SpokenCoast Theme: Finding meaning in one’s life

Cessna Caravan from Bethel to Hooper Bay, AK - Sunrise

Hooray! Here it is! The “Viktor Frankl” post. It gives me a special thrill because I like that Viktor is spelled with a “k”. Gives off a Transylvanian vibe…

Drive Out Fear

It’s one of the “14 Points of Quality” by Dr. Edwards Deming. In a recent interview by Meghan Ward of The Campsite Blog, I talked about removing fear in my life as a personal goal for this project.

Fear has impacted me by preventing me from living. Sure, I’m on this big journey, I’ve done stuff like climb mountains, ski, traveled most of Asia, etc. But, was I really alive and present for every moment of those times? No.

Growing up in an abusive, alcoholic home created a lot of fear in my mind. When I left for college, and managed to graduate, I was absolutely terrified at how to move into adult life. While in college, I used drugs & the “party lifestyle” that society expected from college kids, to numb myself from the fear, and the reality of living. I felt totally unequipped to fend for myself, make friends, and create a life. The reason was I expected bad things to happen to me around every corner.

This is what happens when chaos reigns in a home. Kids learn that trauma & tragedy could happen at any second, and oftentimes create mental & emotional “boxes” to place themselves, to feel safe. I put all my emotions in a box, because feeling any of them was dangerous. You see, I could “get it” if I was happy, or sad, or angry, or simply bored. No matter what I felt, I could be targeted for verbal or physical abuse, so I stopped feeling altogether.

Shoving my fear down too, lead me to acting out: partying, sleeping around, daredevil antics while biking or skiing. It’s like I was trying to prove to the world how tough I was. The fear was still there, but I pretended it wasn’t. It prevented me from ever being really happy, or ever being really sad. It kept me in a lousy job that wasn’t right for me for an extra year & a half. It produced one failed “relationship” after another. (Quotes because they never even got off the ground. How can you call 2 months or less a relationship?)

The Gift of Cancer

Then, many years into my adult life, two people whom I love dearly, my mom & brother, were both diagnosed with cancer. By this time, I had done lots of therapy & support groups & other stuff to try & uncover my real feelings, even my fear. Some progress was made.

But, when Mickey died, it brought up a feeling that I had still been pushing away: grief. As previously mentioned, I hate grief. It’s just icky.

No matter how I tried, the grief wouldn’t go away. And if I tried to numb it out or push it away, it just came back 20 times worse. Acting out behavior ensued. Self-loathing followed. The whole cycle was no good.

In Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, (Thank You Jerry Fisher!) he wrote how despite the horrors of the concentration camps, there were certain prisoners who acted with kindness & compassion to others, giving away their last piece of bread, or comforting someone who was crying. He wrote that these people had made a choice, an inner choice to not allow the external forces of their circumstances take away their inner freedom. He goes on to quote Dostoevsky, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” (pg. 75)

What grief did for me was force me to surrender to emotions. It forced me to get messy, to accept my imperfectness as a human, and to cry in the middle of the supermarket.

Finding Meaning

What grief also did was give my life meaning. Out of the emotional destruction of the tsunami that was Grief, came a rising of the phoenix of meaning. My life was far from peaceful, and I sought peace. I had to find peace, or else I would die. It’s like any addict with their substance: if they take that next drink/snort/food/slot/etc., they will die. They will have lost EVERYTHING, their money, their spouse, their kids, their house, their job, etc. Deep down in the depths of my soul, I knew that if my life didn’t change, especially my career path, I would die. My body would be here (Because I would be too afraid to kill myself. Love that irony!), but my soul would be gone. The light in my eyes would go dim, and I would become an automaton. My boss would have LOVED that! That’s what he really wanted, not a live person; so I would still have my old, lousy job.

Instead, I asked myself how I could become “worthy” of my sufferings. My emotions were happening whether I wanted them to or not. That meant that Life was happening. By accepting my emotions, I had to accept Reality. Death is Reality, even if it happens to a loved one way too young. How could I accept my suffering, and not become a whiner? Not act out with nefarious activities? Not run amok with a machete in a shopping mall?

The answer came in this project. Today I talked to a pastor here in Hooper Bay, AK. He wouldn’t agree to an interview. The reasons don’t matter, but he did talk to me at length about my story, his story, and the village’s story. He said that he found meaning for his life through God. Once that happened, all the holes in his heart from past trauma, abuse, etc. became filled. This is essentially what Viktor Frankl says, too.

Viktor Frankl survived Auschwitz not because he was more physically fit as other prisoners, nor because he was a doctor & received special treatment. He survived because he was mentally more fit than others. Having studied psychology many years, Frankl understood the machinations of his mind, at different levels of reaction from his first day arriving at the camp, to his hundredth day.

Frankl described two areas where he found meaning in his suffering: love and academia. Frankl described a moment where he envisioned his wife while on work duty. Whether she was alive or not, didn’t matter. He saw her image in his mind, and loved her with no attachment. He committed to his love for her, from that moment onward to his death. This moment helped him to not dwell on the past, nor too far into the future, but instead find peace even in the wretched conditions of his present moment. (Part One)

The academia piece occured when Frankl was in the throes of despair, wondering if he should kill himself. When he reached into his pocket, instead of bread, he found a piece of paper. With a wet finger in a pile of dirt, he scratched out highly abbreviated notes to the manuscript of a scientific paper that he was forced to give up to the SS guards while being admitted to Aushwitz. Frankl realized that he could re-create much of the manuscript in his mind, going over key areas to embed them in his memory. Thinking of the joy publishing this manuscript would bring, Frankl found a reason to keep on living. He found joy in that moment with the dirt & paper, simply exercising his mind. Whether he lived or died before publishing the paper was unknown to him, and didn’t matter. He overcame the apathy & fear of making decisions that was common in the camp, resulting from the fear of the Unknown. Nobody knew their day of death, but it loomed over each prisoner every day. Some prisoners became emotionally crippled by this fear, and died early on in their captivity. Frankl’s desire to conduct lectures on his published manuscript overcame this fear. (Part One)

“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear & precise picture of it.” (pg. 82) What I believe Frankl says here is finding perspective. When a person finds a reason for their suffering, they no longer suffer. I wish I could say I no longer grieve my brother, but that wouldn’t be true. However, I don’t feel as miserable as I did 10 months ago, when returning from Chicago and helping my mom in the rehab center yet again, to face a boss & colleagues who had ZERO understanding of my situation, and no compassion for any loss in my productivity.

In fact, coming back again to the gift of this grief, I feel grateful for my grief. It allowed me to dream big, and to find the courage to follow that dream, thus giving tremendous meaning to my life. It allowed me to grieve earlier traumas, in a real & sincere way, closing the loop on some unfinished emotional business from my past.  The pastor from today, and many other interviewees say the same thing: find meaning in your life. That’s what keeps you going.

This grief opened me up to a larger cosmic force, to put aside my piddly ego, and use my creative talent as a vessel for deeply personal & highly inspirational stories to be revealed. While there is a certain aspect of this project that is my personal journey, the real story is the people I interview, and their courage to share their success over suffering. In turn, I become worthy of my own.

Hooper Bay, AK

This is my location from 10/11-17.  Just in the 24-hours I’ve been here it’s overwhelming.  When I tell the adults who ask, my project’s theme is hope, they tell me their problems with the village/school/community.  One teacher actually apologized to me today for being so negative when we first met yesterday.

I’m not sure what it is. Maybe I’m a new face, so I’m a new person to dump on that hasn’t heard their sob story 100 times, or isn’t living their sob story right along with them. Maybe it’s just a need to vent to someone who will take their side for lack of knowledge otherwise. Maybe it’s just people are struggling to find hope in this community. Maybe it’s just there has been too many deaths & suicides this year for people to feel hope; they’re too numb from the shock of these tragedies to even grieve them properly.

(This is also resulting in no interviews. Lots of talk, lots of support for my project, but nobody willing to go on camera.)

Whatever the reason, the core of the matter may be a lack of meaning. The kids are isolated, the costs of subsistence living and flying out of town are becoming too high. No jobs mean families rely on welfare, also foregoing subsistence activities, often. The parents often sell home-brewed booze or drugs to make money.

If the kids in this village have no meaning to their young lives, then how can they possibly have any respect for themselves? Because respecting oneself is what causes respect for property & authority figures, neither of which are happening in the Hooper Bay school. The rate of suicides alone speaks to a meaninglessness in the lives of the youth here.

I don’t know if my presence here with the project can have any impact. I doubt it since I’ll only be here 6 days. I don’t know if the project will influence the adults in any positive way, to help them re-frame into a path of positive action leading to fulfilled goals & Hope. But, what I do know is the kids in Hooper Bay need something other than basketball at school, or their boyfriend/girlfriend to be their primary reason for living.  Yu’pik tribal customs may help greatly. Not sure what else. But, it’s what I will pray for, when I think of Hooper Bay. I will pray that the children find their own personal meaning in their lives, to look forward to a joyful time of productivity in some manner, native or white society, and relish that they did that thing, or made that thing.

Despite a day’s worth of war stories, that is MY hope for Hooper Bay.

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4 Responses to SpokenCoast Theme: Finding meaning in one’s life

  1. Donna Erickson says:

    I miss you Marissa! You are so beautiful inside and out…Hope to see you at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention next week~

    • marissa says:

      I miss you too, Donna! I can envision you at your house, your kitchen table, the lamps, the thick walls, eating walrus! 🙂 I will be at AFN – let’s try to meet up for a chat & a hug…

  2. DSD says:

    Hello Marissa,
    I am so very impressed and touched by your SpokenCoast Project. It seems we have journeyed over similar terrain… We wish you so very well on this path and will ensure to be along with you in spirit. I will also add a link on my blog for you in the hopes that many others will also share this experience with you too…
    Watch for all the sunrises and sunsets along the way, that helped me along greatly…

    • marissa says:

      Hi DSD,
      Thanks very much for your comment, and sharing your story & blog with me. Your summit stones idea & the musings seem wonderful! It strikes me as a unique & sweetly compassionate way to give something back or pay it forward. I will also return the kindness about your blog.
      It’s funny you mention the sunrises & sunsets. These have been like magnets to me, and I keep photographing them. It’s getting kinda silly just how many photos of sunrises/sets I have. I’m trying to curb the habit a bit… 🙂

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