Storytelling is Freedom
How Viktor Frankl inspired me to use storytelling to redeem an early childhood trauma
When I was four years old—and for many years later—my favorite pastime was frog hunting. There was no swamp pond or quagmire I was unwilling to traverse in the name of a robust, amphibious catch.
One warm midsummer day—when I should have been taking a nap—I disobeyed my mother, escaped my soporific confines, and succumbed to the siren song of the frog.
I had recently discovered a good spot at the lake across the street from our home—a spot that had blessed me with a uniquely abundant yield: I had caught the biggest bullfrog of my frog-hunting career, and I couldn’t wait to share it with my friends.
Giddy with enthusiasm, I collected my prize gently in my hands and dashed across the street to the lake to display my latest trophy (and then, of course, to release my amphibious friend, as was my practice).
Single-minded in my joy and zeal of the moment, I neglected to look both ways before I crossed the street.
The next thing I knew, the world went black.
It felt like the truck had come out of nowhere. But I also should have been paying attention.
I remember awakening, slowly, mother’s face hovering above me coming into focus.
“Where is my frog?!” I gushed.
Somewhere in our family archives, there is a photo of me on a stretcher in a neck brace in the back of an ambulance clutching my beloved bullfrog in my hands.
I’ve recently been sharing this story with my three-year-old son, Percival, as a cautionary tale about why it is so important to obey our parents, and to look both ways crossing the street.
I don’t end on a sad note with the story of my car accident when I tell it to my son, though.
Instead of keeping it at the level of trauma, I turn it into a story of redemption and purpose, telling my son that God saved my life when that massive pickup truck hit me at the age of four. I tell him how I went on to excel in sports growing up, confounding the doctors’ predictions.
I end the tale of my accident on a high note so as to harness the power of stories to help us heal and to go on living with dignity and strength. Stories have the possibility to transform our greatest traumas into our greatest triumphs.
As I share in my new series, launched yesterday, for The Teaching Company and Wondrium, called Storytelling and the Human Condition, I learned how to do this from an extraordinary storyteller.
I learned this from someone I have read and studied for years now.
I’m referring to one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, Viktor Frankl.
Viktor Frankl, the Jewish-Austrian philosopher and psychiatrist who suffered under the barbarism of the Third Reich, who survived the Holocaust, shows us how he was able to craft from his own suffering and that of those around him the meaning necessary to reclaim his life, freedom, and ultimately his dignity as a human being. But that meaning came into focus by recalling, and relating, the stories bound up in that terrible time.
Frankl was sent to a concentration camp—Auschwitz—after he had been married for only nine months. His entire family was wiped out. He describes his experience in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He explains that though the guards who treated him and others so brutally and inhumanely could take away their physical freedoms—through imprisonment, torture, starvation—they could not take away their mental and psychological freedom. Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl tells a story of a man who was absolutely certain that liberation would come, and that the war would end, on a specific date. As the date drew near, the man began to lose hope that his prophecy would come true.
On the day before his alleged liberation date, he fell very ill. By the date itself, he had died. In a way, Frankl notes, the man fulfilled his own prophecy. The more he lost hope that there was an end in sight to his suffering, the more quickly he deteriorated physically and psychologically. Frankl noticed a pattern among his fellow prisoners: Those who survived had a reason to live—a loved one, or a day to look forward to (a real day, not an arbitrary date that they had predicted would bring an end to their suffering).
Those who died the quickest had lost all hope and given up all meaning. Frankl said that a person with a strong why can endure any how. We cannot control suffering in life, but only how we respond to it. He wrote that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
(You can read more about my reflection on this early childhood trauma and how Frankl’s story and storytelling about the human condition inspired me to redeem it here for the Acton Institute’s new outlet, Religion & Liberty. )
Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that humans are “condemned to be free.” Humans are uniquely self-aware. We are conscious of our own mortality. Our freedom means that we have the possibility, and responsibility, of deciding who we want to be—what logic, ethic, moral code we want to live up to— each moment of our lives. There is a duality to freedom, and there is a duality to storytelling, too. Stories, like freedom, can be used to unite or divide, to harm or to elevate, to dignify or degrade, to humanize or depersonalize.
Yes, many things happen—often tragic—that are outside of our control. But we can decide how we respond to them, and how to recast the facts of what happens to us in a more empowering and constructive light—in the light of the broader sweep of our lives, even in the light of eternity, in the knowledge that there is a Master Author who superintends all things.
We can choose to write—and rewrite, as the case may sometimes be—our own story.
I hope that my new series, Storytelling and the Human Condition, can encourage you to harness the life-changing power of storytelling to help you redeem your setbacks and trauma, and lead a richer, deeper, and more connected life.
As you go through the series—again, available for you to enjoy for free here—please tell me what you think, what you’re enjoying and learning.
Write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with your reflections.
And please share the series, and this post, with your friends! I hope that you can share this with someone and encourage them to author the stories of their lives in more empowering ways.
Thank you for being part of this community, for your support with my work and this project, and for being on this journey of lifelong learning and the life well-lived alongside me.
Having a father who was on Bataan and Corrigedor in WWII and part of the Death March and a POW for three and a half years, of the Japanese including the infamous Camp O'Donnel where four hundred American servicemen and two thousand Filipinos died a day, your beautiful missive on Victor resonated and I vividly remember reading the book. (I think we had to as seniors in high school). My dad's only comment about his experience in the war was that he was a 'guest of the emperor', as in Japanese emperor, for three and a half years. As incredible luck would have it, a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force who was studying for her Ph.D. with her specialization on why some POW's survived their experiences while others did not interviewed my Dad from June-October 1981. Hence we ended up with eighteen hours of tape. In the summer of 2021 a good friend, Mary Leon of Fishtown Productions LLC, agreed to transcribe the tapes word for word. My sister and I edited it and we put it in a book. There are several comments from my Dad about many of the issues Victor spoke to. One line I specifically remember was my Dad telling the Lt. Colonel, "You know, if you were animal you would have rolled over, stuck your legs up in the air and died. But the human spirit is something else. That will, that will to survive to beat anything is so incredible strong..." Thank you so much for your writing! It is truly a gift!!
One of my favorite parts of that book is when he discusses his imaginary conversations with his wife in times of suffering. He indicated that despite what might be observed, he was able to suffer less because of the value those imaginary conversations gave to him. There is a potential post here for you, I think, on the utility of faith in something, even despite the truth of reality.