What Viktor Frankl, 50 Cent, and My Mother Taught Me About Death

This is a guest post by Matt Joyner

I didn’t expect to lose my mother when I was 16—it took me completely by surprise. While still in the formative years of my adult life, cancer came out of left field and took someone who I never imagined I would be forced to live without. It was during this traumatic experience that I began reading about other peoples’ encounters with death and how they handled it. It was also around this time that I underwent a change in perspective that would revolutionize the way I looked at the world and handle future challenges.

About one year before her passing, my mother had given me her copy of Viktor Frankl’s magnum opus, Man’s Search for Meaning. Her doctor had been known to give copies to his other patients. The book itself was a quick read, only a couple of chapters long, and I had read the book cover-to-cover just a few months before her final days in the hospital.

On her final day, the doctor overseeing her treatment plan approached my family to let us know there was no path to recovery for my mom. I was shocked, and I could not believe what they were telling me. I was in utter disbelief until I gazed upon my mother and put those words to the reality that was before me.

The experiences I have had in my life all taught me that in any situation, grave or not, to always be calm. During that moment in the intensive care unit, Frankl’s eternal words comforted me:

“…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The world stood still for a moment, and while watching nurses and physicians pass by me I started listening to the self-talk that was formulating in my head. I understood that I had several choices that night—I could panic and get angry at the physicians, I could get emotional and lose my composure, or choose any other number of negative responses. I remained calm and accepted the unfortunate set of circumstances. Regardless of the tragic nature of the situation there is something so horrifying and calming about realizing there was nothing I could do to change the outcome. I reflected on Frankl’s challenge to be introspective in such a dire moment:

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

I couldn’t continue to mope around and feel sorry for myself, I needed to pick myself up and carry on. My mom always said, “You can have your 15-minute pity party, but when it is over it’s time to get up and move along.” And so, move along I did.

To clarify, Viktor Frankl was speaking on his experience at Auschwitz and Dachau, two of Nazi Germany’s most notorious concentration camps, which upon arrival almost certainly guaranteed death for its inhabitants. Although, I never went through anything comparable to what Frankl went through, his philosophy on attitude and coping with death serve as an exceptional template to guide those who feel anguish and suffering in any capacity.

My mother was only 52 years old when she passed—extremely young by today’s standards. But witnessing her death reminded me of my own mortality—it also served as a reminder that life is incredibly short and that we are all tasked with making the most of it given the finite nature of our time on earth. Robert Greene and rapper 50 Cent also wrote on this topic in The 50th Law.

“Having a brush with death, or being reminded in a dramatic way of the shortness of our lives, can have a positive, therapeutic effect. Our days our numbered and so it is best to make every moment count, to have a sense of urgency about life. It could end at any moment. The fearless types usually gain such awareness through some traumatic experience. They are energized to make the most of every action, and the momentum this gives them in life helps them determine what happens next.”

Upon reading this, I decided this would be the framework that I would approach everything else with for the rest of my life. No matter what adversity I would go through I would assure myself it would never be as bad as losing my mother. Remembering that was one of the select comforts I had with me even in the darkest moments of my life. The challenge for my life then, and now, would be to approach everything with a fearless perspective—to remember that my time here on earth is only so long and that my opportunity to wrestle with destiny and emerge victorious is now.

Reading The 50th Law and Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning changed my life in a way I cannot really describe. Even in the aftermath of my mother’s passing both books’ passages helped me during various points of my life keep the wheels on the bus when the bus was on fire. The Stoic framework was my mother’s final gift to me, and for that I am forever grateful.

“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”

-Viktor Frankl

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Matt Joyner is a finance professional in the Metro-Portland, Oregon area. You can find him on Twitter @MattAJoyner of contact him at matt.a.joyner@gmail.com


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