Then she saw a star fall, leaving behind it a bright streak of fire. “Someone is dying,” thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only one who had ever loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star falls, a soul was going up to God. ~ The Little Match Girl / Hans Christian Andersen
One of the fairytales I treasured as a little girl poignantly captured the hardships of childhood. Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl told of a young abused girl driven to begging in order to survive. Braving the cold of winter she lights her matches thus illuminating visions and imaginings of a better life. As she slowly freezes to death, she receives a visitation from her deceased grandmother. Her uniting with the one person who loved and cared for her is fulfilled through death. While this might be deemed tragic I perceived it as liberation from life’s intractable suffering. She was free. I was not.
Born into a family plagued by mental illness and generational abuse and trauma largely determined my life’s trajectory. I was either doomed to repeat this tragic narrative or discover ways to transcend my circumstances. Although the lure of death appealed to me, much like the little match girl hopes of a better life took precedence. Unbeknownst to me then, it was the myriad ways in which I endured that would eventually give rise to intentionality and offer definition of a deeper meaning.
The love of my grandmother, albeit ruptured by separation offered me a corrective experience of attachment. My immersion in books and art offered glimpses of beauty. My active imagination helped me escape through daydreams and fantasy and afforded me a tenable sense of agency. The spark of inspiration encouraged me to conceptualize what I desired and incited the impulse to persevere.
Jung’s statement, “the soul demands your folly, not your wisdom” proved true many times over. Countless misguided steps, mistakes, and self-destructive exploits ensued, but ultimately these intrepid imaginings and foolish choices led to a more grounded perspective and the fulfillment of ambitions as a psychotherapist and an interfaith minister. It also led to my reclaiming my creative inclinations.
Throughout my life, the pursuit of happiness was not my primary motivation. Discerning meaning was.
Of course, this process was not linear. Like all folks, I yearned for joy and peace of mind. I didn’t relish suffering or delight in creating meaning out of my misery. In fact, my need for safety and the distortion that life should be easy and pleasurable interfered with embracing suffering as a transformative journey into maturation. Embracing suffering so as to discern the deeper meaning, meant confronting pain, cynicism, and despair. Naturally, I wanted to flee this challenge.
Yet when I was completely honest with myself I knew that only by facing my suffering could I truly mourn the loss of Eden and accept that there is no safety or rescue. I also knew that coming to terms with this disillusioning truth would be my salvation. It was the only plausible way I could embark on creating a cohesive narrative of my life that could provide a sense of significant pride and purpose.
The writings of holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl offered me solace and clarity. Frankl gave testimony to the existential belief that life is filled with suffering and that the only way to survive is to find meaning in it. In spite of the pain and torture endured in Auschwitz and Dachau, Frankl refused to relinquish his humanity, his love, his hope, his courage. He chose, as Dostoyevsky had written, “to be worthy of suffering.” Frankl held that it is precisely man’s search for meaning that is a primary motivation of our existence and one that gives us a reason to live in spite of life’s tragedies.
Believing I had a reason to live fueled my quest to penetrate the larger meaning of what I was born into. This necessitated decades of psychological excavation. Confronting what fate handed me meant coming to terms with living on the fringe. The dearth of love and family defined my place in the world. There was no getting around that. I was an outcast. My teenage years defiantly personified that identity.
I embodied the insolent nonconformist who hid behind a veneer of nihilism.
During this typically stormy stage of life getting high every day was a viable alternative to suicide. My desolation was all the more exacerbated by numerous core injuries culminating in self-hatred and abject terror. As counselor, author, and motivational speaker John Bradshaw, astutely conveyed, “It is in adolescence that we begin to act out our original pain and unmet childhood needs.”
Needless to say, when I was in the throes of acting out from the wreckage of despair and exile creating meaning was not plausible, at least not consciously. Consumed by fears of rejection and outrage I held onto destructive illusions that kept me enslaved to patterns of victimization. Until the formidable force of rage could be constructively harnessed, I remained paralyzed. I lost sight of that tenuous sense of wonder and hope that sustained me as a child. Nothing seemed to matter, including myself.
Nonetheless, I was spurred on by the drive for self-preservation. That instinctual urge got me through and kept me going, preparing me for an eventual circuitous and deliberate process of construing the deeper significance of life beyond survival.
When something shameful is transformed into something beneficial a shift in perception occurs. At least that’s how it was for me. Composing a heartfelt chronology of all I’d been through, taking life-affirming risks and cultivating life skills ultimately morphed self-hatred into self-regard. Catching glimpses of a formidable self behind what felt hopeless, altered the interpretive lens through which I came to understand reality and my existence within it. Broadening my worldview to be inclusive of possibility was life-changing.
As a dictum popularized by Carl Jung proclaims, “In filth it shall be found”
In more prosaic terms, the gold is in the shit. This decree suggests that what we long to discover is often found in those places we most abhor. Or in other words, when we meet our darkness it humanizes us and allows us to actualize our buried potentials. Indeed, facing my darkness afforded me the ability to diffuse my projections and free myself of guilt and shame. Inauthentic false aspects of myself were broken down, dissolving rigidity and judgment. I became more real.
By coming to understand that there was more than who I believed myself to be, and even more than what I understood ‘the self’ to be, I was emboldened to transcend my victimization and gain access to my power and my inherent value. Only by confronting the abuse I endured and the hate I denied, was I able to cultivate discernment, discrimination, and formidable authority.
This descent into my lower nature allowed me to attribute meaning to the basic truth that somehow creativity, humanity, hope, and love survive adversity.
Hence, honoring suffering and the journey of self-realization became my defining purpose. Moreover, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky beautifully stated what for me, offers life profound meaning.
“Man is a mystery. It needs to be unravelled, and if you spend your whole life unravelling it, don’t say that you’ve wasted time. I am studying that mystery because I want to be a human being.”
This trajectory of being human organically aroused my spiritual curiosity and prompted enrollment in interfaith seminary. There I explored fundamental universal spiritual truths, such as the simplicity of life, selfless service, and moral principles.
All things considered, my search paradoxically brought me to the understanding that there is nothing intrinsically meaningful about life. As a survivor of complex trauma, I had the option to either succumb to nihilism or reach for beauty, seek out meaning, and strive, in spite of all odds to actualize potentials. I am grateful that I chose the latter.
As theologian and mythologist Joseph Campbell explains, “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”
For me, the answer to life’s meaning was found through managing the dark forces of despair and alienation and manufacturing enough hope and mettle to discover ways to rise above my circumstances. This journey taught me that the fullest agony of betrayal is found within our most intimate bonds and that the descent into the abyss of the dark unknown can give way to complexity and consciousness.
Bringing it full circle I am an elder woman now, safely ensconced in a stable fulfilling life. To look at me you wouldn’t know that my path of survival necessitated facing my traumas and fears of surviving alone in this world. I seem to fit in to the overall fabric of mainstream life. Yet no matter how the elapsing years and my decorous existence as a happily married woman and successful psychotherapist camouflage where I came from and what I’ve been through, walking a solitary path of healing will always set me apart.
What I used to judge as recklessly perilous choices, I now in hindsight view as glimmers of determination and part of the circuitous search for answers. In this regard, although navigating through darkness was fueled by the quest to discern meaning, as I attained acceptance of myself and life in general, the door to happiness did indeed open. The harvest was fully reaped when I finally chose with intent to enter.