Viktor Frankl, Garth Nix, and Yours Truly

December 17, 2010 at 9:28 am (book reviews, Mental illness)

Here’s a quote from Don Miller talking about Viktor Frankl: “Tested in the concentration camps, Frankl realized no amount of torture could keep a person from living a fulfilling life, if only they had three elements working for them: a project in which they could contribute, a person to love, and a worthy explanation for their suffering.”

Living a meaningful life is far more important to me than anything else. The year I finally gave up my twelve-year plan to go to Indonesia as a full-time aid worker was also the year my chocolate habit suddenly went from a cute foible to something that controlled my life. I’d never been out of the healthy weight range before then, and I’ve never stopped struggling with my weight since.

I am as certain as it’s possible to be that God doesn’t want me in Indonesia – I’d feel like Jonah disobeying God if I went there now (and I hear that didn’t work out). The other two main reasons for giving up Indonesia were that I love my writing more (when I’m in Indonesia I find I write non-fiction, which isn’t what I most love), and it was pretty clear that the main reason I wanted to go to Indonesia in the first place was to suffer.

One sure-fire way to feel special and close to God is by sacrificing a lot in a great cause. But throwing myself into increasingly painful situations in order to feel okay about myself isn’t the right way to go about it.

But I gotta tell you, switching destinies from, “Helping poor third-world children” to “sitting in my room typing up books that no-one reads” is crushing. Every day.

Writing books sort of counts as a “project in which I can contribute” except that I’m not contributing anything of worth – in my opinion.

 If I suffer, it’s because I’m doing a whole lot of work that no-one cares about (which is where publishing comes in – and it’ll probably happen eventually, which’ll mean, since I definitely have someone to love, that I’ll be scoring at least 2 out of 3).

This interpretation of the meaningful life at least justifies how much lack of publication hurts. Writing meaningless books that are paid for (and read by the public) is obviously more life-affirming that writing meaningless books that I have to pay someone to read.

Which brings me to Garth Nix. You all know I adore “Sabriel” with a passion verging on that of an internet stalker. I’ve read it about four times this year alone. But in some ways I love “Lirael” and “Abhorsen” (books 2 and 3 in the trilogy, but they’re really one massive story) more.

I admire “Sabriel” because it’s brilliantly written, but my stalker-love stems from the fact that Sabriel is such a hero. She has a great cause, and she sacrifices everything for it. In short, she’s exactly who I’d like to be – and metaphorically, a close match to my Indonesia-travelling self. Too bad my Indonesia-travelling self is dead.

Lirael’s story is much closer to my own. Throughout the 600-word book, she wants one thing: The psychic gift that every single person in her community has. Without that gift, she can’t contribute to her society, and she is still considered a child. At the end of the book, she finds out that she has a different gift – a gift which was (in part) perfectly obvious, but which never seemed important to Lirael. She will never get the destiny she wanted – but she does have another that no-one else in any of the three books possesses.

It’s not a triumphant ending. In some ways, Lirael’s discovery comes as a relief. In other ways, it’s devastating – the final realisation that she will never be what she’s wanted to be all her life. (It parallels a discovery by the other main character, Sameth.)

In the final book, “Abhorsen”, both of the main characters go through all kinds of pain – except one: they know and accept their real destinies. The whole book is infused with a sense of purpose, and reading it (especially after the long pain of “Lirael”) fills me with hope.

Like Lirael, I have a longed-for destiny shut off from me, and another one waiting for me to fully embrace it. I hope that one day I can believe that my second destiny really does matter as much as the first.

In the meantime, stuck as an unpublished writer, I am still a child – dependent on others, and unable to contribute something of worth to the wider society. That’s never going to stop hurting – but one day it’ll stop.

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