Grieving people often think “why did this happen to me” which, considering they are the ones alive, might be a phrase better left for the one that died. Of course, what happens to the living is they are left with the absence of someone they loved. But this question of “why me” is one heard often not just among the grieving, but others who suffer as well. “Why do I have cancer?” “Why did I lose my job?”
Most of us feel we deserve a better life than we have. In fact, we feel appalled at the idea that God or fate or something else robbed us of something we deserve. We feel that life owes us something better than what we have. We are good people, we follow the rules, so why should we suffer?
The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl is best known for his classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, which comes out of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl lost his wife, parents, and brother to these camps. This is a man with a good reason to say that life owed him something more. Yet, in a series of lectures published in Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, he flips the question on us.
The question must fundamentally change from, “What does life owe me?” to “What do I owe life?”Viktor Frankl
The question must fundamentally change from, “What does life owe me?” to “What do I owe life?” Our default is to presume the right to question life, but it’s just the opposite—we must allow life to question us. When we allow ourselves to be questioned, we find responsibility—and in that responsibility we find meaning. We respond to these “life questions”—the questions life asks us from moment to moment. Our whole life is a long series of responses to the questions life constantly poses. How we choose to act in those moments gives a sense of meaning as we take ownership of life.
His thinking here comes from lectures he gave less than a year after his release from three years of being moved around to different concentration camps. How incredibly courageous for anyone to come from that experience and reflect on the idea that how we choose to respond to these times in life can give us a sense of meaning. The fact is that in every situation we do respond, we do act, although often poorly. Basic existential philosophy teaches us that not to act is to act. No response is actually a response.
Frankl is advocating an active rather than passive response to life, including in grief. If I apply this to my own life, I need to ask what I owe life in the context of Oliver’s death. It means I must take responsibility for my life in order to find meaning. Life is not a passive exercise. As a Christian, I’m well aware (as Frankl certainly should have been) that humanity cannot find the answer in themselves. Left to our own devices, we fail miserably, we choose unwisely, and we rarely find meaning in life. As the theologian Paul Tillich is claimed to have said, “existentialism asks the questions and Christianity answers them.”
As a Christian, I am called to answer the question of what I owe life within the context of God’s saving grace. I am called to find meaning beyond myself, because the answers we seek are not found in humanity. If my response to my son’s death is centered in myself, I not only fail my faith, I also fail my son. The death of someone you love raises the question of what you now owe life. We answer the question every day, but only by owning the question can we continue to create meaning for ourselves and the one we lost.