The Edge of Existence


None of us truly desire to face those challenges in life that take us to the edge of existence. If we did, at best we would be naive, at worst, we would be masochists.  Yet, if I were to guess, most of us probably ponder, “what if?”. We read accounts of human beings, like ourselves in most ways, who, not only survive, but come through the most horrifying experiences imaginable, finding meaning, purpose, and a new take or angle on life. Some write autobiographical memoirs of their struggles that, while they inspire us, also strike fear to our core with haunting questions. Could I have survived a Bataan Death March? A Nazi concentration camp? Due to beliefs and convictions I hold, could I endure persecution at the hands of an oppressive power, being stripped of everything for which I had worked? And more importantly, Could I have not only survived it all, but come through it a better person? The existential fact is, most likely, we cannot answer these questions until we, via fortuitous events, face such storms that life may bring. Many people may not desire to read and become acquainted with such historical recollections, believing that it’s some kind of voyeurism into a person’s horror or a  fantastical desire for escapism and adventure at another individual’s expense. Nonetheless, I have a different take. I think such foundational shattering autobiographies can introduce us to the reality that there is a spirit in being human that transcends what we normally might believe it is, in fact, to be human. I don’t dare claim that I have what it takes to survive the atrocities that some people have had to face. Even less would I proclaim that I could have come through such horrific experiences with the inspirational impact that some people indeed displayed. But human beings are storytelling creatures. These stories exist for those of us who care to learn from them.

The Lineup

This essay entails a short overview, an annotated short list if you will, of individuals whose personal stories about uninvited circumstances in their lives that entailed struggles and pain served to inspire countless readers over decades and centuries. The essay, moreover, is an invitation to explore these stories for readers who care to take the time and thought to do so. The lineup includes: 1) Boethius, and his historical work, The Consolation of Philosophy; 2) St. John of the Cross with a look at his inner search through his poem, The Dark Night of the Soul; 3) Victor Frankl, about whom I have written before on this blog; 4) Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, via his works, The Gulag Archipelago  and The Oak and the Calf; 5) Prince Helmuth von Moltke, who tells his story through his endearing, Letters to Freya; 6) C. S. Lewis as he grapples with his faith in A Grief Observed; and 7) Vaclav Havel, whose long essay, “The Power of the Powerless” led him from prison to the first presidency of the Czech Republic. There are countless others, no doubt, who have faced the fires of life that tend to bring people back to core principles of how to live. I have chosen these seven whose stories and writings can serve as reminders of what the human spirit can accomplish.

Anicius’s Last Words

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480 -524 A.D.) found himself in a controversy between the Eastern and Western church of the early Middle Ages, a controversy he sought to avoid and even reconcile through some of his writings, known as tractates of theology. Finding himself thrust into the precarious position of a civil servant to the Ostrogoth emperor, Theodoric, Boethius had to walk a tightrope, for which his studies and literary trained mind from the time he was a child had amply prepared him. As a philosopher and a Christian, he hoped to reconcile the theological conflict between Rome and Constantinople through his persuasive writings. Theodoric, on the other hand, welcomed the split between East and West because he wanted free of Rome’s influence and theology, himself being an Arian, which the West viewed as a heretical position. Rather than seeing his civil servant’s writings as serving the emperor, Theodoric accused Boethius of treason and sentenced him to death, which was eventually carried out. Boethius authored The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison, awaiting his execution. The work is an inspiring piece from one who embraces his faith while facing the arbitrary rulings of one who politically holds the power of life and death. The classically trained mind of Boethius shows through in the work, utilizing the dialogical methods of Aristotle and Plato, fused with his Christian values and theological principles. Boethius, in this medieval genre known as consolatio, reconciles his fate via his philosophy and faith, bravely facing his end. Consolation stands as Boethius’s most powerful work, influencing writers and poets throughout the centuries, including Dante, Chaucer, and others. It serves as an example of how the human spirit can soar and embrace a higher purpose and meaning of one’s life in the face of adversity, injustice, and even death.

Juan de Yepes Y Alvarez

Also known as Juan de la Cruz (1542-1591), St. John of the Cross had studied for the priesthood under the tutelage of the Jesuits at the University of Salamanca, eventually entering the Carmelite Order. He met Teresa of Avila, a well-known mystic, who enlisted him to reform the Carmelites. Because of its mystic and ascetic leanings, the traditional Carmelites outlawed the sect that Teresa and John had formed. Because he refused to recant for what he believed were correct spiritual beliefs, John was imprisoned in a windowless cell. Daily he was whipped and fed nothing but bread and water, but he never gave in to his persecutors. Eventually, he escaped, scaling the walls of the prison, finding sanctuary in a nunnery among those who supported him. Regardless of what one thinks about asceticism and mysticism, the conflict between formal theologians and mystics echo through the centuries, not only in the Christian church, but in other religious settings as well. But what is important about Noche obscura del alma (Dark Night of the Soul) is that it evidences how the human spirit can transcend dire circumstances in ways that impact people centuries later. During his imprisonment, de la Cruz wrote some of his finest poetry, and today Dark Night of the Soul is recognized as a portrait and metaphor for those who go through their dark times to emerge on the other side with a deeper purpose and meaning toward life.

The Road from Fascism to Meaning & Purpose

” . . . to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.” — Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) lived a long, fruitful, and meaningful life of 92 years. However, there was a moment in his history where he believed his life would be cut tragically short. No doubt, numerous works have described the horrors of Nazism in Germany from 1933 until the end of WW II. But Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is probably one of the handful that has had, and still has, a lasting impact on readers decades later. The book tells his story, not only of his survival in Auschwitz & Dachau, but also of how Frankl emerges on the other side of his experiences with a new outlook for living, and what life is all about. Frankl’s attitude toward his suffering can be described in no other way than awe-inspiring. It’s an account of an experience of which one might say, “I only hope in the most distant manner, that I could come through the dark side as Frankl did, while emerging in the light as he did. Yet, I don’t really want to know if I could.” Frankl would be okay with that sentiment because suffering is not something we search for. Suffering comes, but the meaning in the suffering is where the search begins. Frankl developed his logotherapy based on his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. His message, his attitude toward life, and his passion for living ring loud and true for those who have known him, or have read this and many other of his works. He is another star in the night from whom we can glean many lessons for living.

Writing in the Truth

Since then, all the life that has been given back to me has not been mine in the full sense; it is built around a purpose.”  — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), like the long life of Viktor Frankl, lived just short of 90 years. And like Frankl, at a moment in time, he thought he would not see his 50th birthday. Solzhenitsyn was diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer, and according to his personal account, the only explanation he can offer of how he survived the disease involves a miraculous one. But living in the face of non-existence did not stop there. The Russian dissident was sent packing to the Gulag Archipelago for criticizing Joseph Stalin in a letter to a friend. Because he survived his bout with cancer, Solzhenitsyn believed he possessed the purpose to write the truth about the Soviet Regime. And he likewise thought he would never know that time in his life that his writings would see the light of day and have an impact on people. But have an impact is an understatement. Solzhenitsyn has now become widely known for such writings as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, August 14, and Cancer Ward. The two works that speak directly to his experiences are, The Gulag Archipelago, a massive multi-volume work that details his thoughts and experiences while in the gulag, and The Oak and the Calf: A Memoir, in which he addresses the power of literature to speak the truth – in his case, the truth about the Soviet Regime. Expelled from Russia in 1974, he lived in America for a number of years, finally returning to Russia 20 years later after the dissolution of the Soviet Regime, to spend his final years back in his homeland. These two works by Solzhenitsyn are not only an inspiring story, his story, but also a call to stand for the truth, and to particularly stand against the injustice of power and oppression. He presents another experience that led one to a higher purpose that is an inspiration and call to us all.

The Security of Beehives

Prince Helmuth James von Moltke (1907-1945), as one can gather from his dates, lived a much shorter life than either Frankl or Solzhenitsyn. Unlike the first two dissidents that survived their horrors, living to tell their story even in more detail, von Moltke did not outlast the wrath of the fascists who imprisoned him for his opposition, condemned him to death, and eventually executed him. Although von Moltke had grown up in a family steeped in military history ( his grandfather had been a general serving under Bismarck), for the most part, he sought peaceful means to oppose Hitler’s regime. Indeed, although he was opposed to and voiced his opposition to the Nazis, he was innocent of a failed coup that several of his friends initiated to overthrow Hitler. Nonetheless, he was convicted of treason, sentenced and shot just before the armistice of WW II. One might say that it was love at first sight for the woman who was to become his wife, Countess Freya von Moltke (1911-2010). He began writing her love letters, as well as other communiques in 1929. Freya saved every letter that her husband wrote her from 1929 to the time of his death in 1945. In addition to being love letters, and how he gained strength knowing of her support, many of the letters, particularly those between 1939-1945 and just before his execution, address his thoughts on Hitler and Nazism. He likewise wrote two letters to hopefully be read later to his young sons at the time, explaining to them why he was imprisoned. In several of those letters, one gleans the principles on which von Moltke appealed to in his reasons for opposing Nazism. Freya preserved the endearing letters from her husband by hiding them in beehives on the family farm. Living a full life of 98 years, Freya experienced seeing her husband’s thoughts put into print when she published many of the letters written between 1939-1945 in the 1980’s. The Kreisau circle, involving Prince and Countess von Moltke and several of their friends and cohorts formed the core of Germans who opposed Nazism. A committed Christian, Moltke came to grips with how important faith was as he faced his final days, and how important were the principles on which he stood in standing against the opposition. Believing with all his fiber that Nazism would indeed fail, he left Europe with a question with which it had to grapple in the post-war era: ” . . . [how might the picture of humanity] be reestablished in the breasts of our fellow citizens?”

From Apologetics to the Crossroads

He is known and beloved by many, especially children, for his Tales of Narnia, and by others for his powerful works of apologetics. He befriended many, regardless of their beliefs, but also was somewhat of a recluse-like scholar who had studied medieval literature, becoming a tutor-instructor, both at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. However, in 1956, C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), found everything he had believed in, hoped for, and written about via his amazing intellect, challenged to the core with the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. He had married Joy for the purpose of providing her and her two children with citizenship in England, but over the course of a short time, the two fell in love, which became the subject of a movie entitled, Shadowlands. Although he had been with Joy for only four years, her loss impacted him deeply, in a way that surprised and shook this man of great intellect, this great apologist of the Christian faith. Consequently, his work, A Grief Observed, is different than any other work he penned. The book is written in the form of a journal that takes readers through Lewis’s doubts and eventually rediscovering of his beliefs, on even a deeper level. Regardless of one’s beliefs, those who have lost a loved one might find much comfort in this book, with the permission to doubt, to be angry, to question, and to stand at the crossroads of everything one might have held sacred.

Living in the Truth

Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) has an interesting list of descriptors that seek to explain all that this man did in his life: playwright, essayist, poet, philosopher, dissident, and politician. He stands on the edge of history, having the privilege of becoming the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and the first president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003). It was during the Prague Spring (1968) that Havel began his earnest work as a dissident when Russian tanks rolled into and occupied Prague. Being a descendant of a former “bourgeois” family, he was banned from the theater, which allowed him to engage more political activity. His plays were banned in his home country, and he was forbidden by the authorities to leave Czechoslovakia to see plays from other countries. His reputation as a dissident was solidified with the publication of the Charter 77 manifesto, written in response to the imprisonment of a Czech psychedelic band, “Plastic People of the Universe”. Havel attacked their trial, and as a result of his writings and opposition, he experienced multiple stays in prison at the hands of the Soviets. His longest stay in prison covered May 1979 until February 1983. It was during his time in prison that he wrote two important works that were to make his name known as a great philosophical thinker and leader that he was eventually to become, although reluctantly. Taking a page from von Moltke, Havel wrote letters to his wife during his time of imprisonment, that were later published as, Letters to Olga. In addition to these letters that encrypted his thoughts on the totalitarian regime that he opposed, he also penned a lengthy essay, entitled, “The Power of the Powerless”. In this essay, Havel states that the greatest power that people have when facing totalitarian oppression is to live the truth. The regime, because it is a lie, cannot continually stand against the truth. The simple truth regarding the rock band that he supported entailed not just their music or their anti-status quo looks and stance, but the truth that they, for no other reason than arbitrary power, were being denied the expression of their beliefs. Consequently, Havel believed that the greatest power the powerless have in the face of a totalitarian regime is incessantly to return to the core question of, what is the truth? Havel, eventually freed from prison, came to be the respected humanist leader of the Czech Republic for a number of years. His thoughts live on in his plays, poetry, Letters to Olga, and in his philosophical insights from, “The Power of the Powerless.”


It is not difficult to glean the common thread that weaves these seven thinkers and writers together in the history of thought. First of all, they are just that, thinkers and writers. They faced what anyone would consider next to impossible situations with the power of their convictions and mind, utilizing their skill to articulate their beliefs surrounding their ordeals. They each faced the ever-present possibility of annihilation, the edge of existence. Some forestalled that possibility, living long full lives – Juan de la cruz, Frankl, Solzhenitsyn, and Havel; others paid for their convictions with their lives – Boethius, von Moltke. Lewis survived his own ordeal, serving on the front in WW I, but he also survived the doubts that overtook him, following the death of his wife, Joy. As importantly, the individuals we witness here stood on the bedrock principles of their convictions to see them through whatever they had to face. Whether they lived or died, they stood on what they believed to be the truth. And with each of them they held fast to their belief  in the dignity of human beings, and that no one’s dignity should be sacrificed to the lies of oppression and evil. It would appear that the art and skill of living would call us to find those values we hold to be undeniable, commit to them, and live them out. But they must be values that place a premium on the lives of others, as well as ourselves. Each of us faces the edge of existence. Because we are not faced with what we perceive as immediate life-threantening situations, we may believe that we are not face-to-face with such an edge. Simply because we are not challenged by the extreme circumstances these individuals faced does not mean that we should not also clarify our core values by which we are to live. And that those values must exalt the dignity and integrity of what it is to be human. On some level, we must recognize what we believe to be true, and stand on that truth in whatever circumstances we are called to stand.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/July 14, 2014

THE ARTS: Literature