Tuesday, August 04, 2020

exemplar of a baal mussar

Viktor Frankl is best known for Man's Search for Meaning, a bestseller of bestsellers of all time.  Recently a new book, Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, was published based on three of his lectures.  If you read the former you will be familiar with many of the ideas in the latter.  I just want to quote one passage (p.59-61) from the book because if this does not exemplify what being a baal mussar is, I don't know what does:

There was a young man engaged in an active and productive career - he was a busy graphic designer in advertising - who was suddenly torn from his work because he fell ill with a malignant, inoperable spinal tumor at the top of his spine.  This tumor quickly caused paralysis of his arms and legs.  Now he could no longer keep up the way in which he had made his life meaningful, namely the path of being active and employed: he was pushed to one side, in a completely different direction; being active was increasingly inaccessible, and he was relying ever more on finding meaning in the passive experiences of his restricted situation, and extracting meaning from life even within such limited possibilities.  So, what did our patient do?  While he was in the hospital, he read intensively, he tackled books he had never had time to read in his busy professional life, he listened diligently to music on the radio and he had the most stimulating discussions with individual fellow patients.  So he had withdrawn into that area of existence in which it is possible, beyond being active, for a person to fulfill the meaning of life and answer life's questions in the passive incorporation of the world into the self.  Therefore, it is understandable that this brave person, even at that point, by no means had the feeling that his life, even in its very limited form, had become meaningless,  But then came the time when his illness was so advanced that his hands could no longer hold a book, his muscles had become so weak; he could no longer tolerate headphones as they caused him such severe headaches; and eventually he found it difficult to speak, and could no longer hold his spirited conversations with the other patients.  Thus, this man was again pushed to one side, rejected by fate, but now not only from the realm of value creation but also from that of experiential value.  Due to his illness, this was the situation in his last days.  But he was able to extract meaning even from this state of affairs, simply in the position he adopted.  Our patient knew perfectly well that his days, or even hours, were numbered.  I remember clearly making my rounds as the doctor on duty at the hospital at this time, on this man's last afternoon.  As I was passing his bed, he beckoned to me.  Speaking with difficulty, he told me that during the senior physician's rounds that morning he had overheard that Professor G. had given orders to give the patient a morphine injection in his last few hours, to ease the agony of his impending death throes.  He went on to say that since he now had reason to believe that tonight he would reach that point, he asked me to give him the injection now, during that visit, so that the night nurse would not have to call me especially because of him and disturb me while I was sleeping.  In the last hours of his life this man was still intent on sparing others trouble rather than "disturbing" them!  Apart from the bravery with which he endured all his suffering and pain, what an achievement, not a professional but an unparalleled human achievement, lies in this simple remark, in his wish to consider others, literally in his last hour!

You will understand me if I now state that no terrific advertising graphics, not the best nor the most beautiful in the world (if the patient had created them when he was professionally employed) would have been an accomplishment equal to the simple human achievement that this man demonstrated with his behavior in those last few hours of his life.

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