Death in Tehran: a story about fear

I’ll have much more to say about Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, which I recently finished reading. But today just one little story that Frankl, a psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz, tells in the book.

He calls it Death in Tehran (Kindle locations 846-51) and uses it to suggest that we are often our own worst enemies, that our very fear of something can make it come about:

A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him, “Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” “I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.

31 thoughts on “Death in Tehran: a story about fear

  1. I have read Dr. Frankl’s book several times in my own search for meaning.
    He was a psychiatrist if memory serves.
    I am interested in your thoughts about his book.

    • Going back two years here on your blog to see if I had any inkling then about the meaning of life.

      Now as 2011 comes to a close, my progress has sped up, thanks to personal circumstances impacting my life forcing me deep into contemplation.

      From that contemplation and reflection, I turned to silence. From silence to simplicity and from simplicity to a reduction in vanity. From there–a focus on intimacy, letting go, setting people in our lives free to live their lives (part of letting go of control…) and then on to being a better person than we really are. All of that leads to menschdom.

      I’m not there yet!

      Thank you for writing about simplicity. It changed my life. I’ve never met you but I know you.
      A million thanks.

    • The life journey of most of us may begin in the simplicity of childhood, then on through the complexity of middle age, and ending in the simplicity of old age.

      In the words of TS Eliot:

      “……..the end of all our exploring
      Will be to arrive where we started
      And know the place for the first time…….”

  2. Did Victor Frankl make it into your book? If yes, I can understand why, for his terrible experiences in Auschwitz gave birth – as far as I recall from reading his book a couple of decades ago – to Logotherapy, the school of psychology he founded after the war.

    • I’ve only been introduced to him recently (of which more in a later post), but yes, he just made it into the last chapter.

      He was quite adamant about reminding everybody that Auschwitz did not give birth to logotheraphy, but that he had the manuscript describing it with him when he entered the camp, where it was taken from him. But Auschwitz and the other camps (he was at several) helped him to refine logotherapy.

      (For those not familiar with him: Logos in Greek = meaning. His approach to psychiatry is to help people find meaning in their lives and their suffering.)

  3. I’m a huge fan of Frankl and his depiction of humans as fundamentally “meaning makers”. However I’m not so enamored of logotherapy. The former is in sync with, but the latter goes against the grain of, much recent neuroscience.

    More related thoughts (if you’ll forgive the shameless self-promotion) about language and the thrills of its meaningfulness here – http://bit.ly/m6DQ5 . It is our primary means of creating/exchanging meaning and our most ubiquitous mind-altering drug.

    Re language and meaning – its fascinating to look at that word “logos” as an example of how hard it can be to pin down meaning in translation (particularly from ancient languages). See relevant wiki for other etymological nuances and associations http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logos.

    Looking forward to your further postings/thoughts on Frankl

    • “……logotherapy……. goes against the grain of, much recent neuroscience………”

      If you mean that searching for meaning goes against much recent neuroscience, I’m not so sure, since finding meaning in whatever we do, or in whatever the circumstances we’re in, seems demonstrably the key to living.

      Meaning explains the power of religious belief, for religion, regardless of the absurdity or otherwise of the particular belief, transforms the lives of its believers, who become , for all intents and purposes, new people.

      Alexander Solzenitsyn found such meaning from being in the Gulag, that he willed away his cancerous tumour – which he said was the size of a man’s fist – so that he might later tell the world about the Gulag archipelago.

      Think Malcom X, who went to prison as street criminal, and emerged a completely new man, through having discovered Islam when in prison.

      And, not to speak of Victor Frankl himself…………..

    • Mr. Phogg – thanks for comments- my prior post was hastily penned and I did not mean to say/imply that meaning isn’t important. I was resisting my recollection (which may not be entirely accurate) of logotherapy as a being a talk therapy aiming to modify behavior primarily by rational discussion. The grain I was referring (admittedly opaquely) to was that we are not nearly as rational as we’d like to think.

      However back to your point – I do agree meaning is very important – perhaps the most important thing about us. And as usual I think we can look at language to show whats important. Demeaning or meaningless are amongst the worst pejoratives we can deploy.

      Apologies for lack of clarity in my meaning.

    • Hi Jag,
      Just getting around to following your links (how about following your lynx?)
      Enjoyed your column in the National Post, especially your word choice semantic ambush

    • Hi Cheri – thanks! Your comments are even more meaningful since I know you are a fellow language addict (not to mention a language professional also).

      Re semantic ambush – had I known I would have quoted the far more poetic words
      of Robert Browning

      ‘Stung by the splendor of a sudden thought’ http://bit.ly/iQxwQ

  4. A popular version of this ancient Middle eastern story is by Somerset Maugham

    “”The Appointment in Samarra”
    (as retold by W. Somerset Maugham [1933])
    The speaker is Death

    There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

    • Rama,
      Thank you for this excerpt! Somerset Maugham is one of my favorite writers. We read The Razor’s Edge for our book group last year. His characterization of Americans in that work is masterful.

      I have been working on another little piece in which a hamster is the speaker :D, so thinking about Death as the speaker, startled me, in a sense.

    • Amazing how these archetypal tales get transmitted from one context to another, from Nasreddin (thanks Jens!) to Somerset Maugham (thanks Reem).

      It occurs to me that at this (archetypal) level, there can be no serious notion of plagiarism and the like. We’re all influenced by the archetypes we hold in our collective unconscious and the timeless stories we’ve heard and produce “new” stories that we consider original but that are really reincarnations of something ancient.

    • Andreas – this is a bit of a stretch – but at some point you should read Pinker and Lakoff on metaphor, and its importance beyond language/expression, as a fundamental way in which our brains work. In essence they are on the verge of describing how some aspects of the ‘collective unconscious’ are baked into our modes of thinking.

      Hope all continues well with your editing.

  5. It a vision indeed a great book.This book tells that if there is a vision one strives to actualize it makes life meaning ful, fullfilling, and purposeful.

  6. Death in Tehran is not a story about fear though fear is a fact in the story. The story is about fate and that we cannot escape fate. Decisions we make for our future are part of our fate.

  7. First read this book in the ’60s. Have read it repeatedly many times, usually every few years. Now in my late ’60s still see it with new eyes, gain inspiration and relive Death in Teheran.

  8. this is really a very beautiful book cautiously written. The approach twords the guards in Auschwitz is remarkable. I love the paragraph where he talks about race of the decent man and race of the indecent man

  9. Thanks for posting the story about Viktor Frankl’s recollection of Death in Teheran. I’m living in an area where the people are frightening me. And I’m looking for a safe place to go because I don’t feel safe where I am. But I remembered Frankl’s story and so thanks for posting it too. It reminds me to not act in panic. And I learned the story better too. So, now I can quote it more accurately. Thanks.

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