – thank G-d – experienced this same kind of horror must honor those who have and learn whatever lessons they have to teach. This gives meaning to what they have gone through and brings the world one step closer to never experiencing such things again.