Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Tag: Viktor Frankl

Cosmic Connections

Doreen is a gregarious woman who walks her Rhodesian Ridgeback regularly around Edgemont Memorial Park. She is also exceedingly brave, a trait made apparent by her seemingly fearless ability to read poetry of her own pen to a crowded-with-parents Edgemont Montessori School library. She walked away from a marriage that didn’t quite fit properly, knowing that nothing but deep and meaningful love would be good enough for her. She has survived breast cancer.

She is also creatively talented, a seamstress and costume designer who has worked a variety of jobs, including for the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, a post which offered a connection to another strong woman who she had never met, Judith Mortenson. Judith was a regular as an extra for various productions at The Met, a pastime that she enjoyed wholeheartedly.

Judith owned a beautiful brownstone on West 20th Street in Chelsea, along with her longtime friend Charles who spent part of his professional writing career penning speeches for Herbert Hoover. Ms Mortenson never married, never had children. Throughout her life she was able to regularly visit her Parisian pied-à-terre – that was gifted to her by a generous uncle – without familial impediment. A happy byproduct of her real estate holding was the cheeses she smuggled on her flights home from France to New York. She entertained her tenants with those cheeses, made complete by the only Christmas gifts she would accept from her housemates: whatever could be eaten or drunk.

She was practical, yes, but also well read, well spoken and never gushingly friendly. If she was kind to you, interested in you, you knew you deserved it somehow.

When Judith was well into her 70s, she decided to go under the knife to illustrate the intention of living the rest of her life well, with agility and lithe gait, by replacing a knee rendered useless by osteoarthritis. As routine as it is a hopeful surgery, it came as a shock to her housemates that she died under that knife, leaving her only intimate relation, a confused housekeeper, to handle the arrangements. It was an arduous and painful task for Judith’s longtime employee turned quasi-sister, so she simply ignored it.

Months later confused tenants – past and present – mourned the loss of a good French conversationalist, the tours of cheap New York and Parisian restaurants, the behind-the-scenes stories of the Met. Most of all they longed for the impossible proper good bye, ritualistic or otherwise. Yet the costume designers at the Met found an appropriate way to commemorate the life of a music loving, unassuming person of no particular ties: by retiring permanently her favorite strand of costume pearls. The necklace remains unassigned to anyone, taking indefinite residence in a decorative box with an engraved plate bearing Judith’s name and a mounted glossy photograph of her in full pearled regalia.

One of Judith’s former tenants-turned-suburbanite, who wept over her loss in Edgemont Park one morning, was comforted by the story of the box, found by Doreen one evening whilst rounding out some Diva’s cache of fake jewels. There was someone who was thoughtful enough to leave behind something tangible of Judith, a reminder of her metaphysical contribution and value to those that knew and loved her. It was appropriate that Doreen found the makeshift memorial, a similarly strong woman with a love of opera and art, and judging from her poetry, one with a clear understanding that love is an intangible commodity not found in a string of costume pearls, but in survivors’ still beating hearts.

“Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”  -Viktor E. Frankl

Existentialism for the 12 Year-Old

My 12 year-old son has a sign posted on his suburban bedroom door that reads, “Area 51. Restricted Area. No Trespassing Beyond this Point. Photography is Prohibited. Use of Deadly Force Is Authorized.” It’s not exactly a welcome mat, and hopefully no indication of what the approaching teen years will look like. I am certain that the unwelcome sign is more corporeal proof of his fascination of the United States Government allegedly maintaining a facility for the sole purpose of researching extra-terrestrial life, but more: that ET may actually exist. He has seen the movie Contact several times, and screening sessions have always spurred interesting discussion on the nature of life, what role intelligence plays in any organism and what it would mean to us as individuals to encounter a whole new world out there.Area 51 sign

Two years ago, he was riveted by Stephen Hawking’s book, George’s Secret Key to the Universe which fed his hunger for more information about the physical universe, but also left him with an unwavering admiration for Hawking, who in 1963 contracted a neuro-motor disease and given two years to live. He instead “went on to Cambridge to become a brilliant researcher and Professorial Fellow at Goville and Caius College. Since 1979 he has held the post of Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, the chair held by Isaac Newton in 1663. Professor Hawking has over a dozen honorary degrees and was awarded the CBE in 1982. He is a fellow of the Royal Society and a Member of the US National Academy of Science. Stephen Hawking is regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein” according to his website. So much for that death sentence.

Recently, I have found my boy hunched over one of one of Stephen Hawking’s TED Talks posted on You Tube, answering big questions about the universe, including its origins, the existence of other intelligent life forms, and the future of our own human race. The most striking words of the broadcast lecture, for me, were the ones he spoke through his highly sophisticated speech synthesizer about himself: “I have been very lucky that my disability has not been a serious handicap. Indeed it has probably given me more time than most people to pursue the quest for knowledge.” For a man who cannot walk, who cannot speak or write without the use of expensive computer equipment, he has summarized perfectly the real existentialism: that with the Mind and a purpose, no handicap is too great to survive and live our lives with meaning, regardless of inevitable suffering.

I jumped on the teachable moment and introduced my son to the late Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and neurologist who based his practice on logotherapy, or Meaning of Life theory. He has more than twelve million copies of his book Man’s Search for Meaning in print, outlining his anti-hedonist vision of the world, and how he survived four (four!) concentration camps by focusing on his life’s purpose and the love of his wife. Suffering in life is unavoidable; the attitude we take to combat the feelings that follow that suffering is entirely our own decision. Hawking beautifully exemplifies Frankl’s view, and who better to be a role model for our children?

What a beautiful gift technology has been to all of us, so that we may know of his ponderings and benefit from them ourselves. Hawking responded to a question from the audience regarding life on earth and wether or not he thought it possible that another civilization exists in our Milky Way. He said that he thought it unlikely that one does, within a few hundred light years of our own planet, as radio frequencies likely would have reached us by now. There is the possibility that one might have existed in the past and destroyed itself however. Hawking reminds us all that taking a purposeful stance in our own existence for the purposes of survival can be a whole lot more all-encompassing. He very clearly tells us that we are using up renewable resources and will have to look for ways to expand ourselves, by reaching out into space for one.

I expected my son to be disappointed that a brilliant mind discounted the theory that proverbial green men from another unknown planet are likely not to coexist with us. Instead, a hero took an entirely new form in his adolescent mind, and he sits in a wheelchair, has a robotic voice, and the blessed perspective of seeing life for what it truly is: a gift. His Area 51 sign is still posted to his door, and I expect it to stay. I also expect he’ll continue to ponder other life forms in our universe and contemplate what ever happened at the US Air Force installation in in Nevada. Still: Superman most certainly doesn’t wear a cape and a leotard anymore; but he does have some amazingly sophisticated computer equipment.