To Give Light You Must Endure the Burn

Why Endure the Burn?

By: Susan Deborah Schiller

As our truck wound up the dirt path to the watch tower, my daughter and I had an up close encounter with a controlled burn. The fire and smoke may appear intense but only the ground is lit with fire.  A controlled burn protects against the threat of a wildfire, preventing the loss of valuable lives and assets. And that's what I want to talk about today – how you can thrive, even in the fires of sociopathic abuse.

Most survivors of sociopathic abuse feel like they are being burned alive. It's an unending living death. Even years after divorce they are still tethered to their abuser through family and community ties. 

This morning, as I listened to a survivor lament the loss of her eyesight, the ability to walk, and the prospect of living in poverty for the rest of her life, a word came to my mind: martyr. She is a modern day martyr, crucified for simply speaking and living the truth of her faith. She is love personified and has done no wrong worthy of being spiritually burned alive.

Her abuser is a toxic waste dump and he uses her children as pawns to keep her under his control. Whenever she has contact with him her eyesight worses as symptoms of her neurological disease are triggered. Modern day systems of justice require these victims of sociopathic abuse to have continuous contact with their abusers, and so the toxic waste continues to poison her life.

She has no prospects of being able to work and yet she's in her 40's – hardly prepared to retire. She has hopes and dreams. She's intelligent, witty, and strong. To her, this is a living death. And her abuser still mocks her, even though they have been divorced for many years.

As I ponder her situation, praying for her, I weep because there appears to be no adequate solution. Who will stand up to avenge this forsaken wife and single mom? Who will rise up to fight for justice on her behalf? She relies on government solutions and readily admits it's a downward spiral spawned by dependency on a broken system. She's burning…

I recall Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust when 19 out of 20 in his camp died. He survived because he had a reason to live. He had discovered meaning in his life, even if he never escaped from prison. It doesn't get more "impossible" than the concentration camp he endured, and yet he found a way to thrive.

If Viktor Frankl could speak to us today, what would he say to the victims of sociopathic abuse?

When I read Frankl's book, "Man's Search for Meaning," I am struck by the resilience of the prisoners. They not only survived, but thrived. Even though it was nearly impossible to maintain good hygiene, some survivors rarely had dental problems and their bodies seemed to get stronger, even on the meager rations.

I eagerly scan through my notes from this book, and I read:

"We were grateful for the smallest of mercies."

"The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet, it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent."

"Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise up above any situation, even if only for a few seconds."

"Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. … I did not know if my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out… There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved… The intensification of the inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past."

"As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the art of beauty and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes forgot his own frightful circumstances."

"…Life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable. And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life's negative aspects into something positive or constructive. In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation."

"One of the main features of human existence is the capactiy to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them."

"We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the unquely human potential at its best, which is to fransform a personal tragedy into a triump, to turn one's predicament into a human acheivement."

As I shift back to my friend and so many like her, who are mired in a living death, how do I reconcile Jesus' promise that He came to give us life, and that life more abundantly? How can we learn to not only survive but THRIVE in the death camp of sociopathic abuse?

What would someone like Viktor Frankl say to me, if he were alive today and I could ask him?

I believe he would tell me to endure the burning, for this is not the ultimate Fire that will test the works of my life, but the first that preserves my soul. That doesn't mean anyone should stay in the abuse. We should do all we can to have no contact with our abusers, but it's rarely possible. Most of us have to endure the burn.

 I believe Victor would tell me to see the suffering through a different set of lenses. That lens is our purpose – our goal. We need to see that there is a larger purpose for our life, even if the suffering continues. 

"We had to teach the despairing men that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsiblity to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual." – Viktor Frankl

What if suffering is your task? What if you are asked to lose everything in order to not lose your soul? What if this is what God requires of you, because he knows what you most need? What if this is the controlled burn that saves your life? As for me, I have taken on this position. I believe this burning has been good for my soul. 

How do I survive the burn? I make choices, like:

  • I will be grateful for the smallest of mercies.
  • I will develop a strong inner life through centering prayer and meditation on God's promises.
  • I will rise up, even if only for a few moments each day, to see my situation from God's point of view. 
  • I will walk in my identity as God's beloved child, no matter what my circumstances.

This is how the Light shines in the darkness. We burn. This is not a living death unless we become like the 19 out 20 Holocaust casualties who didn't survive, whether due to means beyond their control or because they had no inner strength to endure.

I believe Viktor Frankl would say to sociopathic abuse survivors of our age today that if we can find meaning in our suffering, we can survive the aftermath of abuse.

I believe he would encourage us not to look at all we've lost but to be thankful at how far we've come! I can see him grinning from ear to ear, knowing the remarkable changes that have happened in our inner beings.

As he takes note of our compassion and mercy, our eagerness to pray and fight for the downtrodden and oppressed, and our delight to give what little we have to others who have less, we give Him pleasure!

I believe Frankl's telling us today that our proper response to seeing a person being burned in the fires of sociopathic abuse is to offer humanitarian aid, if we can. I believe we are to enter into each other's suffering, and to realize that being broken is really only the beginning of real life.

When we step into one another's lives through this process of burning, we open our heart to be re-broken again and again. The valley of troubles is a gateway of Hope. And this is our Hope:

What Satan meant for evil, God is turning to Good. No, that doesn't excuse the abusers, those wolves dressed in sheep's skin, but it's like a banqueting table set before us, in the presence of our enemies. Our heads are anointed with oil and our cups overflow. Right there, in the presence of our enemies!

If you're in the fire right now. If you feel the burn today, you're not alone. As you share your story, my own heart is broken along with you. And in that sacred, holy place of brokenness, love is ignited. Our souls on fire is the passion of Christ himself, and perhaps that is the real treasure – the pearl of great price – and what the world needs most.

This is true wealth, real riches, and the true measure of success in the Kingdom of God… that we learn to trust, to love, and to grin in the face of disaster. Well, anyway, that's what God's been trying to teach me!

For similar stories, please hop over to "Dance in the Fire," "The Valley of Troubles is a Doorway to Hope" and "Broken is the Beginning".

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With all my love,


Susan Schiller knows how it feels to lose everything: marriage and family, church and reputation, finances and businesses, and more. Susan's upcoming, interactive memoir, "On the Way Home," tells the story of how she came to be known as "the most abused woman" her counselors had yet met and how she learned to navigate to freedom and fullness.  

Today Susan helps people write their life stories, unearthing the treasures of their past and sowing them into their future, creating new family legacies.

Copyright © 2010 to 2016 Team Family Online, All rights reserved.   For reprint permission or for any private or commercial use, in any form of media, please contact Susan Schiller

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