From humiliation to humility

Utilizing Frankl’s logotherapy in the healing process.

Abiel Tsoametse Khalema told his personal story and wove it into his work as a chaplain in helping members of his congregation move forward in their lives.

He was born into apartheid in South Africa. At age four his father, who worked in the mines died of gold mine poisoning. In short, he had a terrible life experience. It was filled with violence and abuse and eating only one meal a day. School was a horrible place to go, with daily beatings. All he knew was violence and fighting to survive. One time bullies forcefully undressed him in front of a class of 60 kids. He was full of anger, he was shamed and he was bitter. “Why did my dad die?” He asked himself. “Why was I suffering? I was unprotected, with no one to look after me.”

Then at the age of 19 his uncle gave him a gift. His uncle said to him “You’ve had a hard life and you’re going to have more hard times ahead. I’m going to give you this book.” It was Man’s Search for Meaning by Frankl. When his uncle had said he would give him a gift the young Abiel thought maybe he will give him money or something else. What kind of gift was this?

At first he didn’t read it. He thought, “How can a book help me?” But eventually he started reading and found a line that said “Suffering may well be a human achievement…” He underlined this line and he started to feel maybe there was a meaning to his life.

He became an ordained minister. He also became an activist against apartheid and was put in prison where he was beaten and tortured. Then he was put in solitary confinement. That one line helped him survive through all of this. The imprisonment, suffering, anger and shame continued.

Attempts were made to assassinate him twice – once by other activists who thought he was too moderate and once by government. He fled to Canada. “Now you need to understand,” he explained. “Blacks and whites never shared friendship in South Africa. In Canada I became a minister of a white congregation. This is when the trauma came out. I became broken. I thought: I don’t know how these people think. I was depressed. I went for healing to the book my uncle gave me.”

Abiel went on to talk about his deepening studies. When he did his project in logotherapy he struggled with different conceptual frameworks. At the same time he was preaching as a minister “but something was not right with me. I felt a deep sense of humiliation. Between the ages of 5 and 40 I had grown up thinking I was useless, that I must just be a servant.”

“As I looked at the frameworks I chose Kant. His moral philosophy helped me deal with the humiliation and what that means to me. Frankl taught me to embrace my suffering and move forward in life.”

“I thought about the African concept of ubuntu. Ubuntu is an African concept of humanness and how we affirm our humanity in relation to the world. As he described it, ubuntu means humanness. It means that I am part of community and if I am suffering we are all suffering.

Putting the traditional African concept and the logotherapeutic one together in one frame he said that humiliation is the opposite of humanness, which can also be called ubuntu or for Frankl self-transcendence.

He said: “For me ubuntu means self-transcendence. In my project I want to marry these two concepts. How do these techniques work with my cultural understanding? What is the idea of collective consciousness? Frankl concluded not all Germans are bad. Also not all white South Africans are bad…”

Of all the concepts he studied such as Kant and others he felt that logotherapy was the most significant. “It works!” he exclaimed. “I have seen how it changes people.”

In the next segment he used props of little stuffed animals representing the different concepts of will to meaning, freedom of will and meaning of life to describe what these concepts mean.

Sitting there and listening to this man I was riveted. His story was so genuine and so pure. I was absolutely struck by the humanity of this man and the exemplary sufferer that he was. No other explanation can be as convincing as personal experience. As he said, “I’ve changed my attitude in life. It works, it works, it works.”

He talked a bit about his experience treating people using logotherapy. “There was a man whose wife had died. I asked him the same question Frankl asked a certain man whose wife died. How would it have been for her if you had died first? And he too said ‘Oh, she would not have been able to bear it.’ So I told him. ‘You are chosen to mourn because you are the stronger one.”

He told the story of a single woman who was pregnant and she was depressed, saying “But I’m not married and this was not supposed to happen. I can’t live with this.” Lukas tells people: Refuse to hear the voice. You have the power. If you refuse to hear you won’t hear. (He said this with such a tone of innocent simplicity that it made us laugh. I think part of the reason for our laughter is the deep-down realization that it really can be that simple.) Just refuse. This is attitudinal change, he told her. God has given you the power to co-create life. Yes, he told her. It wasn’t supposed to happen – but it happened.

In his work with couples he meets up with humiliation, where men humiliate their wives. He tried other approaches besides Frankl and they were not effective.

For example he said that he was reading Kohut. He read about the need for empathy. Put yourself in their shoes. But it didn’t work. It didn’t work to just have empathy and say I feel what you must be feeling.

He said to one woman, “Let’s make a movie of your life.” She said, “This is a sad movie.” I said “Now let’s make another movie. What’s going to happen to you?” This changes the atmosphere from hopelessness to looking forward to future. That’s what logotherapy teaches.

In conclusion looking at his life, he drew three areas – a high range, middle range and low range of his life. His high range is that he got married and had children and grandchildren in spite of all the torture he endured. He went to school and got three master’s degrees. My middle range is the ups and downs of depression a bit. He can have a low range but his middle range is still high. He has learned in life the importance of the value of gratitude. Be thankful for what God has given you.

For his MA they had all the theories but not Frankl. “I don’t understand this,” he said “because logotherapy is the best.”

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