1. How Can a Cynic Teach Man’s Search for Meaning?
2. Do I Really Believe in Free Will?
3. Isn’t Frankl Simply Re-Hashing Clichés About “Positive Thinking”?
4. Is Man’s Search for Meaning a Religion?
5. Is All Meaning Equal?
6. Do I Really Believe That Suffering Leads to Meaning?
7. What Is Frankl’s Ultimatum?
8. How Do We Rank Ourselves on the Meaning Scale?
9. How Does the Cult of Youth Impede Us from Finding Meaning?
10. At What Point Does Consumerism Impede Our Quest to Find Meaning?
11. How Do We Rank on the Dreaded Deathbed Test?
12. A Rebuttal
13. How Do We Let Go of the Things That Are Killing Us?
14. How Can We Avoid the Common Life of Fraud and Deception?
15. When Does Nihilism Impede the Search for Meaning?
16. An Interlude
17. How Do We Not Despise Our Lives?
18. How Do We Know What Life Demands from Us?
19. Why Can’t Meaning be Handed to Us on a Silver Platter?
20. When Is Selfishness Vital to Meaning?
21. How Does Self-Effacing Humor Lead to Meaning?
22. Conclusion: Did I Become Worthy?
How Can a Cynic Teach Man's Search for Meaning
Hardly a day ever passes in which I do not hear a biting quote that the brilliant king of cynicism George Carlin once said during a performance: “When you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you’re born in America, you get a front-row seat.” Carlin is telling us that we’re a doomed species and the best we can do is laugh at our inevitable destruction. When I look at the human race, I often find myself agreeing with Carlin’s cynical pronouncements and the conclusions he draws from them. But at the same time I find myself drawn to Viktor Frankl’s very uncynical Man’s Search for Meaning, which chronicles his survival in the Nazi concentration camps and his observations of the ways we exalt or degrade our humanity in the face of abject cruelty, suffering and evil.
Not all freak shows are equal. Some are more dangerous and cruel than others. And Frankl bore witness to some of the most abjectly cruel freak shows on earth. He almost died many times in the camps, he suffered the loss of loved ones, including his father, his mother, his brother, and his wife, and he experienced the constant humiliations at the hands of sadistic brutes, “insults” that he described as hurting him worse than the physical pain, yet for all his suffering he would not give the Nazis and his other oppressors the victory of making him evil in their image. Even as other inmates surrendered all their scruples, living like animals so that they might survive in the camps, Frankl believed in preserving his moral code and he was steadfast in his compassion for the victims of evil. Tapping on an inner strength that became more and more prominent during his captivity, he aided others, using his training as a psychiatrist to help people gain their bodily strength and spirit so that they may live to see the outside of those camps and, more importantly, so that they might strengthen their humanity through a life of purpose and meaning.
Subject to endless tortures and exhaustion, Frankl observed that some people, including himself, became stronger in spirit, held on to life, and maintained their moral values while others became dehumanized, apathetic, and spiritually dead. While identifying these two camps of people, Frankl came up with his book’s main argument about the nature of suffering, which is really a moral imperative for all of us: No matter how torturous our circumstances, no matter how deeply we are thrown into the vortex of evil, no matter how utterly meaningless our freak show of a life seems to us, we must find meaning by choosing the appropriate attitude that uplifts our humanity in a way that radically changes who we are, discarding our false necessities, and stripping ourselves bare of all our illusions. The constant and often overwhelming suffering that the world dishes out to us every day is not reason to despair or to become a vicious animal or to embrace the philosophy of nihilism; rather, all the world’s pain and suffering is an inevitable part of life that affords us the opportunity to find meaning, to connect to others, and to become a stronger person so that our new self doesn’t even resemble its previous incarnation. We can and must do this, Frankl argues, by finding a higher purpose, an ideal larger than ourselves. Quoting Nietzsche, he says, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Finding meaning and purpose in the midst of life’s cruelty and evil is what Frankl calls “Tragic Optimism.”
The consequences of not following Frankl’s Tragic Optimism are disastrous and tragic. We will respond to suffering like cranky, self-centered children. Eventually we will become bitter, cynical, dehumanized, and isolated, animals driven by base impulses, creatures barren of any meaning whatsoever, and ultimately our lives will be mired in despair.
Suppose you’re a college composition instructor, as I am, and you feel compelled to teach Frankl’s taut masterpiece, as I do, yet you wonder if you are qualified to teach the book.
I have several doubts. For one, I However, I suffer from what you might call the Rodney Dangerfield Factor. When I was in my early twenties, I read a newspaper interview with the comedian Rodney Dangerfield who said you can’t really change who you are. “You never really change. You’re born a certain way and that’s it.” I remember immediately agreeing with him. We are creatures molded at birth and we cannot escape who we are fundamentally. So what’s it matter if we embrace Tragic Optimism or not? Why do we give a damn about our choices when the end result of who we are is going to be the same?
However, the more I think about the way we are molded, the more I think the Rodney Dangerfield Factor is an over simplistic view. A more complex view, and more accurate one, grasps a certain contradiction about human development. As we get older, we change and at the same time we don’t change. For example, the painfully shy young man who doesn’t date women until he’s in his mid twenties slowly develops confidence and becomes a different man than he was when he was crippled and paralyzed by his fears of intimacy. Surely, he is a different person at the age of thirty, now experienced with women, than he was when he was eighteen and saw women only as abstractions in his terrified imagination. But at the same time, the experienced older man still possesses the same sensitivity and vulnerability that defined him during his younger years. He is a changed man on one level, but fundamentally he is the same. The contradiction is clear and I can safely say we can change ourselves on a significant level, while accepting our fundamental sameness on another, to the point that Frankl’s principle is valid.
It would seem, then, that I’m in the clear. I can teach Man’s Search for Meaning because I believe the search is urgent with all my heart and intellect.
There’s just one problem and it’s a big one: Is my life a shining example of someone who embraces meaning in the face of suffering or am I one of those cry babies who becomes bitter and self-pitying when presented with tough challenges? Because if I am the latter, I have no right to teach Man’s Search for Meaning unless I’m vying for an award called The Greatest Hypocrite on Earth.
Imagine the hubris and fraudulence of me walking into the classroom on the first day of the semester and I’ve got Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning on my syllabus. Knowing something about this book, the students assume I’m a certain type of person. I believe in ideals. I believe in personal change. I believe in hope. I believe in courage. I believe in moral responsibility. I believe in talking about Viktor Frankl’s idea of Tragic Optimism, the belief that we can and should embrace meaning and purpose in the face of unspeakable evil and suffering. And I believe that by teaching such a book my students’ lives perhaps will change radically and indelibly.
When all of these assumptions are made about me, there is an implicit statement to my students that I am someone who not only talks about Frankl’s themes, but lives them out. I am a life-affirming humanitarian and a deeply spiritual person who says “yes to life.”
We’ve got a serious problem. I am not that person. In fact, I am the very opposite type of character. I am more like George Costanza. Since the early 1990s people have told me I share certain facial expressions, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and neurotic quirks that remind them of the self-absorbed man-child from the hit show Seinfeld. Mind you, these are people who, as far as I can tell, like me and who seem to find me funny because of my tendency to exaggerate my woes and tribulations. But when I read Man’s Search for Meaning, I read about a very noble man, a survivor of the concentration camps, Viktor Frankl, whose desire is for us to transform ourselves into a type of person who is George Costanza’s very antithesis. We read in Frankl’s book that for life to be fulfilling and complete, we must accept death and suffering as part of the deal. Frankl writes: “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.”
Those words damn George Costanza whose single-minded drive for self-preservation and his constant displays of over-the-top cowardice squeeze all remnants of human dignity. In fact, the more undignified and self-centered George behaves, the more funny he is. For example, there is a Seinfeld episode where George, working as a clown for a child’s birthday party, thinks there’s a fire in the child’s home, and George makes a quick getaway, the first to make the escape, with no regard to anyone else’s safety. Another example of his me-first mentality and woeful immaturity is his motivation to stay in a miserable relationship to prove to the world that he is mature enough to be in a long-term romance. He is a man so hell-bent on image over substance that he will bite his nose to spite his face. Again, the more he self-destructs the more funny his character seems to us.
Similarly, my funniest moments show me at my worst, selfish and compulsive. For example, when my wife Carrie and I went cycling on a lazy Sunday in Hermosa Beach, she wanted a relaxing time of bonding. But I was too selfish to be aware of her desire for closeness because I had a different objective. I wanted an intense workout and in my earnest desire to make haste, I left her far behind, cycling far ahead of her like a speed demon, until she started crying. The day was ruined.
Another example of my selfishness was when we’d cross the Pacific Coast Highway on foot, I was more daring, jetting into the busy street when I deemed it “safe,” so that I was on the other side of the road while Carrie stood on the other side, alone, abandoned, and angry. Over the years, I’ve had to minimize my selfish tendencies to keep the marriage okay lest domestic life become one intractable Seinfeld episode.
I’m not saying I share the soul of George Costanza or that I am somehow his doppelganger. I’m saying I see selfish and cynical tendencies in myself that make my teaching Frankl’s masterpiece a supreme act of hypocrisy. The evidence that my character flaws make me unworthy of talking about a man of Viktor Frankl’s stature is damning. I’m forty-eight years old and I am so lazy I’ve never taught myself the correct way to fold laundry in spite of my wife’s repeated lessons. I’m so pessimistic about the human condition that I feel compelled to agree with Henry James who said that “morons and madmen reign in high places.” Unlike the pious believers of this world, I’m angry and embittered at the idea of an omnipotent god who allows suffering and evil to exercise its power and run rampant across Planet Earth. I’m not a benevolent egalitarian evidenced by my contempt for jury duty and the idea that a random sampling of the public offers sufficient intelligence and critical thinking to conduct a fair trial.
I have too many other flaws and vices to mention here but let it be stated that I am, like George Costanza, inclined to self-pity, grandiosity, solipsism, and dyspeptic rants. I’m a chronic whiner and a malcontent, always complaining about things and I even joke to my students that I live in Los Angeles because this city is so rife with pathology that it gives me an abundance of material to be pissed off about. And when I’m pissed off, I’m at my happiest, I’m at my best, I’m marinating in glory. I’m the type of person who thrives on pain and cynical energy. I feel I need to have these qualities in part to be an effective entertainer in the classroom.
The problem is that I’ve honed this misanthropic persona over the years, making its blade sharper and sharper, and it seems to be on a head-on collision with teaching the type of life-affirming values expressed in Frankl’s book. I begin to wonder if a comedian like George Carlin could successfully teach Man’s Search for Meaning, or a wannabe comedian like myself could do the same thing.
But then it occurs to me that it’s precisely a cynic like me who should teach Frankl’s book, for a cynic, the adage tells us, is really a disappointed romantic, someone with a big heart who really wants to improve the world. The cynic’s Jungian Shadow is the idealist, the heart-warmed, spiritually-resurrected Grinch, the very person who would embrace Tragic Optimism and share its vital message with exceptional zeal.
Further, the students would rather hear Frankl’s urgent truths from a doubt-ridden crank who struggles with cynicism and his Inner George Costanza more than a humorless schoolmarm who delivers Frankl’s teaching with saccharine sanctimony and chafing self-certitude.
Finally, maybe my teaching will persuade not just my students, but me, to get on board with a life of meaning and Tragic Optimism. I need Frankl’s prescription for living a fulfilled life just as much as anyone and maybe my cogent lectures will have me drinking my own Kool-Aid.
So I’m resolved to teaching Man’s Search for Meaning. But it will be harder than hell because my cynical nature scoffs and mocks my every step. The pessimist inside me doesn’t like newcomers, new ideas, new plans, and new challenges, and he will wage war against the wisdom that lies in Frankl’s masterpiece. So from the prism of a cynic I will do my best to lay down Frankl’s lessons for my students and for myself. I will show the cynic’s doubt and do my best to refute that cynic to see if I can make from Frankl’s classic something useful, and, yes, meaningful.
2. Do I Really Believe in Free Will?
Do I really believe we are all responsible for the attitude we adopt in the face of suffering? Do I really believe that life’s inevitable tragedy of loss and suffering can render a spirit of complete humanity, shining with moral triumph? I hope this is the case because that means I can be more hopeful, a true disciple of Frankl’s Tragic Optimism, rather than a devotee to self-crippling pessimism.
To address this question of personal responsibility in the face of immense suffering, we’re tackling the age old debate of free will vs. determinism. Either we are free to make choices that shape our character, for good or bad, or our choices aren’t really choices at all; rather, they are compulsions born from our biological hard-wiring and social conditioning. If there is no free will, if in fact people who follow Frankl’s principle of finding meaning through suffering do so because they are simply hard-wired to find meaning and those who don’t are hard-wired to be nihilists, then his book is, in crucial ways, a waste of time. If there is no free will, then Frankl is simply analyzing the two types of people in the world after the fact, that is, he is describing people who appear to have made choices, for good or bad, when in actuality they were just following their internal, unshakeable codes. On the other hand, if free will exists and we are free to choose our attitude even in the most horrendous of circumstances, then Frankl’s principle applies and we ignore his message at our own peril.
As someone who wants to teach Frankl’s book and really believe in his message, I think I can, for now anyway, accept Frankl’s argument that we are responsible for our choices because it seems to me that the free will/determinism debate on both sides is grievously in error, constituting an either/or fallacy: Both positions appear to be entrenched in the absolute idea, wrongly, of free will or determinism. But in fact there are only degrees of free will and determinism and we tend to progress from one pole to the other. We can see this spectrum in the realm of morality. Many years ago I saw a TV program about a corrupt police officer, interviewed from prison, who explained how easy it eventually became for him to steal money during drug busts. He said at first the stealing stung his conscience and he had ulcers and bouts of anxieties from his corrupt behavior. To show the growing effects of his criminal acts on his soul during the interview, he grabbed a sheet of crisp paper and crumpled it. He explained that doing wrong in the beginning was like crumpling the paper. There was a violence to the harsh crushing noise of the action, but after dozens upon dozens of times the paper became tissue thin and the action did not grate on him anymore. It seems in the beginning he had more free will to not steal but as he surrendered to his cravings for easy money, he numbed his conscience and lost more and more willpower, eventually becoming a slave to his own thievery. Thus he traveled from having an abundance of free will to a scarcity of it, until he was at the mercy of determinism.
A similar case can be made for an adulterer. He may at first be pained by guilt for his infidelity, maybe even the fourth and fifth time. But after dozens, perhaps hundreds of times, he becomes numb, calloused, and debauched, and thus he loses his free will.
Frankl observed there were things you could do to maintain your will to live in the concentration camps. If you shaved and did not grow an unruly Old Testament beard, you wouldn’t look so wasted away and you’d have a healthier appearance, however superficial, and the way you took care of your body helped you resist surrendering to despair. But once you lost hope in the future and surrendered your will to live, your free will was lost rapidly. You stopped trading your cigarettes for food but rather smoked the cigarettes for yourself, so that you could “enjoy” your final days. By then, you had no free will and were irretrievably heading for the grave.
Fortunately, the converse is true. We can journey from determinism to free will, going from a weaker to a stronger state. Take the man whose doctor just told him he needs to lose fifty pounds or he may soon die of a stroke or a heart attack. The overweight man knows he cannot resist his junk food temptations but that he can control his environment, so he learns how to keep his kitchen full of healthy foods and he learns how to prepare them in a way that makes him enjoy his nutritious meals. Thus, he misses his favorite junk foods less. As he loses weight and feels better, he feels motivated to stick to his new program. He was once mired in the self-loathing and the malaise of compulsive junk food eating, but he has taken control of his life in a way that makes him feel better about himself. He has in effect journeyed from determinism to free will.
Another reason to agree with Frankl’s principle that we are responsible for our actions is that most parents believe in disciplining their children. To discipline someone means to teach someone, a child or a novice, how to behave in a way that produces positive results, which in turn become the reward for motivating good behavior. If you teach a child how to make her bed and how to enjoy the advantages of keeping a clean, well organized room, you have given her a lesson on how to impose her will over chaos to her favor. As she matures, she internalizes these teachings, preferring a clean, organized room to a messy, chaotic one, and she has what is called self-discipline.
We therefore have the power to make choices, and to teach others how to make those choices, that can make our lives better, or worse, and as such we call ourselves adults depending on the degree of self-discipline we have. Self-discipline or the lack thereof, is one way of measuring our free will.
So far so good. It looks like I believe in Frankl’s principle enough so that I can teach it. But I still have doubts rooted in other questions.
For example, what about the people I know who are prisoners of clinical depression, anorexia, addiction, and other mental diseases? Would their problems vanish if they embraced Frankl’s Tragic Optimism and found meaning in their suffering? Some perhaps, but I doubt that some of the extreme cases could radically change themselves.
But I can counter that position by saying we should not dismiss Frankl’s principle of meaning based on extreme cases. Most of us would benefit from the lessons in his book.
However, there’s another problem laid out in one of the greatest American novels ever written, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. This lean novel shows us how vulnerable we are to succumbing to our illusions and chimeras, the green lights that flash inside our head and catapult us to our destruction, and the novel ends on a pessimistic nod to the victory of determinism over free will: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
If I’m reading Fitzgerald’s novel correctly, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over. We’re trapped in concentric circles of irrational behavior from which we can never escape.
But I suppose my reading, and the philosophical conclusions I’ve reached, don’t have to be completely pessimistic to the point of dismissing Frankl’s argument. I could consider that the novel’s narrator Nick Carraway felt compelled to chronicle Gatsby’s destructive end for some reason other than proselytizing nihilism. Carraway must have believed, as did Fitzgerald, that we the readers would benefit in some way. We should at least be aware of the power of chimeras if we’re to have a fighting chance of slaying them. The narrator doesn’t want to candy-coat reality because he has too much respect for his readers’ intelligence and reason. We can and must fight against our illusions and self-awareness if it is the starting point of exercising our free will and defeating determinism. I have to admit I’m not totally convinced by this more optimistic interpretation from a novel whose author was an alcoholic, but I am appeased to the degree that I have an open mind about free will, especially since Frankl is not Pollyannaish in his teaching of it. Frankl emphases that free will is finite and that once we surrender our will to apathy we go downhill quickly.
Thus far I’ve tackled the free will/determinism debate to my satisfaction. I’ve taken care of the extreme cases for whom we should not base our life wisdom upon. And now I would like to address another reason to believe in free will: Sometimes we don’t take action, not because we cannot, but because we will not. The reasons for not taking action are fairly compelling. Doing what it takes to get out of a bad situation can often entail immense suffering. I had a student, for example, who came here from Japan. She lived with her American boyfriend in a nice Beverly Hills apartment and she confided with me that she no longer loved him as a woman loves a man but as a mother loves a child. She wanted to move out, but it was difficult to do so in mid-semester and to most likely live in a less desirable place. And worse, she did not have the heart to crush him with the truth about her feelings for him. But do so she did. She suffered a lot upfront, as it were, but saved herself, and the man she had been living with, a lot more grief they would have afflicted them had she dragged the relationship out.
I admire her courage. The pain to make such a move reminds me of a TV show I watched as a child, Adam 12. In one episode, paramedics were called to save a man who was being crushed by a fallen telephone pole. The victim of the accident was smiling with relief as the pole weighed on his ribs and said, “It’s funny, it doesn’t hurt that much.” But one of the paramedics had bad news: While the pain wasn’t so bad now, he explained, it would become unbearable when the fire department crew lifted the pole off his ribs.
Whenever we need to unshackle ourselves from a bad situation or a self-destructive habit, the pain is as overwhelming as having a telephone pole being lifted off our ribs. In the long-run we’re better off, of course, but the immediate pain is so unbearable that many of us choose to stay right where we are. As we slowly die under whatever it is that is crushing us, we lose more and more of our free will until our condition becomes inevitable.
How urgent it is, then, to embrace the teaching of free will and the courage it takes to do so. I really am behind Viktor Frankl’s message.
Or maybe not. By teaching that we must have the freedom to choose our attitude in the face of suffering, am I not relying on childhood homilies and clichés? After all, isn’t Frankl’s message merely a reiteration of the nursery story “The Little Engine That Could”? The train succeeds at going up the mountain because he says, “I think I can.” Such stories persist through high school, like the English teacher I knew who lectured to her students about the grumpy frog and the positive frog. The grumpy frog was placed in a glass of milk and he said to himself, “I’m doomed. I cannot climb this glass wall so I will drown.” And drown he did. But the positive frog, placed in the same glass of milk, kicked his legs over and over, converting the milk into a mountain of cottage cheese from which he climbed up and made his escape.
It’s a very creative story, to be sure. However, isn’t the idea of adopting a positive attitude a rather self-evident fact of life? If this is so, I’m merely giving my students hackneyed sermons, bloviating tired truisms, and as such I feel I should forgo the teaching of Frankl’s book right now.
But I’m reminded of something I read in Albert Camus’ Notebooks. It was a quote from the French Romantic artist Delacroix who said that “What moves those of genius, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.”
I must teach Frankl’s book because his important truths need to be disseminated more urgently than ever. And I must teach his ideas in a new way that will have a powerful impact on my students.
3. Isn’t Frankl Simply Re-Hashing Clichés About “Positive Thinking”?
The main argument in Man’s Search for Meaning is that no matter how tough our circumstances, we have the freedom to choose our attitude, to choose to do the moral and dignified thing. Otherwise, we will become spiritually dead, despondent pessimists at the mercy of fate. Thus Frankl is arguing that we must adopt a positive attitude. Is that the sum of a book from a man who survived the concentration camps? Is Frankl simply re-hashing cheap clichés about positive thinking? And if so, should his book be placed on the shelf alongside those perky, quintessentially American how-to books, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People? The two books argue the obvious: Project a positive attitude and you’ll influence people to your advantage. Look sincere and you’ll win the hearts of the public and better position yourself to make them do your bidding.
This type of positive thinking, which I will later argue is the opposite of the type Frankl describes, has a dark underbelly brilliantly analyzed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. Ehrenreich shows that this type of positive thinking, the kind that is incorporated in an ambitious work ethic, is too often delusional and dangerous. She writes in her book’s Introduction that when circumstances are not going along the positive narrative arc we desire, we try to change those events with “magical,” positive thinking. She writes, “The practice of positive thinking is an effort to pump up this belief in the face of much contradictory evidence. Those who set themselves up as instructors in the discipline of positive thinking—coaches, preachers, and gurus of various sorts—have described this effort with terms like ‘self-hypnosis,’ ‘mind control,’ and ‘thought control.’”
As a survivor of breast cancer and witnessing many succumb to the disease, she is rightfully offended by the positive thinking cult that says if you fail to triumph over your illness or some equally devastating challenge, the fault is somehow yours. You just didn’t envision victory hard enough. You failed to muster sufficient positive thinking to assert your will toward the crisis. Ehrenreich correctly shows that this belief is based on self-deception including a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and ‘negative’ thoughts.”
The problem with this positive thinking cult is not the belief in positive thinking as a helpful asset but the degree in that belief. For example, if a couple is trying to conceive a child, no one is going to argue against the idea that a positive, supportive, relaxed attitude is going to create a better atmosphere for reproductive success. Adopting those measures is so self-evident that the idea has no currency as a book. But to sell yourself, your book, your motivational CDs, etc., you have to take the obvious truth and exaggerate its power. So you take faith in positive thinking further and turn it into some sort of a lucky charm ascribing almost supernatural powers to a super attitude that does not exist. And failure to find this super attitude, through ignorance, lack of training, lack of discipline, failure to listen to your Positive Thinking Master correctly, etc., is your fault. For example, let’s return to the couple trying over and over to conceive a child. When they become frustrated, the Positive Thinker blames them for not projecting enough of a positive attitude to overcome what very well could be physiological impediments. They believe that all obstacles can be overcome with positive thinking is the type of “magical thinking” Ehrenreich describes.
This type of “positive thinking,” and the books that promote it, is worse than delusional, causing self-blame when such blame is wrongly placed; it’s a form of self-aggrandizement and a way of manipulating, and yes, even bullying others.
There is in fact an insidiousness to the positive thinking movement that is in fact bullying. I’m reminded of a much needed editorial by Sandra Tsing Loh who was chafed and annoyed by the gushing, exuberant Roberto Benigni who won the Oscar for Life Is Beautiful, a film about the Holocaust, and his brief status as Humanity Statesman gave him the privilege, or so he thought, to jump in everyone’s arms during the Academy Awards. Perhaps many thought it was cute in a sort of life-affirming way. And you had better receive him in your arms joyously or you were a party-pooper, a malcontent resisting the Great Power of Love, perhaps not even sympathetic to a film that praised the human spirit in the face of Holocaust. This is the same dynamic at place with the Positive Thinker who imposes and suffocates you with his positive attitude and then argues that your being taken aback is the result of your being a negative thinker. Thus the Positive Thinkers teach us to wear an overbearing mask of a cheery attitude to deceive others and to control others and we turn the world into a great deception fest.
Is Frankl arguing for a similar type of positive thinking? Is he promoting positive thinking as what Ehrenreich calls an “ideology” in which you condition yourself to think positively so that life turns out more positive until you use your positive thoughts to create your own worry-free world, a Hakuna Matata?
In fact, Frankl is not arguing that you should or even can use positive thinking that will result in a paradise. To the contrary, he emphasizes that the sheer amount of suffering and evil in the world compels us to see the world in tragic terms. It is a tragedy, Frankl observes, that suffering and cruelty have run amok in this world and as such suffering is inevitable. Recognizing the inevitably of suffering is hardly the Pollyannaish tone or worldview of Peale, Carnegie, and others. The suffering of the world compels us to take our cross, writes Frankl, using a Christian metaphor to underscore our responsibility to serve others in the face of suffering.
Serving others is not a priority for the positive thinking cheerleader who teach you how to project a “winning attitude” to “win people over,” to influence your own emotions by smiling and being optimistic, or by using your positive feelings for whatever self-interested business or relationship schemes you may have. For the merchants of attitudinal adjustment, positive thinking is a both a business tool and a talisman to further your ambitions, to get rich, to manage underlings, and to make “friends,” though I’m not sure what kind of friends you will make using such manipulation.
Also unlike the merchants of cheap positive thinking, Viktor Frankl never deludes us with fake promises of finding easy meaning. He states that the road to meaning is narrow and the road to despair and nihilism is wide. There is no generic definition of meaning or defining what our purpose is in life because our individual circumstances compel us to forge our own unique role that we must find for ourselves. Yet however difficult it is to choose meaning and individual purpose, Frankl holds us accountable. We are not, Frankl argues, the byproduct of our biology and social conditioning.
The contrast between those who teach adopting a positive attitude to be successful and Frankl’s argument for choosing the right attitude in the face of suffering is a stark one. To reiterate, the empty cliché of positive thinking is built on the false promise that positive thinking will help you enjoy less suffering, will make you more charismatic around others who will want a piece of your positive aura, and will lay down the groundwork for financial and relationship success. Having a positive attitude to achieve these things is important, to be sure, but without talent, hard work, and luck, the positive attitude doesn’t deliver the guaranteed success that the Positive Thinking Merchants promise. Frankl, on the other hand, actually argues against striving for success and happiness. In a famous passage, he writes:
Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long, run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.
These words are ideologically at odds with the Positive Thinkers who make success your obsession and want you to be a positive cheerleader so charismatic that you become a sort of personality cult who attracts others. In contrast, Frankl wants you to commit yourself, not to some self-worship, but to a cause higher than yourself.
We’ve dismissed the idea that Frankl’s argument for a positive attitude is part of the cheap positive thinking bromides that too many people have been duped by over the last century. What he is really talking about is something altogether different. What he’s saying is that we have been thrust into a world overrun by suffering and evil (hardly the premise of a self-help book on positive thinking) and that such a world forces us to make a choice, which he puts in the context of surviving the concentration camps: “Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become a plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of a typical inmate.” He goes on to say that unrelentingly harsh “camp influences alone” did not determine the shape of a prisoner’s character. But rather “in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision. . . . Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, what shall become of him, emotionally and spiritually.”
The decision, then, is will we become animals hell-bent on self-preservation, throwing all scruples to the wind, and a result losing our humanity; or will we be worthy of our suffering? The “martyrs,” as Frankl calls them, were those whose morality, dignity, courage, and self-sacrifice flourished under the camp’s brutal circumstances. They were worthy of their suffering because of an attitude they adopted in the face of suffering. And “the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
While the Positive Thinking Merchants are writing business tracts and self-help books about mood change, increased wealth, and successful relationships, , Frankl is taking us through the horrors of the concentration camps to show us his hard-fought wisdom about the two directions we can go, one direction making us apathetic ghosts of our real selves, the other fulfilling our moral obligations and in turn making us more fully human.
It’s an either/or proposition with no gray, only black and white, the difference between heaven and hell. Does such a proposition make Man’s Search for Meaning a religious book? Or for some of the faithful is it not religious enough? These questions make a cynic like myself feel rather uneasy.
4. Is Man’s Search for Meaning a Religion?
Can a cynic who has serious doubts that the world’s religious books are divinely written teach a book that is founded on religious values? Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot about religion that I can sympathize with, specifically the underlying message that there’s more to this life than the materialistic world. There is a Beyond, an Other, a Mystery. Additionally, I find myself culling large hunks of fleshy sweet fruit from the world’s best religious writers and I imbibe these delicious morsels for my much-needed wisdom, but as I heard a TV preacher once say, “Religion is like watermelon. Yes, you can enjoy the watermelon, but you must also swallow the seeds.” In other words, I can’t pick and choose and then call myself a convert to this or that religion.
What about those who spit out the seeds and as such cannot hang their hats on a religious title? Can they go on a meaning quest or is this quest the exclusive realm of religion and its faithful? Does Man’s Search for Meaning argue for a kind of meaning that is inclusive for the religious and nonreligious alike or is its value exclusive to those with a strong faith in God?
The rabbi Harold S. Kushner writes in the 2006 edition Foreword that Man’s Search for Meaning is indeed a profoundly religious book. It’s a book, he writes, that has the power to change lives. It’s a book that demands we find a higher purpose. It’s a book, he writes, that dismisses Freud’s insistence that life is primarily the drive for pleasure and equally dismisses Alfred Adler’s theory that life is foremost a quest for power. These sensual and vain things must take the back seat to First Things, and one such thing is the search for meaning.
Another argument in Man’s Search for Meaning that many might consider religious is Frankl’s rejection of determinism and the responsibility we have toward our own free will. For Frankl and many religious writers, the doctrine of determinism, that we are the product of environmental and biological forces we cannot control, contributes to a degraded image of humanity and as such it lowers expectations and diminishes the human spirit. As Frankl writes about the dangers of “pan-determinism”:
By that I mean the view of man which disregards his capacity to take a stand toward any conditions whatsoever. Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.
Man’s decision to shape who he becomes makes him accountable and this, according to Christian apologist and Catholic writer Peter Kreeft, is an idea rooted in his faith, an idea that uplifts humankind. Yes, we are accountable for our actions, Kreeft writes, and this accountability and this judgment of us a sinners renders a higher view of man than saying we are helpless pawns to determinism and have no accountability for our actions.
Peter Kreeft, a Christian, and Viktor Frankl, a Jew, also share another important idea about meaning that has a strongly religious component: We cannot find meaning until we have been stripped to our bare existence. Frankl observed prisoners, and himself, finding their strongest spiritual reservoirs when subject to the most excruciating conditions in the concentration camps. Being stripped of everything, according to Frankl and Kreeft, makes us find life’s Higher Purpose. Comparing our plight to Job’s in Three Philosophies of Life, Kreeft writes: “Not all of us lose our children, our health, our possessions, and our confidence in one day. But all of us must learn to lose everything but God, for all of us will die, and you cannot take anything with you but God.”
Another idea about meaning that Frankl and Kreeft share is that meaning requires radical self-transformation and this transformation requires a suffering that we must embrace. Frankl argues we must change so that we become worthy of our suffering. This transformation, from self-centered bitter man resenting life’s suffering and cruelties, to brave magnanimous man embracing suffering for the betterment of mankind is so dramatic and arduous that Kreeft likens it to a statue being chiseled into a more powerful image. Our being transformed from a lowly “statue” to a more grand one so that we can see the face of God is the meaning of life. As Kreeft writes:
This world is “a vale of soul making”, a great sculptor’s shop, and we are the statues. To be finished, the statues must endure many blows of the chisel and be hardened in the fire. This is not optional. Once we lost our original innocence, the way back to God has to be painful, for the Old Man of sin will keep on complaining and paining at each step toward his enemy, goodness. Saying, “not my will but thine be done” was ecstatic joy in Eden and will be in Heaven, but it is life’s most difficult (and most necessary) task now. Without it, we have no face with which to face God. Why could Job see God face to face and live? Because Job got a face through his suffering faith. As C.S. Lewis says at the end of his novel Till We Have Faces, “How can we meet the gods face to face till we have faces?”
So for Kreeft the meaning of life is enduring suffering in order to evolve to a more holy state. Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that chronicles unimaginable suffering, is analogous to this type of evolution. And this type of change is not easy, contrary to the claims of most self-help books, but extremely difficult. While the self-help books may be more appealing in their easy answers for self-transformation, enduring suffering is essential to both Kreeft and Frankl for finding meaning. As Kreeft writes:
That is the meaning of life: getting a face, becoming real, becoming yourself—but in ways and toward an end not even dreamed of by the pop psychologists who say these things so casually. Yes, life is a process of becoming yourself—but this is done by suffering, not by sinning; by saying No as well as saying yes; by climbing against the gravity of the selfish self, not by the direct paths of “self-realization” and “self-actualization”. The meaning of life is war. And our enemies are not less but more real and formidable than flesh and blood. Unless we defeat them, we will die a death infinitely more hopeless and horrible than any battlefield gore. It is not easy to get a face. Job is no exception, but the rule; the trouble God had to bring him through is ours, too, in one way or another.
Is this kind of transformation, the kind both Frankl and Kreeft write about, available to only those with faith or can agnostics and atheists undergo this change as well? Frankl does not explicitly argue a specific faith for following the principles in his book but Kreeft would argue that without faith our meaning quest if futile:
Philosophers give some noble and beautiful answers to the question of life’s meaning, purpose, and end: virtue, wisdom, honor, character, joy, freedom, “the true, the good, and the beautiful”—but they ignore the grubby little question that nags us as we admire these true ideals: How? How is this dwarf to fly like that eagle? How can I get from here to there, from Before to After, from cretin to Christ?
For Kreeft, getting from “Before to After” requires God’s intervention. Both Kreeft and Frankl agree there is a Before, selfish meaningless man, and an After, compassionate meaningful man. Kreeft is explicit in couching this transformation in religious terms while Frankl is more implicit even though the groundwork of his philosophy, which is informed from his Jewish faith.
I would have serious difficulties teaching Mean’s Search for Meaning from Kreeft’s religious perspective. For one, I am agnostic. For two, I can’t imagine anyone having lived a more admirable life than Viktor Frankl, a man who does not share Kreeft’s faith. As much as I admire Kreeft’s often brilliant writing and as much as he makes a compelling case for his Christian faith, I don’t see Kreeft’s religion as having a monopoly on giving us the power to get from Before to After. Case in point is Viktor Frankl. He is the “chiseled statue” Kreeft writes about, but he has been chiseled without Kreeft’s religious beliefs. Further, according to Kreeft’s religion, Frankl was not “saved,” that is, presumably he did not go to Kreeft’s heaven.
I cannot teach Man’s Search for Meaning from Kreeft’s religious point of view, a position that would say Frankl died unsaved and that he lacked, as a nonChristian, the power in his life to truly transform into the kind of person Kreeft describes as being, like Job, “hardened by the fire.” But I should clarify here that I cannot speak for Kreeft, a Catholic, who may, for all I know, deem Frankl worthy of heaven, or at least purgatory, a place to prepare for heaven. I don’t know. What I do know is that there are two ways of looking at religious faith. The first way is to say that all or most religions point toward the same God, as Erich Fromm believes. In his book The Art of Loving, Fromm expresses sympathy for Chinese and Indian religious views, which incorporates “paradoxical logic”:
From the standpoint of paradoxical logic the emphasis is not on thought, but on the act. This attitude had several other consequences. First of all, it led to the tolerance which we find in Indian and Chinese religious development. If the right thought is not the ultimate truth, and not the way to salvation, there is no reason to fight others, whose thinking has arrived at different formulations. This tolerance is beautifully expressed in the story of several men who were asked to describe an elephant in the dark. One, touching his trunk, said “this animal is like a water pipe”; another, touching his ear, said “this animal is like a fan”; a third, touching his legs, described the animal as a pillar.
Fromm is less interested in what doctrines people believe than he is in their actions. Viktor Frankl may be a theist whereas Fromm is an atheist, but Fromm would admire Frankl’s high expression of humanity. As Fromm continues from the above passage:
Secondly, the paradoxical standpoint led to the emphasis on transforming man, rather than to the development of dogma on the one hand, and science on the other. From the Indian, Chinese and mystical standpoints, the religious task of man is not to think right, but to act right, and/or to become one with the One in the act of concentrated mediation.
The second view is that religions are very different and that their distinctions are significant in many ways. This is the central argument in Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Rule the World—And Why Their Differences Matter. It is also the view of Christian apologist Neil Saavedra, host of a weekly radio program The Jesus Christ Show. He argues that all religions can be wrong but they all can’t be right. If they have different doctrines as to how to reach salvation only one of those doctrines can be right.
I agree with Prothero and Saavedra that religions are not alike in their claims when we are discussing salvation and the power to transform. A Christian like Peter Kreeft might argue that Man’s Search for Meaning is full of wisdom but getting from Before to After requires the “juice,” “the tonic,” “the horsepower” from his God, not the gods described by other religions. Further, one’s salvation can only be found through his God, not the others.
For Fromm this type of belief is a fallacy of Western thought which rejects the Chinese and Indian religious tradition of tolerance for other faiths:
The opposite is true for the main stream of Western thought. Since one expected to find the ultimate truth in the right thought, major emphasis was on thought, although right action was held to be important too. In religious development this led to the formulation of dogmas, endless arguments about dogmatic formulations, and intolerance of the “nonbeliever” or heretic. It furthermore led to the emphasis on “believing in God” as the main aim of a religious attitude. This, of course, did not mean that there was not also the concept that one ought to live right. But nevertheless, the person who believed in God—even if he did not live God—felt himself to be superior to the one who lived God, but did not “believe” in him.
In all likelihood there were people who “lived God” in the concentration camps but did not believe in a God. Frankl lived God though he may have not have worshipped the same God Catholics and Christians believe in. This is Fromm’s point: We become better people from our actions, not our doctrines. In contrast, Kreeft argues that we must believe in a very particular God, one who instills in us awe and a healthy fear, to endure the suffering required for such radical transformation. While I am agnostic toward Kreeft’s God, I agree with him in the psychological process he describes, of Job’s transformation in the face of suffering.
But is it possible to talk about this transformation with any credibility outside a religious context? Can we really change for the better and find meaning in our lives on our own or do we, as Kreeft argues, have to confront the “grubby little question that nags us as we admire these true ideals: How?” How indeed do we “climb against the gravity against the selfish self”? Can we engage in this struggle, this “warfare” from self-reliance, inner strength, and a personal Higher Power found from within or do we need a very specific God, outside ourselves, described by a very specific religion? Where did Frankl find his strength? From within? From his God? Both? And was his God the same as the one Peter Kreeft and Neil Saavedra worship?
I don’t know. What I do know is that Viktor Frankl was a deeply religious man evidenced by his commitment to the ideals he expresses in Man’s Search for Meaning. As someone who is agnostic on the question of which religion has the best God, can I teach Frankl’s book, as one containing religious ideals, with any conviction? I think and hope I can since I believe all of us our religious. Atheism is a religion, for example. As is consumerism. As is self-absorbed vanity. As is cynicism. My definition of religion comes from Alfred North Whitehead in his book Religion in the Making in which he writes: “Religion is what you do in your solitude.” Who we really are deep inside when no one is looking is what makes up our religion. In this regard I agree with Fromm. Religion is more about who we really are inside than the doctrines we profess to believe in.
While determining whether or not Man’s Search for Meaning is a religious book or not, we’re faced with a larger philosophical question: Is the search for meaning exclusively a religious quest? Not according to Sam Harris, staunch advocate for secularism and reason and author of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Matters of good and evil, right and wrong, and compassion and well-being can, according to Harris, be better looked at objectively by neuroscience and psychology. But what about the care for the soul defined by some of Harris’ concerns, including “The Good Life,” “flourishing,” and “well-being”? Can these attributes of a healthy soul be addressed effectively by the scientific and secular community? Sam Harris argues science can indeed champion morality and human flourishing, far than religion, which for him is an impediment to morality and flourishing. For Harris, religion should be tossed aside and we should look at science. As he writes: “The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values.” And getting a clearer grasp of the brain can only happen once we discard religion. Harris argues that “Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, we will see that there is no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality. Indeed, I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.”
Whether Harris makes a convincing point here about how science can take us to the Promised Land as we enrich our lives through flourishing, we can deal with later, but for now we have to ask ourselves: Can Viktor Frankl’s view of the soul, which can either flourish and blossom or whither and decay, be discussed only in religious terms? For Frankl, the matter of the soul is a very real thing. He saw spiritual death in the eyes of too many captives in the camps. His concern for the soul goes far beyond theories and abstractions. He call us urgently to “save” our souls by making the right choices. For many, including Rabbi Kushner, Frankl’s message is a religious one. Kushner writes in the Foreword that we must use our freedom to find meaning. Otherwise, we will succumb to spiritual death. Kushner writes: “I have known successful businessmen who, upon retirement, lost all zest for life. Their work had given their lives meaning. Often it was the only thing that had given their lives meaning and, without, they spend day after day sitting at home, depressed, ‘with nothing to do.’”
Kushner writes that Frankl’s doctrine of logotherapy cures the soul “by leading it to find meaning in life.” As a process, logotherapy isn’t necessarily religious. But the context of logotherapy, one that Kushner and others would argue, is very religious because it concerns the sickness of the soul, the concern chiefly of theologians and the clergy, and adhering to the moral absolutes that determine the soul’s development or retardation. We might say a soul without meaning is trapped in ennui, existential boredom, or worse, acedia, the spiritual enervation, listlessness, and torpor resulting from an absence of purpose. A soul without a purpose is a soul in a vacuum and in this empty state the soul, the theologians inform us, grabs on to misguided forms of happiness: consumerism, sensuality, power-mongering, etc., when in fact what the soul really craves, we are told, is God.
In the most extreme breakdown of the soul, it languishes in the personal hell of anhedonia, a condition William James describes in The Varieties of Religious Experience as an acute form of depression in which the subject has lost the capacity for happiness and feels like a ragged ghost of his former self.
Are ennui, acedia, and anhedonia diseases of the soul that can only be diagnosed and treated by divine intervention, via a religion, or can logotherapy, Frankl’s program for finding meaning, be just as effective in its cure of the soul, even if we look at logotherapy beyond a religious context? Is taking logotherapy out of a religious context even possible? To answer these questions, we had better look at what logotherapy is and then determine how dependent it is on religion.
Unlike psychotherapy, logotherapy does not emphasize introspection, regression, and retrospection; instead, as Frankl states in his chapter “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” logotherapy is a “meaning-centered psychotherapy” that focuses on what the patient can do in the future to find meaning as a cure for the sickness of his soul. Frankl explains that the Greek Logos translates into “meaning” and that logotherapy is the quest to find meaning.
Frankl cannot emphasize this enough: “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives.” He goes on to write that for every person meaning is “unique and specific” and can only be fulfilled by that person alone. The ideals and values generated from meaning are so vital to each person that they represent the most urgent principle of that person’s life. To argue that we and we alone must define what meaning is for ourselves strikes me as more humanistic than religious since we are not reading dogma to finding meaning; rather, we are searching for meaning based on our individual circumstances. For example, I am a community college instructor and I have certain opportunities for helping people, such as helping students transfer to universities, that a plumber or carpenter may not have while people who work for those professions may have opportunities that I don’t have. Meaning is dependent on our specific opportunities and skills. If you want to define religion as a moral imperative to find meaning—whatever that meaning may be—then Frankl is professing a sort of religion. But logotherapy and Frankl’s general philosophy that you must find meaning—without dictating what that meaning should be—doesn’t on the surface seem tied to this or that organized religion. However, I will argue later that there are, at the very least, implicit moral absolutes he presents that provide a criteria for judging the value of one’s meaning and these absolutes have much in common with religion.
Of course, the world’s religions are concerned with the same crisis Frankl addresses: the crisis of the human condition that results from a lack of meaning. When meaning is frustrated, the person suffers “existential frustration,” which results in all forms of neuroses and extreme forms of behavior. Without meaning, we meander into all sorts of self-destructive projects and obsessions. I think this is the real meaning of the French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s famous aphorism: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quiet in a room alone.” Pascal is looking at man’s restlessness in the face of existential frustration and this restlessness causes man to act in ways that result in his unhappiness. He strays from his room and gets into all sorts of mischief because he is bored and desperate to find something to fill the vacuum.
For example, we’ve all heard of couples who fight over trifling things because they are bored and are looking for some drama to fill their superficial existence. Or put another way, experiencing the existential emptiness from a life without meaning compels people to dig themselves in a deep hole so that they can find “meaning”—which in truth is a distraction—from the process of escaping their chasm. One of my favorite opening lines from a novel articulates this self-destructive tendency. I am talking about Jim Harrison’s novella The Beast God Forgot to Invent in which the narrator begins by saying, “The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.” I have a student who wrote an essay about his friend engaged in such a squandered life. This friend spends over twelve hours a day on a famous shoe website that allows you to chat with other fanatics of this shoe brand. The friend in question has a shoe collection worth tens of thousands of dollars, a fine showcase for people who values such things, but this person is in his early thirties, marginally employed, and still living with his parents. It would appear to me that his life could be characterized by existential frustration that compels him to “piss his life away on nonsense.”
Such nonsense is in abundance. I’ve heard of people on the social networking website facebook confess to feeling jealous that their “facebook friends” have accumulated more friends than they have. It is rather self-evident that this accumulation of “friends” creates the appearance of popularity and meaningful connection when in truth these facebook members may be rather deluded on these points. This type of self-delusion as a result of a meaningless existence is well described by Thomas V. Morris, a Christian philosopher, in his book Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life in which Morris analyzes the human propensity for self-delusion in the context of Pascal’s Pensees. Morris writes that we escape from our despair by “weaving a cocoon of illusion. There is a difference between being happy and merely imagining that we are happy.” The Herculean effort we muster to imagine that we’re happy is part of the nonsense that the narrator refers to in Harrison’s novella, part of the neurosis that results from a lack of meaning. Morris explains this point of the false self with a famous quote from that master observer of human folly, Blaise Pascal as he provides us close view of the affectations and self-delusions our souls produce when we are desperate for meaning:
We are not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves and our own being. We want to lead an imaginary life in the eyes of others, and so we try to make an impression. We strive constantly to embellish and preserve our imaginary being, and neglect the real one. And if we are calm, or generous, or loyal, we are anxious to have it known so that we can attach these virtues to our other existence; we prefer to detach them from our real self so as to unite them with the other. We would cheerfully be cowards if that would acquire us a reputation for bravery. How clear a sign of the nullity of our own being that we are not satisfied with the one without the other and often exchange for the other!
For Pascal, this wretched state can only be overcome by having a relationship with God. Frankl doesn’t go that far in describing how we can overcome the existential vacuum, but he is a man of faith and his faith in Judaism, not Pascal’s Catholicism, does inform much of his ideas on meaning such as choosing to be dignified and courageous in the face of suffering and death and the moral imperative to show compassion for those in need. These ideas are inextricably linked to Frankl’s logotherapy.
Another trait that logotherapy shares with religion, or at least Christianity, is that Frankl says “we must bear our cross,” meaning that we must embrace challenge and suffering to pursue our ideals and values. Pursuing a life of challenge, and the stress that comes with it, is in conflict with a lot of feel-good psychotherapy that promises tranquility and a stress-free existence. In contrast, logotherapy sees conflict and stress as natural components of a meaningful, fulfilled life; therefore, the patient doesn’t seek to be “blissed-out”; rather, the patient seeks fulfillment through meaning and he embraces that all the conflict that meaning creates for him. The strength to navigate through conflict and suffering comes from the lucidity of one’s life purpose. As Frankl quotes the Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” If we don’t have a higher ideal, one that takes us out of our self-centeredness, Frankl says our souls are doomed to atrophy.
This atrophy of the soul reminds me of a World War II documentary I saw many years ago. The focus was the 199-Day Siege of Stalingrad in which German troops surrounded the city and cut off all essential supplies. One of the survivors interviewed said that there were groups of extraordinary people—artists, actors, writers—who kept active during one of the coldest winters in Russia’s recorded history by entertaining people, sharing their food and clothing, and in general helping others survive. Here was a bunch of people who defied the cold, the hunger, and the hostile German forces surrounding them in order to stay engaged in life and to lend a helping hand to others. For the most part, this group of people, who made themselves more exposed and vulnerable in their service to others, went on to make it through the Siege. But they had a sad counterpart, a group of selfish cowards who, it was said, turned their backs on their cold, hungry neighbors, nailed their front doors shut, hoarded their food, and hid under piles of blankets, ignoring the pleas of the starving souls knocking on their doors. It was said that this group of hoarding people during the 199 days died. In an apparent reversal of logic, the warm, well-fed shut-ins failed to survive and the exposed, vulnerable helpers lived on. Indeed, those with a higher sense of purpose were able to bear the harsh conditions much more effectively than the self-absorbed hoarders whose only purpose, if it can be called that, was self-preservation.
Frankl gives a specific example from his own life of a purpose that kept him his drive for survival sharp while he suffered in the concentration camps. He wanted to survive so he could rewrite a manuscript that had been confiscated by the Nazis. He writes that his mental health, and that for all of us, is dependent on “the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.” We need struggle and conflict in our lives, Frankl argues. We need to fight for a “worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” Otherwise, we must face the restlessness and despair resulting from the “existential vacuum.”
Without meaning, Frankl points out, man is fated to try to blend in with society, becoming a conformist, or be obedient to an authority and suffer the lack of development that comes from living in the shadow of totalitarianism. More often than not, the existential vacuum results in boredom and it is in boredom where we get into trouble, devising all sorts of self-destructive schemes to fill the vacuum.
One common form of self-destruction from boredom is addiction and as such we have become a society in which there are thousands of addictions to choose from. Connected to these addictions are uncountable neuroses that are born from the existential or spiritual vacuum.
So how do we fill this vacuum with meaning? Frankl argues that we cannot come up with a general definition of meaning: “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” He warns us not to turn meaning into an abstraction. Rather, he writes: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”
Frankl emphasizes his point further by explaining that we are not even in a position to ask what meaning for our lives is. Meaning is a calling. As he writes: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of us life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of life.”
So it is our responsibility to find out what life demands of us to find meaning whether we are religious or not. And it is our responsibility to define our own specific meaning depending on our own set of circumstances.
In summary, Man’s Search for Meaning is not a proselytizing book about believing in God or embracing one of the world’s religions. However, it shares a lot of the same concerns as religion: The book is intended to make us change our lives, to find a higher purpose, to reject pleasure and power as the primary motivations of life, to acknowledge the strengthening or the withering of the soul, to be cautious of misguided forms of happiness, to be leery of the imaginary happy self we project to others and ourselves, to bear our own cross, to embrace a life of challenge and conflict, and of course to find our own meaning based on our individual circumstances in which only we can decide our meaning’s legitimacy.
Defining our own meaning in this manner doesn’t sound religiously prescriptive to me, but if everyone is defining their own meaning, what if some forms of meaning seem superior to others and what if some forms of meaning seem very inferior and even dangerous? In other words, is all meaning equal and in the context of Man’s Search for Meaning how do we measure the quality of someone’s chosen meaning?
5. Is All Meaning Equal?
In the famous, other-worldly short story by Nikolai Gogol, “The Overcoat,” the main character, Akaky Akakievich, a lonely anti-social clerk whose eccentricities and social inappropriateness suggest a severe case of Asperger syndrome, lives a life of self-imposed isolation. He has no friends, no love, no interaction with the community. He spends all his time copying documents to a degree of pathological obsession so severe that he takes work home and uses his tedious copying as form of refuge and solace. Living in destitution, he walks the cold windy streets of St. Petersburg in a coat so frail and tattered that his tailor cannot mend it. It must be replaced with a new overcoat that is beyond Akaky’s meager budget. But the devilish tailor persuades Akaky to see beyond his limitations and start saving for a new overcoat. In the process of saving and sacrificing for the overcoat, the nebbish Akaky finds meaning and undergoes cataclysmic psychological change, transforming from a depressed nobody to a self-confident being. His newfound bearing becomes like one who has successfully graduated from one of Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy sessions. We read:
From that time forth his existence seemed to become, in some way, fuller, as if he were married, or as if some other man lived in him, as if, in fact, he were not alone, and some pleasant friend had consented to travel along life's path with him, the friend being no other than the cloak, with thick wadding and a strong lining incapable of wearing out. He became more lively, and even his character grew firmer, like that of a man who has made up his mind, and set himself a goal. From his face and gait, doubt and indecision, all hesitating and wavering traits disappeared of themselves. Fire gleamed in his eyes, and occasionally the boldest and most daring ideas flitted through his mind. . . .
In other words, Akaky’s commitment to an ideal higher than himself makes him reborn and he lives a life full of meaning. Or does he? Without oversimplifying the symbolic meaning of the overcoat, which contains layers of contradictory meanings, on one level the overcoat does represent a man’s identity connecting with a consumer product and in the process his personality transforming from the power of that product, however imaginary that power may be. This of course is the essence of so many advertisements, which promise dramatic self-transformation. Indeed, Akaky is transformed, but has he really found meaning? And if he has, is his meaning as legitimate as the selfish billionaire who, inspired by some sort of Dickensian nightmare complete with chilling ghosts from past, present, and future, and wakes up resolved to become a philanthropist?
And what about the “meaning” found by the unflattering portraits of those zealous idealists in Eric Hoffer’s classic The True Believer? Therein Hoffer analyzes the types of people who find meaning in extreme political and religious programs. These are the losers and misfits of society, mediocrities straining for relevance; shrill fanatics with nothing to lose so they jump on some bandwagon or other promising revolution and massive societal change. Some of these fanatics are more dangerous than others. For example, some resort to suicide bombings in the name of their faith and some commit torture, massacres and outright genocide such as the Nazis and the Khmer Rhouge, to name a couple. Some joined these groups of coercion, but others did so with the sincere belief that they had found a worthy ideal that gave them meaning, even those who in the name of their God burned the innocent at the stake because they believed these poor souls were witches. Have killers, setting the innocent aflame, found meaning and if so is their meaning equal to everyone else’s?
Clearly, people are driven by all sorts of insane chimeras and delusions that they may interpret for themselves as constituting meaning. Also, there is probably some sort of a Meaning Scale. I imagine there are many healthy-minded people who find sufficient meaning raising their families and do so with a modicum of a good attitude. They may have never sunk to the depths of despair and may have never struggled with existential issues, yet their lives are admirable and, yes, their lives are full of meaning. But is this meaning as high on the scale as other, more dramatic types of meaning? It seems when we discuss people who have found meaning, the kind that inspires books and films, there must be a certain character arc: The individual descends into evil, crime, despair or indescribable suffering of some sort and finds redemption and transcendence. It’s these more dramatic, more extreme character arcs that appeal to us and it is these people we place higher on the Meaning Scale.
Is there any such a scale for meaning in Man’s Search for Meaning? Is there sufficient criteria to analyze meaning so that all meaning isn’t merely subjective and lumped together into one colossal pot of oatmeal? Because I’m not comfortable teaching some wishy-washy, morally relativistic class on finding meaning, the kind that says we must not judge, we must be tolerant of opposing notions of meaning, and accept the meaning everyone has found for themselves. I’m sorry, but I’m too repelled by the kind of true believers described in Eric Hoffer’s book and I’m too suspicious of the obvious mirages—like consumerism, self-vindication, vanity, power-mongering, paranoia, and, hysteria, to name a few—that people declare have become their source of meaning. There must be some absolute measure to evaluate the legitimacy of meaning and if it’s not contained in Man’s Search for Meaning, then I’m not teaching it.
Some would call me misguided in my search for absolutes. They would point out that the very true believers I criticize have found absolutes and these absolutes led them to violence and self-destruction. Indeed, it is clear that true believers can be dangerous in the absolutes they embrace. We can look to the Jim Jones cult followers, suicide-driven jihadists, witch-hunting champions of the Inquisition, and other bloodthirsty religious fanatics. And let us be clear: Secular fanatics can be just as dangerous. We can look at the massacres, torture, and ethnic cleansing that comes at the hands of secular totalitarianism and nationalism, most noticeably at the feet of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and, more recently, of Slobodan Milosevic. Absolutist leaders, whether religious, secular, or otherwise, have proven to be a scourge to the human race. But we judge their evil on an absolute moral standard either from a religious or secular point of view. The religious point of view sees universal moral laws as coming from God whereas the secular sees those laws as part of evolution, a system maximizing societal survival and flourishing. It seems to me that both points of view can conform to Viktor Frankl’s psychological model of meaning in which a life without meaning causes the soul to wither and die and a life full of meaning causes it to flourish.
The basis for moral absolutism from a religious view is well defended by Christian apologist Peter Kreeft in his book A Refutation of Moral Relativism. Warning of the dangers of moral relativism, Kreeft makes the case for moral absolutism, which he explains has three essential characteristics: “It is not relative to time, so it doesn’t change. And it’s not relative to place or nation or class or culture or race or gender or any group—it’s universal. Third, it’s not relative to opinion or thought or belief or desire or feeling or any subjective consciousness. It’s objectively real, objectively true, whether I or you or anyone else knows it, or believe it, or likes it, or cares about it, or obeys it.”
While I’m sure Sam Harris doesn’t agree with everything Peter Kreeft has to say about moral absolutism, Harris, in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values, argues that secular liberals have it wrong when it comes to morality. He writes that they “tend to imagine that no objective answers to moral questions exist. . . . Multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance—these are the familiar consequences of separating facts and values on the left.” As a result, Harris points out that a lot of secularists he debates against object to criticizing cultures for the torture and brutality against women because such criticisms would be “insensitive.” The real concern, of course, shouldn’t be about offending a culture that encourages the oppression of women, but for the women victims of such a culture. For Harris, both the religious right and the secular left are lost when it comes to morality because both groups reject science. Harris posits that “Meaning, values, morality, and the good life must relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures—and, in our case, must lawfully depend upon events in the world and upon states of the human brain.”
Philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, the author of “If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted,” also argues that moral absolutes can be found without religion. Part of people’s objection to atheism, she writes, is the famous quote (which she says is wrongly attributed to Dostoevsky): “If God is dead, then everything is permitted.” In fact, Anderson argues, as does Harrison, some of the scriptural imperatives actually degrade morality such as the encouraged revenge killings, war-mongering, and ethnic cleansing dictated in the Old Testament. She also criticizes the New Testament for its contradictory messages on achieving salvation and the eternal concentration camps that await the nonbelievers. Her verdict on the God of Scripture is clear and absolute: I find it hard to resist the conclusion that the God of the Bible is cruel and unjust and commands and permits us to be cruel and unjust to others. Here are religious doctrines that one their face claim that it is all right to mercilessly punish people for the wrongs of others and for blameless error, that license or even command murder, plunder, rape, torture, slavery ethnic cleansing, and genocide. We know such actions are wrong. So we should reject the doctrines that represent them as right. Anderson concedes that “thoughtful Christians and Jews” struggle with these doctrinal problems and that there are many good-hearted faithful doing good deeds throughout the world, but ultimately there is no way to “soft-pedal” the morally egregious scriptural teachings and that even a “liberal theology” is not defensible. So rejecting the scriptural God, Anderson asks, “How, then, can I answer the moralistic challenge to atheism, that without God moral rules lack any authority?” Her answer is that moral authority is based on “our practices of reciprocal claim making, in which we work out together the kinds of considerations that count as reasons that all of us must heed, and thereby devise rules for living together peacefully and cooperatively, on a basis of mutual accountability.”
I suspect her call for a moral society based on reciprocity and selfish altruism is in line with Sam Harris’ moral system. Both are atheists and both are moral absolutists in that behavior cannot violate one another’s well-being and ability to flourish. And flourishing is what brings us meaning to our lives.
While theists and agnostics can both share a belief in moral absolutism, is there meaning equal? I’m afraid not. The way they get to their meaning, however absolute, is so different, so contrary, that their beliefs are actually at war with one another. This presents a challenge for me since I am neither a theist or an atheist; I am an agnostic, or to borrow from a term Peter Kreeft uses to describe Herman Melville, I am a “God-haunted agnostic.” I’m constantly drawn to the Beyond, the Other. I just don’t have, to borrow a metaphor from William James, a religious vase to pour my experiences in.
As an agnostic, I admire and respect much that Elizabeth Anderson and Sam Harris write regarding their defense of moral absolutism, and the meaning they achieve from their worldview, but for the most part the atheist world rejects the Beyond because it cannot be described with science and the Beyond is looked upon as being subjective, wishy-washy and, at worst, delusional. An atheist world with faith exclusively in science is to me just another intolerant religion: an arid world lacking in dimension, color, and nuance. I agree with literary critic James Wood, someone who does not purport to be religious, who writes in a New Yorker essay “God in the Quad,” a critique of the new wave of atheist books being published: “What is most repellent about the new atheism is its intolerant certainty; it’s always noon in Dawkins’s world, and the sun of science and liberal positivism is shining brassily, casting no shadows.” There are shadows in this world. There is a sense of otherness. I’m reminded of an interview I heard with the late playwright Dennis Potter who said, he loves “crappy love songs” because they point to something higher than the banalities of this material world. In fact, not all love songs are “crappy.” When I hear Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers singing “For the Love of You,” it’s hard for me not to believe in a god; the song seems to have come straight from heaven. Songs like that make it hard for me to be an atheist.
In my search for meaning, I am not comfortable in the atheistic world with its “intolerant certainty” and without shadows and mystery. While I can not call myself religious (I refer again to the watermelon seed metaphor), I feel compelled to say there is in fact much to admire about the religious perspective. Like those love songs Dennis Potter enjoyed, religion points to a world beyond the banalities of this world. There is also a transcendent world described by Viktor Frankl, specifically his moving account of the “intensification of his inner life” during his ordeal in the concentration camps. As he contemplates his beloved wife, not knowing if she is dead or alive, he is overcome by the thought:
for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in the world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorably way—in such a position man can, though loving contemplation of the beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
Frankl is describing a sort of beauty and transcendence that carries him beyond his suffering. There is a hunger for this type of religious experience that compels people to worship their God in spite of the convincing critiques offered by the “new atheists” and others. The strength of Frankl’s inner life, his sense of being close to his wife’s spirit in his time of despair, is a form of religious experience that I respect, and I must acknowledge that Frankl’s experience and his search for meaning was informed in part by his religious faith. He has found in his desolation and despair a sort of Companion, one that transcends death. As he writes: “Had I known that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. ‘Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.’”
Religion as a transcendent experience is movingly described by Quaker writer Rufus Jones, author of Fundamental Ends of Life. He writes that beyond all the false religions is a very real one:
But there is nevertheless in our world a nucleus of real intrinsic religion—religion in spirit and in truth—which seeks God, as the artist seeks beauty, as the lover seeks the beloved, as the saint seeks holiness, for no ulterior and extrinsic purpose, solely to find Him and to worship Him and to love Him and to be like Him. Religion, when it comes to its full glory and “emerges” from the complex forms that have gone under the name of “religion” is a fundamental end of life. It attaches to an ultimate reality. It seeks, finds and enjoys a great Companion, a loving Friend, a tender Father. It has its ground and basis in the essential nature of the soul of man . . .
Rufus Jones’ account of a “great Companion” reminds me of the transcendence Viktor Frankl describes as the spirit of his wife comforts him during his slog through the concentration camp. I have a deep hunger for the kind of transcendence Jones and Frankl have had, but as I said I cannot call myself religious because there are too many religious doctrines that offend me and I can’t pick and choose what I like within a particular religion and then say that I am a member of that religion. Self-deception and hypocrisy are clearly not going to help me in my quest for meaning.
So I am not religious. Nor am I an atheist. As an agnostic, can I embrace enough moral absolutes and standards to teach the ones that are in Man’s Search for Meaning, arguably a religious book?
We can, as nonreligious people, embrace absolute standards according to Elizabeth Anderson, Sam Harris, and others. And, we should be warned, we can descend into the abyss of moral degradation through the force of either religion or secularism. Secular beliefs like the ideologies of Pol Pot that rationalize the slaughter of people are just as dangerous as religious beliefs that do the same. And religion can be dangerous psychologically as well. Alfred North Whitehead warns us of its danger in this regard in his book Religion in the Making:
Religion is by no means necessarily good. It may be very evil. The fact of evil, interwoven with the texture of the world, shows that in the nature of things there remains effectiveness for degradation. In your religious experience the God with whom you have made terms may be the God of destruction, the God who leaves in his wake the loss of the greater reality.
Martin Gardener wrote about his freedom from such a god in his autobiographical novel The Flight of Peter Fromm. But as someone who rejected the faith of his youth, he remained, as he wrote about in later writings such as The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, a moral absolutist.
Whether we’re religious or secular or agnostic, I too see an absolute code of morality and of meaning in Viktor Frankl’s book, one that I can embrace. For one, he uses an absolute moral basis to divide the world’s two “races”: The decent and the indecent. A “meaning” based on one human’s cruelty toward another is no meaning at all. Therefore, Frankl isn’t arguing that any absolute meaning is acceptable. Cleary, the kind of “meaning” that Akaky experiences after saving for his overcoat is not the kind of meaning Viktor Frankl described. Nor is the “meaning” the followers of Pol Pot, Jim Jones, and Hitler find. Frankl is arguing that there is a specific criterion for meaning that conforms to human flourishing, the kind he experienced and the kind that he saw in others in the camps. But while he would agree that humans should flourish, he would not be dogmatic about how get change our lives in order that we flourish.
I’ll have to be clear to my students about this: Teaching Mean’s Search for Meaning does not give us an absolute meaning. Frankl writes that “the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.” He also argues that in his particular type of therapy, logotherapy, it is up to the patient to decide whether he should interpret his life task as being responsible to society or to his own conscience.” And he goes on to write that “Logotherapy is neither teaching nor preaching.” The logotherapist must help the patient find the truth from within himself. As a result of people finding their own meaning, there will be different, contrary meanings. Living according to one’s convictions will lead to, at the very least, intellectual warfare. Yes, perhaps most of us can agree that we should flourish as human beings, that flourishing is essential to finding meaning. But how we get there is another matter. We will find that not all meaning is equal. There is huge disagreement as to how to arrive at a life of meaning. There are religious writers, such as Peter Kreeft and others, who will prescribe one method and there are nonreligious writes, or I should say anti-religious writers, like Sam Harris and others who will prescribe another, contrary method to finding meaning.
To complicate the matter of meaning, Frankl says that we don’t choose meaning; it’s the other way around: Meaning chooses us. One could argue that Peter Kreeft was “called” to write his books in defense of the God of his faith, but one could also argue that Sam Harris was called to save people from the dangers of religion. And then there is Bart Ehrman, a former Christian who had a long, arduous “deconversion,” and now feels called to write books about his deconversion and why it matters. And then there is Cat Stevens, raised by a Greek Orthodox father and a Swedish Lutheran mother, who converted to Islam. The doctrine behind his meaning conflicts with Peter Kreeft’s, Sam Harris’ and Bart Ehrman’s and on and on we could go.
Man’s Search for Meaning, therefore, does not prescribe moral absolutes or dogmas. It encourages to find the truth from within ourselves and to have the courage of our convictions.
Another absolute in Man’s Search for Meaning is that meaning is born from suffering. Do I really believe this in such a way that I can teach this lesson to my students?
6. Do I Really Believe That Suffering Leads to Meaning?
One of the tenets in Man’s Search for Meaning is that we were put on this world to suffer. We are not to groan in the face of suffering. Rather, we are to embrace suffering in the service of finding meaning. Frankl writes: When a man finds that is it his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
So there it is. The worst message in the world. We’re put on this earth to suffer. How appealing is that? It’s not very sexy, to be sure. Who would buy into such a depressing idea, that the highest truth is that we were put on this earth to suffer? Who would want to hear you say this at a cocktail party? The guests would walk away from you and assume you had forgotten to take your Lexapro. Do I really believe that suffering leads to meaning? The short answer is yes and no.
For one thing, not all suffering leads to meaning. Even Viktor Frankl makes it clear We are not, however, told to love suffering for its own sake. That would be masochistic. Frankl writes:
But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering—provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political. To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.
So Frankl distinguishes between masochistic and heroic suffering. It is the latter that he argues we must embrace if we are to find meaning. It is a narrow road to accept this kind of heroic suffering as our “destiny,” but it is possible and it is, according to Frankl, a moral imperative.
Such a moral order to embrace suffering is discussed in Peter Kreeft’s treatment of Job in his book The Three Philosophies of Life. Kreeft tells us that Job is a book about suffering and it is a book about life’s ultimate question: What is the meaning of life? Kreeft writes: “The greatest of all questions, the question that includes all other questions, is the one Job asks God in Job 10:18: “Why did you bring me out of the womb?” In other words, what kind of story am I in? What are my lines? What play is this? Why was I born? Why am I living? What’s it all about, Alfie?”
To arrive at the meaning of life, we must, according to Kreeft, believe in a very specific kind of God and the way we respond to suffering is predicated on this belief in the God defended by Kreeft. Kreeft worships the God of the Bible and he is an apologist for the idea that God is both all-loving and all-powerful. The defense of an all-loving and all-powerful God who would allow suffering in the world is called theodicy. Kreeft presents the problem of theodicy by quoting Augustine: “If God were all-good, he would will only good, and if He were all-powerful, he would be able to do all that He wills. But there is evil [as well as good]. Therefore God is either not all-good or not all-powerful, or both.” For Kreeft, a Christian, God’s unwillingness to stop suffering and cruelty in this world does not compromise God’s goodness and justice. As Kreeft defends this God:
If we were to do, or try to do, some of the things God does, we would not be good but bad. For instance, if a human father deliberately let his child be run over by a car when he could have run into the road to save him, he is not a good father. But God can save us, by miracle, every time we are threatened; yet he does not save us from all harm. Yet he is good in not saving us from all harm, for he sees, in his infinite wisdom, just what sufferings we need for our ultimate fulfillment and wisdom and happiness in the long run, and he sees the spiritual spoiledness that would result from our being saved from every calamity.
Do I believe, as Kreeft does, that all the suffering in the world is governed by divine providence and that people need their suffering for their “ultimate fulfillment and wisdom and happiness in the long run”? The answer is no. While some suffering does achieve the ends Kreeft describes, a whole lot of suffering is senseless. I cannot, as Kreeft’s Catholic faith informs him, accept that the Holocaust and other atrocities were governed by God and his “infinite wisdom.”
Meaningless suffering and the Bible’s unsatisfactory response to it is well argued in Bart D. Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. A former Christian and student of the Bible, Ehrman, now an agnostic, struggles with theodicy, reconciling an all-powerful, all-loving God with the world’s suffering, as he examines the sheer amount and type of suffering in the world. Tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, droughts and other “natural disasters” cannot be looked upon as punishment over throngs of people. Their suffering and/or death does not achieve any kind of edification or learning whatsoever. Wars, massacres, pogroms, torture do not achieve any kind of “lesson.” Nor is this suffering “redemptive.” Ehrman looks at all these atrocities including the Holocaust and he cannot believe, as I don’t, that the deaths of six million Jews was governed by divine providence or achieved any redeeming quality whatsoever. Or the burning of live babies and all the other unspeakable acts that have been chronicled about the Holocaust.
No wisdom or redemption can be arrived at from a lot of the world’s suffering. As Ehrman writes:
Moreover, there is a lot of suffering in the world that is not redemptive for anybody. The eighty-year-old grandmother who is savagely raped and strangled; the eight-week-old grandchild who suddenly turns blue and dies; the eighteen-year-old killed by a drunk driver on the way to the prom—trying to see good in such evils is to deprive evil of its character. It is to ignore the helplessness of those who suffer for no reason and to no end. It robs other people of their dignity and their right to enjoy life every bit as much as we do.
Not only does Ehrman take issue with a description of God who in his “infinite wisdom” allows suffering in the world, he takes issue with Frankl’s idea, which he expresses with a quote from Nietzsche, that all suffering makes us stronger. In his opposition to this idea, Ehrman too quotes that German philosopher: “I simply do not believe it’s true that ‘Whatever does not kill us only makes us stronger.’ Would that that were true, but unfortunately it’s not. A lot of times, what does not kill you completely incapacitates you, mars you for life, ruins your mental or physical well-being—permanently.”
Does my agreement with Ehrman that suffering in this world cannot be explained with any satisfaction by an all-powerful deity make me conclude that Frankl is wrong when he argues that suffering is the essence of life and that through our suffering meaning is born? And as someone who rejects Kreeft’s assertion that it is God’s “infinite wisdom” that governs the world’s suffering, including the rape and slaughter of children, for I find such a view abhorrent, do I reject Frankl’s central purpose, that meaning is born from suffering? No, I agree with Frankl more than ever. We don’t become noble and heroic and godly and Christ-like because the suffering in this world is governed by God’s “infinite wisdom.” We become our better selves in spite of any sign that infinite wisdom governs this universe. That is the real heroism I see in Frankl.
And the heroism I see in Frankl is something that is woefully lacking in my life, for I am a constant whiner and this sad fact has never been more evident since I had twin girls eleven months ago. The good news is that my girls are no longer screaming eggplants to me; they are real, individual, adorable human beings. The bad news is that my reaction to the rigors of daily, and nightly, care for them is worse than the actual hard work. I get up at five A.M., make my breakfast and do “pacifier control,” running into the baby room when one of them is whining so she doesn’t wake up the other, and putting a pacifier in the crying baby’s mouth. At six, begins the first feed. On weekdays I’m alone with the girls until my wife gets back from her teaching job in the early afternoon. By the time the girls “go down” for the night around seven-thirty I am exhausted and feel angry that in my late forties I decided to take on such a burden. But what I notice, and my wife will point this out, is that my sourness tires me out more than the girls. The way we react to our suffering does reflect on our character and being a new parent has made my character defects more visible. I would say my parenting challenges are the second greatest challenge of my lifetime, but in the context of Man’s Search for Meaning, I’d say that learning to react to my parenting challenges with more maturity and toughness is my first and greatest challenge of my lifetime. One victory in this regard: My wife says I’m much less “negative” now than I was during the first couple of months. So I can say I’ve made some progress, however tiny it may be.
I can say therefore from direct experience that Viktor Frankl’s tenet that we must embrace suffering in a heroic way to find meaning is relevant and accurate. However, I cannot say I’m an absolutist in my embrace of Frankl’s Suffering Doctrine. Yes, we can and must do all we can to find meaning in our suffering. But let us not be deluded into believing that all suffering can achieve this end because a lot of the world’s suffering is purely senseless and without redemptive qualities whatsoever. We must therefore approach Frankl’s Suffering Doctrine with certain caveats. However, knowing that certain conditions make some suffering beyond meaning, we are still responsible for responding to suffering, in general, in way that I call Frankl’s Ultimatum.
7. What Is Frankl’s Ultimatum?
Tolstoy once wrote that “The existence of death forces us either to utterly reject life or change our lives in such a way so that death cannot strip away the meaning of it.” For Frankl, this type of life change should be our number one goal: find a way to give meaning to our suffering and ultimately our death. Throughout Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl urges us over and over to be worthy of our suffering. He writes about a man in the camps who eventually saw his life as a sacrifice so that his loved ones could live and knowing that his death would benefit others, his death and suffering gave him meaning. In another example, Frankl talks to a rabbi who is overcome with bitterness and self-pity over the death of his children who died in the concentration camps. Frankl discovers that the rabbi’s real grief is that he feels his life lacks virtue, the kind that he knew would bring his children to heaven, would make him unworthy of meeting them in the afterlife. And that was the meaning Frankl helped the rabbi find: to devote his life to being worthy of someday joining his children in heaven. Frankl also talks about the woman who attempted suicide after her younger son died and she was left with her older son, who was afflicted with infantile paralysis. The mother actually had tried to commit suicide with her paralytic son and it was her son, wanting to live in spite of his debilitation, who had stopped her. Frankl conducted a group therapy session in which he asked another woman, thirty years of age, to imagine herself at eighty on her deathbed judging her own existence. She saw that her life had been devoted to trifles and vanity. Frankl quotes her exactly: “Oh, I married a millionaire, I had an easy life full of wealth, and I lived it up! I flirted with men; I teased them! But now I am eighty; I have no children of my own. Looking back as an old woman, I cannot see what all that was for; actually, I must say, my life was a failure!” Contrasting her life with the rich thirty-year-old, the mother of the paralyzed son that making a fuller life for her crippled son was her meaning, and even a privilege, and she learned that embracing her struggle to help her son with a entirely different attitude was the beginning of her freeing herself from her suicidal depression. Frankl presented the mother with a moral choice: Either be resigned to a meaningless, self-absorbed existence or find meaning through devotion to her son.
All of us in fact reach some point that we must make a similar moral choice. For Frankl, it doesn’t matter if were religious, atheist, or agnostic. He presents us with an ultimatum, a dreaded case of the Either/Or: Either find meaning and be worthy of our suffering or let death and suffering make a mockery of our life. As I quoted earlier: “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.”
Frankl has no illusions about the difficulty of choosing a meaningful, brave, dignified, unselfish life over a shameful, undignified one. Most prisoners in the concentration camps took the wide road to hell, surrendering to base self-preservation and apathy while only a small percentage traveled the narrow road to heaven and found meaning. As Frankl writes:
It is true that only a few people are capable of reaching such high moral standards. Of the prisoners only a few kept their full inner liberty and obtained those values which their suffering afforded, but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate. Such men are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through is own suffering.
Frankl makes his ultimatum clear. We can choose a life of empty despair or one of meaning and most choose the former. It is the choice, we can safely infer, of the masses the hordes who distract themselves with bread and circus.
It would seem to me, as someone who aspires to teach Man’s Search for Meaning, that I had better be of the more exceptional group, the small percentage of the human race who find meaning. Otherwise, I am a fraud. So how do I stack up? As I write this, I feel I don’t fare very well. As I’ve said before, I tend to be a cranky pessimist, not the personality type who embraces suffering with the gusto and positive attitude described in Frankl’s book. If anything, I’m the type of person has invested enormous amounts of energy in cultivating a sour attitude. I do it humorously often enough, but even when I am being comical there is an underlying pessimism and darkness to my humor.
More disturbing, as I study Viktor Frankl’s book, I find several traps or impediments to meaning and I fear I succumb to these traps as I feel most people do. These traps include pursuing a misguided idea of happiness and success absent of a higher purpose; the glorification of a perpetual adolescence; substituting meaning with consumer goods; surrendering to our inner cowards and letting fear cause us to squander our lives; conforming to social norms with no understanding of those norms but conforming simply to “stay out of trouble” and as such leading an invisible, anonymous existence; creating pseudo-intellectual nihilistic beliefs to rationalize our lives of meaninglessness and despair; fantasizing about some future moment of glory that will compensate for our drab, lackluster existence, and doing all we can to distract ourselves with all sorts of trifles and endless diversions so we can avoid confronting our two biggest demons: our meaningless existence and the inevitably of our death.
The matter isn’t so much if we fall into these traps, since we’re all fallible as humans, and all of us will do so. The real question is how much do we allow ourselves to fall into these snares? Let’s say a professor wants to teach Man’s Search for Meaning and he discovers he is one of the worst offenders of falling into these traps that prevent us from finding meaning. I suppose Viktor Frankl would say this instructor should change his life so he can be qualified to teach the book. Easier said than done. Can’t be achieved at the snap of the fingers. I think it’s safe to say that Frankl would agree that the task would be exceedingly difficult, but he might also say that the professor in question had found his life vocation, to be the kind of person to teach his book.
So let’s look at the traps or impediments to meaning and see what we might have to do to overcome them. Or from a cynic’s point of view, why we might not be able to overcome them at all.
8. How Do We Rank Ourselves on the Meaning Scale?
In Mean’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl explains in his Preface that it is misguided to directly pursue happiness. Our goal, he argues, should be to find meaning and a higher purpose and let happiness be the “unintended side-effect” of our search. The pursuit of happiness disconnected from meaning is a futile and dangerous pursuit. Without a higher purpose, life’s daily pains, however minute, become magnified and we medicate ourselves with narcissistic self-pity, crankiness, and self-indulgence until we descend into a private hell of solipsism, meaning our self becomes our only reality and a strong argument can be made that when the self becomes the only reality we have arrived at the consummate definition of insanity.
An illustration of a man going insane as he disconnects from the human race, and himself, from pursuing happiness without purpose is powerfully rendered in Tennessee Williams’ autobiographical essay “On a Streetcar Named Success” in which he writes about his own inward journey into solipsism. He explains how he flourished more before he became a famous writer because humans are better equipped for struggle than they are for self-indulgent stagnation: “The sort of life which I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.”
But then comes the fame and success from his play The Glass Menagerie. He stops writing, cocoons himself in a luxury Manhattan hotel, hires prostitutes, hosts wild parties, and has room service cater to all his other needs. Having retired from his life calling as a writer, he has no goal other than to indulge his appetites, and isolated in his hotel penthouse, he begins to go insane and sinks into a chronic depression. As he writes:
I sat down and looked about me and was suddenly very depressed. I thought to myself, this is just a period of adjustment. Tomorrow morning I will wake up in this first-class hotel suite . . . and I will appreciate its elegance and luxuriate in its comforts and know that I have arrived at our American plan of Olympus.
But no such Olympus materializes. Having debauched parties at all hours of the night, his living conditions break down: An arm falls off the sofa, the furniture is mottled with cigarette burns, rain through an open window causes water damage. He’s in such a state of dissolution that when room service brings him his dinner, steak and an ice cream sundae, he mistakenly pours the chocolate sauce over his steak. But there is a deeper spiritual breakdown going on inside of him, as he surrenders to a mental disease he calls, borrowing a term from William James, the “Bitch Goddess.” As he explains:
Of course all this was the more trivial aspect of a spiritual location that began to manifest itself in far more disturbing ways. I soon found myself becoming indifferent to people. A well of cynicism rose in me. Conversations all sounded like they had been recorded years ago and were being played back on a turntable. Sincerity and kindness seemed to have gone out of my friends’ voices. I suspected them of hypocrisy. I stopped calling them, stopped seeing them. I was impatient of what I took to be inane flattery.
He becomes paranoid of the intentions of others and may have gone completely insane or died prematurely in the sort of way Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin died prematurely; however, he is fortunate to be forced to leave the hotel to undergo eye surgery for a cataract (an apt metaphor if there ever was one). While convalescing in the hospital, he re-connects with his friends and begins to gain a perspective on the spiritual disease that has been brewing inside of him while cooping himself inside the penthouse.
Well, the gauze mask served a purpose. While I was resting in the hospital the friends whom I had neglected or affronted in one way or another began to call on me and now that I was in pain and darkness, their voices seemed to have changed, or rather that unpleasant mutation which I had suspected earlier in the season had now disappeared and they sounded now as they used to sound in the lamented days of my obscurity. Once more they were sincere and kindly voices with the ring of truth in them.
Soon after, Williams checks out of the hotel, moves to Mexico and rekindles his writing career and he is able to connect with his real self once again: “My public self, that artifice of mirrors, did not exist here and so my natural being was resumed.”
Williams’ experience proves the adage that the self-indulgent man is not happy. Self-interest without a higher purpose degrades into a provisional experience, which taken to its extreme is a form of dehumanization and insanity. Or as brilliantly expressed by Tennessee Williams himself:
Success happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation. Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to—why, then, with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies.
Like most people, I am susceptible to the “seductions of an effete way of life.” It’s true that I am not cooped up inside a hotel penthouse like Tennessee Williams descending scandalously into moral debauchery. I have responsibilities that prevent me from surrendering to my basest impulses. I have a family, a wife and twin daughters (nine months of age as I write this); I maintain a full-time job as a college English instructor. But is having a job and a family the type of higher purpose and meaning that Viktor Frankl is talking about? Could one lead a relatively normal life raising a family and going to work and have a life empty of meaning? It seems to me that meaning, or its lack thereof, isn’t so much an either/or proposition, but exists on a sort of scale with the phoniest person alive using his family and job to maintain a façade being on one pole of extreme meaningless and a person integrating his family and work with the selfless helping of others at the pole of abundant meaning. But where do I place on the Meaning Scale? Not on either pole, for sure, but if I’m honest, I don’t place as high as I could. I have several flaws that compromise my place on the Meaning Scale and that cause me to doubt my qualifications for teaching Man’s Search for Meaning.
For one, I see myself as a very vain person, doing my daily power yoga and military calisthenics to maintain a masculine physique adorned in print T-shirts, black jeans, and oversized “manly” watches. Often I’m chagrined when I catch myself daydreaming about being awarded medals for heroism. Sometimes I’ll reminisce about past episodes in which I made people laugh while flattering myself for my remarkable wit and talent. Even while this book is in progress with its completion in doubt and even with its quality still not proven to be good enough to be published or appealing to a significant number of readers, I find myself being “interviewed” on the radio and TV circuit about its “surprising success.” This vain notion of success of course violates Viktor Frankl’s principle that we first seek meaning and enjoy success and happiness as the unintended consequences. I just lost my credibility for teaching Viktor Frankl masterpiece, for sure.
Additionally, I’m selfish, preferring time to myself to spending time with others and then wondering in childish self-pity why I’m not on everyone’s party A-list. I’m so selfish with my time that sometimes when my wife wants me to accompany her to a social engagement I don’t want to go to, I will say, “There’s no way I’m going to So and So’s. Last time I visited So and So, I lost a part of my soul that I’ll never get back.”
I could also be less selfish when it comes to money. While I do give to some charities with a spirit of generosity, mostly dog shelters and my local NPR stations, I do too often out of a need to assuage a guilty conscience.
I’m also spoiled, dependent on my comforts and little luxurious trifles like the aforementioned chunky watches.
But to be honest there’s a serious problem with my self-appraisal. I haven’t damned myself enough, especially in light of Frankl’s discussion on the connection between meaning and us stripping ourselves of our false necessities. Frankl explains that to find meaning, the person must first see his life as a failure and a sham and believe he has nothing to lose before he embarks on his search for meaning. His search becomes urgent and sincere because “he has nothing to lose except his so ridiculously naked life.”
I’m sure if stripped of my comforts and trinkets, I would be more urgent about finding meaning, but I find myself resisting this condition. For one, I don’t want to be stripped of my comforts, gadgets, and playthings. And secondly, I find myself resisting Peter Singer’s compelling moral imperative in his essay, “What Should a Billionaire Give—and What Should You?” His argument is that we don’t give enough and that any purchases we make beyond our basic needs are diverting resources from starving and diseased people throughout the world. Legally, he argues, we have the right to spend our money any way we like, but morally, we are bankrupt if we indulge our lavish appetites. As Singer explains:
In any case, even if we were to grant that people deserve every dollar they earn, that doesn’t answer the question of what they should do with it. We might say that they have a right to spend it on lavish parties, private jets and luxury yachts, or, for that matter, to flush it down the toilet. But we could still think that for them to do these things while others die from easily preventable diseases is wrong. In an article I wrote more than three decades ago, at the time of a humanitarian emergency in what is now Bangladesh, I used the example of walking by a shallow pond and seeing a small child who has fallen in and appears to be in danger of drowning. Even though we did nothing to cause the child to fall into the pond, almost everyone agrees that if we can save the child at minimal inconvenience or trouble to ourselves, we ought to do so. Anything else would be callous, indecent and, in a word, wrong. The fact that in rescuing the child we may, for example, ruin a new pair of shoes is not a good reason for allowing the child to drown. Similarly if for the cost of a pair of shoes we can contribute to a health program in a developing country that stands a good chance of saving the life of a child, we ought to do so.
I can only imagine Viktor Frankl, a man who risked his life in the camps to aid others, agreeing with Singer and yet I do not follow Singer’s moral mandate. I simply do not give as much of my income as Singer says I should, which is ten percent. I give less with all sorts of rationalizations. How do I trust the organizations? How do I know that even if they’re honest, they’re competent? And isn’t a little selfishness necessary to stimulate our creative juices? Will we really be driven to innovate if we live in some sort of socialist state where everyone has more or less the same standard of living no matter what they do or do not do? I will be the first to concede that America is diseased by chronic consumer addiction and selfish hoarding, but does Peter Singer’s quasi-socialism err in the opposite extreme? Maybe a healthier approach is to find a middle ground, a golden mean, as Aristotle put it, to balance our consumer obsessions on one extreme and philanthropic self-denial and asceticism on the other.
In any event, I have doubts about my middle ground position on the above. There’s nothing middle ground about Viktor Frankl’s plea that we should examine our existence stripped bare of all its ridiculous adornments and search for meaning without the shackles of materialism and provisional self-interest. I suspect someone living a life of charity as Peter Singer describes scoring higher on the Meaning Scale than someone who aims for some middle ground. Again, as someone who does not live in accordance with Peter Singer’s dictate, I may have lost credibility points in my teaching of Frankl’s masterpiece to my students.
There is another problem I’m having about judging meaning and where people rank on the Meaning Scale. Frankl makes it clear that as a therapist engaging his patients in logotherapy he never prescribes meaning for them. He helps them arrive at meaning based on their own individual circumstances. But surely Frankl would not indifferently watch one of his patients “arrive” at a definition of meaning based on greed, carnality, vanity, nihilism, or some other trait that contradicts the moral life of courage, hope, and dignity he lays out. Within the parameters of a dignified, compassionate, courageous, hopeful, connected life, there are variations of meaning. That said, while preparing myself to teach Frankl’s book I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the comedian George Carlin, whom I’ve admired since I was a teenager in the 1970s. Carlin has a very dark vision of the human condition. For him, religion is a farce and a dangerous fraud, rendering a cruel, egotistical God who commands you to love him lest he send you to hell and curse your family for infinite generations. His hostility to the God he learned about in Catholic school extends to the human race. As I wrote at the beginning of my book, he is fond of saying that “when you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show.” We are, in Carlin’s vision, incurably irrational and hypocritical and there’s little we can do in Carlin’s world but entertain ourselves while we witness our incorrigible self-destruction. Carlin doesn’t vote or get involved in the democratic process (a term that would make him cackle with demonic cynicism). Politicians are charlatans, a reflection of our own venality and duplicity. As Carlin says about them, “We get what we deserve.”
Indeed, there is a cynical streak of nihilism in Carlin who honed his role as the Comic Prophet in Black, taking out his sledgehammer and ruthlessly knocking down all the buildings of pretentiousness, pettiness, irrationality, and hypocrisy. But in doing so with such passion wasn’t Carlin revealing himself to be a man who craves justice, authenticity, and sanity? And in doing so, doesn’t Carline earn high marks on the Meaning Scale?
For example, all my life I’ve heard and read about the hypocrisy of America’s birth: Its freedom being limited to rich white men. But no one drove the point deeper than Carlin in one of his standup routines. He talked about the white settlers who rhapsodized so eloquently about their hunger for liberty from tyranny and the dignity of the individual and then these same people who had a deep understanding of those crucial life-affirming qualities turned around and enslaved the Africans for their own pleasure. Carlin’s monologue made me think for the first time that it’s not just ignoramuses who engage in such evils as slavery but educated people who know better. That’s the scary thing about the human heart of darkness. Carlin the entertainer was always Carlin the educator.
So where does Carlin rank on the Meaning Scale? He is a tough beast to evaluate because he loses points for his relentless nihilism and pessimism but these traits contributed to his cutting vision that helped him expose hypocrisy in new and brilliant ways. The very qualities that gave him meaning were the very qualities that often denied life’s meaning. Yes, Carlin hungered for justice, authenticity, and integrity, but his pessimism often made him doubt a significant portion of the human race could attain these ideals to significantly nudge the world in the right direction. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think Carlin was a Tragic Optimist.
I’m somewhat flummoxed by Carlin’s paradox as it pertains to where he stands on the Meaning Scale and as such I feel I lack the intelligence to teach Viktor Frankl’s great book with the clear eyes and lucidity that my students deserve. For now, all I can do is be honest about this perplexity in the classroom. Otherwise I am being phony. And a phony life can never be a meaningful one.
The difficulty of pinpointing Carlin’s rank on the Mean Scale doesn’t mean I’ve give up on the endeavor. We can get a clearer picture of Carlin’s ranking if we expand the context to include a comic TV show that has been accused of being completely meaningless, a “show about nothing.”
9. How Does the Cult of Youth Impede Us from Finding Meaning?
Viktor Frankl makes it clear that we must have a sense of our finiteness and our limitations to find meaning. If we live day to day with no ultimate goal in mind, we will find ourselves trapped in a “deformed time” warp and begin to “decay,” our spirits starving from lack of meaning. A word that defines this phenomenon is acedia, the condition of apathy and lethargy resulting from a lack of purpose and focus. I can remember my friend and I, when we were about ten, argued with our mothers who both wanted us to go to summer school. We made our case that we deserved a rest, won the argument, and did not have to attend school during the summer months. For the month of June, we were fine, but as late July set in, we were miserably bored and aching for the school year to begin. Daily watching of Mr. Ed, Kimba the White Lion, and Speed Racer did little to disrupt the agonizing monotony. We were jealous of our friends who went to summer school and listened enviously as they described their projects, guitar lessons, cooking classes, and sports activities. They had what we didn’t have. A daily focus on something that required discipline and commitment. We knew deep down they were getting something out of their summer that we weren’t: an opportunity to learn and grow as human beings.
One of the strongest renderings I’ve seen of the despair of living a provisional day to day existence is Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray plays a misanthrope, Phil Connors, who is fated to live is despairing, empty life over and over, seemingly for eternity, unless he can connect with the human race and grow up beyond his adolescent self-absorption. In Thomas S. Hibbs’ Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld, he contrasts the many films and TV shows that show characters trapped in a cycle of “entrapment” in which the characters never learn freedom and maturity with Phil Connors, who breaks out of his recurring private hell: “Predictably, Murray eventually learns the difference between love and self-gratification and comes to acknowledge the humanity of others.”
The private hell of sloth and stunted emotional growth is indeed a sort of time warp, referred to by both Frankl and Hibbs. This time warp is the direct result of the obsession with youth as the highest ideal, a time for which we must always place ourselves. Obsessing over one phase of life, the time of adolescence, has dangerous consequences that pertain to a failed search for meaning. For one, as explained in Joseph Epstein’s essay, “The Perpetual Adolescent,” we lose a meaningful narrative to our existence. As Epstein writes:
Life in that different day was felt to observe the human equivalent of the Aristotelian unities: to have, like a good drama, a beginning, middle, and end. Each part, it was understood, had its own advantages and detractions, but the middle--adulthood--was the lengthiest and most earnest part, where everything serious happened and much was at stake. To violate the boundaries of any of the three divisions of life was to go against what was natural and thereby to appear unseemly, to put one's world somehow out of joint, to be, let us face it, a touch, and perhaps more than a touch, grotesque.
Epstein argues that is in adulthood where so much is at stake, but we forego the meaning of adulthood if we intractably cocoon ourselves in the attitude and façade of adolescence. This façade is actually encouraged by the majority of advertising. Epstein explains:
All this is reinforced by the play of market forces, which strongly encourage the mythical dream of perpetual youthfulness. The promise behind 95 percent of all advertising is that of recaptured youth, whose deeper promise is lots more sex yet to go. The ads for the $5,000 wristwatch, the $80,000 car, the khakis, the vodka, the pharmaceuticals to regrow hair and recapture ardor, all whisper display me, drive me, wear me, drink me, swallow me, and you stop the clock--youth, Baby, is yours.
Our longings for eternal adolescence, Epstein argues, are reflected not just in our consumer habits but in our favorite TV programs. One of the most popular sitcoms ever, Seinfeld, captures our hunger to live in a time warp where no one grows up, no one assumes responsibility, and no one holds anyone to a high aspirations. If anything, one’s low aspirations become a badge of honor. It is a form of catastrophic self-betrayal to never aspire to anything far-reaching, to capitulate to a slacker mentality, and to veil one’s shortcomings behind a veneer of adolescent youthfulness. As Epstein writes:
The greatest sins, Santayana thought, are those that set out to strangle human nature. This is of course what is being done in cultivating perpetual adolescence, while putting off maturity for as long as possible. Maturity provides a more articulated sense of the ebb and flow, the ups and downs, of life, a more subtly reticulated graph of human possibility. Above all, it values a clear and fit conception of reality. Maturity is ever cognizant that the clock is running, life is finite, and among the greatest mistakes is to believe otherwise. Maturity doesn't exclude playfulness or high humor. Far from it. The mature understand that the bitterest joke of all is that the quickest way to grow old lies in the hopeless attempt to stay forever young.
Epstein and Frankl agree that it is dangerous to blind oneself from the finite and to live perpetually a warped time bubble in which one is trapped in a vacuum.
Another danger of living in a state of warped time is that we repeat the same cycle over and over until we reach a point of stagnation that strips us of our free will and in turn denies us meaning. Thomas S. Hibbs, too, analyzes what it means to be confined inside a time warp without meaning. In much of our popular culture, Hibbs writes, we are presented with characters who are doomed to their impulses with no free will:
The dominant narrative structure is cyclical, expressing a sense of entrapment and unveiling progress and development as illusory. From the revenge plots of the movies-of-the-week, to the conspiratorial artistry of the X-Files, to Seinfeld’s magisterial use of coincidence to undermine the aspirations of its main characters, we confront an implacable and inexorable force, a malevolent power that prevents not only moral transformation and understanding, but even escape.
The message of these narratives is that life has no meaning, there is no such thing as a moral transformation, and you are a chump for having high aspirations because life is a pointless joke. If you want to be hip, we can infer, be ironic in the most ruthlessly nihilistic way. Wear your nihilistic beliefs with pride. Of course, this philosophy of nihilism and its resignation to life as a recurring cycle of “entrapment” to one’s stagnant existence clashes horns with Viktor Frankl’s message, which is that we must change our lives to be worthy of our suffering so that suffering and death do not make a mockery of our lives. Further, Frankl makes it clear that the philosophy of fatalism and determinism are misguided beliefs, which strip us of meaning. Indeed, Seinfeld was celebrated as a “show about nothing.” We relish in the characters’ immaturity, nonexistent aspirations, unaccountability, slacker mentality, selfishness, and provisional life, a reflection of our own, because this is, we are deluded to believe, the most sane approach, to see the humor in our helplessness and emotional retardation. It’s also the cool thing to do.
Not so, argues Frankl. He writes “there is a danger inherent in the teaching of man’s ‘nothingbutness,” the theory that man is nothing but the result of biological, psychological and sociological conditions, or the product of heredity and environment. Such a view of man makes a neurotic believe what he is prone to believe anyway, namely, that he is the pawn and victim of outer influences or inner circumstances. This neurotic fatalism is fostered and strengthened by a psychotherapy which denies man is free.”
The appeal of this “nothingbutness,” as Frankl calls it, is that is suggests a life of freedom, freedom to do nothing, which is really no freedom at all. Surrendering to hopelessness and sloth is hardly a worthy definition of freedom. Real freedom, Frankl argues, is our responsibility to find meaning in the face of suffering. However, our freedom is not unlimited. As Frankl explains: “To be sure, a human being is a finite thing, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.”
The cult of adolescence encourages the belief that we are helpless and doomed to a life of stagnation, so this cult dismisses the idea of maturity and meaning and to embrace nihilism as one’s core belief.
But is nihilism really a belief, that is, something that someone really believes is real, or is it a rationalization for choosing to take the easy way out? Take the example of a student I had ten years ago or so. Against her father’s wishes, she enrolled in college to become an education major. He didn’t believe in college or education of any kind, both of which he called a “waste of time.” He was an alcoholic, she explained in one of her essays. He’d drink beer and do bench presses in the garage while she got ready in her bedroom to go to sleep. She wrote that sometimes he’d come in with alcohol on his breath, look down at her while she feigned sleep, and shouted, “Think you’re better than me!” Then he’d look up at himself in her mirror, flex his muscles, take a swig of beer, and return to the garage to resume with his chest workout.
Did he really believe education was a farce or was he rationalization away his own fear of it and his own lack of discipline? It seems his behavior was guided less by belief and more by self-justification and delusion. And these attributes impeded her father’s search for finding meaning, for maturing, and as such he was jealous of her daughter’s desire to carve a better place in her life.
My student soon after told me she planned on moving out of her father’s house to escape his constant effrontery. Her focus and commitment to her education in the face of her father’s discouragement and hostility attests to her strong character and maturity.
In fact, it is clear that to find meaning, in the sense that Frankl describes it, we must become mature. The more meaning we have, the more mature we are. And vice versa. Therefore, we cannot talk about a Meaning Scale without talking about a Maturity Scale. How do I rank? And how does my ranking qualify me, or not, to teach Man’s Search for Meaning?
While it’s true I consider my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, my selfishness, my grumpiness, and my cynicism to lower me on the Maturity Scale, I can see ways in which I’ve matured over the years. For one, as a college instructor I no longer care about being Large and in Charge, the dominant and superior intellect in the room asserting my right ideas. While it’s true I want a strong personality to captivate my students’ attention, I no longer feel like I’m competing with them. My ego has softened over the years. In fact, asserting my ego now seems unappealing and rather pathetic. This matter of the ego in the classroom reminds me of something I tell my students: There are two kinds of professors, the kind who want to show you how great they are and the kind who want to show you how great you can be. I think I’ve veered more to the latter kind. I should give myself credit for that.
Does my diminishing ego compel me to give me a high score on the Maturity Scale? Not really. Overall, I still consider myself a man-child and a nerd, full of juvenile enthusiasms and obsessions. And as the father of twin baby girls, I am in the process of struggling with the fact that my life is no longer my own; it is theirs. This type of self-abnegation has been painful to accept at times, but in the face of compromising my tendency to become number one, I’ve become stronger, more mature, and a better person for my suffering. When I think of the danger of being having no responsibilities other than my own selfish desires, I am reminded of a Seinfeld episode in which George, in a rare display of lucidity and self-knowledge, explains why he doesn’t subscribe to The Playboy Channel: Because he would disappear inside his apartment of several months, and no one would see him until the fire department rescued him from his decrepitude. They’d find him all alone next to his television. He’d be wearing a tattered robe with saliva all over his face. In other words, George knows he would go completely insane.
While I have never had to be rescued by the fire department, I did teeter on a rather precarious mental state when I was single, as my wife will attest. She said to me that when she first started dating me, visiting me on Friday afternoons, my day off from teaching, that I was a bit frightening. This was no surprise. I’d spend my day off alone, traipsing around my condo in my robe, looking out my window blinds at my neighbors with a gimlet eye, contemplating the inevitable doom of the human species. By the time Carrie knocked on my door, I greeted her with a faraway expression that unsettled her. She said as we conversed, I defrosted a bit, become more human and less frightening. Hearing her say that, I was reminded of the werewolf movies when the full moon disappears and the werewolf’s demonic mien slowly dissipates and is replaced with a reassuring human face.
Indeed like George Costanza, I should not be left to my own devices. I need to be responsible to others in order to get outside of my head.
Perhaps this is a good beginning toward maturity: Knowing how vulnerable we are to our self-destructive impulses and learning to create environments that discourage us from submitting to those forces.
I just earned more points on the Maturity Scale. But as to my qualifications for teaching Man’s Search for Meaning, I still have my doubts.
10. At What Point Does Consumerism Impede Our Quest to Find Meaning?
No doubt our DNA is coded for self-preservation, the instinct to ferociously pursue and protect our self-interests. But in Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl explains that this coding does not totally define us. In fact, if we ignore our responsibility to find meaning, and the values required to create meaning, our self-interest degrades us into an animal existence stripped of all dignity as we become a corrupt, denigrated version of ourselves. A wise form of self-interest, according to Frankl, focuses on an ultimate goal in life.
To define ultimate, Frankl explains the two meanings of the Latin word finis, “the end or the finish, and a goal to reach.” If we cannot reach for a higher goal, a commitment to some higher ideal greater than ourselves, he says, we will be trapped in the cycle of living a day to day “provisional” existence. When existence becomes “provisional,” as Frankl calls it, we live only to survive and kill time as we having nothing to look forward to. In such a state, our lives become consumed by self-interest and apathy as we turn inward, recoiling from the burden of ongoing suffering. Always feeling burdened by overwhelming hardships, we become fatigued and what little energy we have is devoted to placating ourselves and filling the “existential vacuum.”
The misguided attempts at filling this vacuum are, Frankl writes, forms of “neurotic” behavior, which include all sorts of distractions, the “Sunday drive” phenomenon in which people drive because they are bored and consumer addictions, which have become worse since Man’s Search for Meaning was first published. The danger of being bored and living a provisional day to day existence is that we focus too much on our misery and the selfish attempts to quell our misery backfire and make our condition worse and worse. Selfishness as a reaction to the existential vacuum endangers us by creating a hoarding impulse, other wise known as a consumer addiction; asserting vain displays of Darwinian superiority over others, and exaggerating our suffering to the point that we see our personal distress as especially bad, a type of exceptional pain that compels us to ignore the pain of others and assume the temperament of a petulant malcontent. Selfishness can be about investing all our energy on devoting our thoughts to ourselves.
In the realm of consumer addiction, it appears there are three stages of the disease. Stage One is the ways we waste our time “researching” sales and rationalizing unnecessary purchases within limits that don’t endanger our finances. Stage Two is taking the addiction so that our basic needs our sacrificed. And Stage Three is engaging in outright sociopathic behavior to get what we want.
I appear to be an example of Stage One. I relish in the exhilarating delights of consumerism as much as the next person and as a result I have seen how consumerism can intoxicate and make me behave irrationally, exhibiting behaviors that do not protect my self-interests. I once bought a $300 watch, for example, and swore as was on a watch-buying hiatus, for at least six months, but then a $400 that I had been lusting over suddenly became available for $130. This was too good to be true. I violated my self-sworn hiatus and explained to my wife that by purchasing a watch that I had planned on buying anyway, the cheaper price was in essence giving me $270. It felt like some invisible lever had placed $270 cash in my hand after I bought the watch. Let me repeat that. After paying $130 on a watch I wasn’t supposed to buy at that time, I felt like had been paid money to buy it. When I explained this to my wife, she explained that I suffered from a condition known as “creative budgeting,” a form of self-justifying my compulsive purchases. Fortunately, my family obligations have curbed my appetite for indulging my watch obsession so that I still have money for my nine-month twin girls’ diapers, formula, and organic baby food.
Of course, the more destructive form of selfishness, Stage Two, causes people to undermine their priorities so that they buy the object of their desire but have no money left for basic necessities. I can recall the student essay I read about a young man who was hell-bent on living in the chic condo in Brentwood and leasing a BMW. However, he had no money for food and clothes, so he depended on his siblings’ hand-me-downs and a diet of crackers and sardines. According to Frankl, if this young man had an ultimate purpose in life, he would not be compelled to buy things he cannot afford. His overspending is a misguided attempt to fill the void.
When the void becomes truly aching and the person in question has no scruples whatsoever, we’ve arrived at Stage Three, the level of the sociopath. About twenty years ago, a student wrote an essay about her sister whose fiancé was a struggling auto mechanic. The bride to be cancelled her wedding three times because she wanted her fiancé to have more money to make the wedding more elaborate. But the sociopathic element isn’t evident until we consider that this bride to be was, months before her wedding, already planning on divorcing her fiancé. What she wanted from him was a posh ceremony, nothing more, and she was willing to trick him into believing she cared about him enough to make a marriage commitment if doing so got her what she wanted.
Selfishness isn’t just about hoarding and desire for material things. It’s also about the need to assert dominance over others. We’re talking about the Darwinian instinct gone awry when compounded by the compulsions of the ego. When real meaning is replaced with false meaning, like the striving to be superior to others, these misguided attempts often lead to self-destruction. For example, one of my students had a friend, a man in his early twenties, who bought a very fast car, a Subaru WRX STI, and his obsession with having the fastest car in town compelled him to lighten it by removing the front passenger seat. Where there was once a leather-bound cushion, there was now a metal stub, not a comfortable arrangement for the young man’s girlfriend who, after one insufferable ride, gave him an ultimatum: Put the seat back or I’m gone. She ended up leaving him.
Compromising relationships because of the obsession with power is bad enough, but this obsession can even be fatal as one student explained to the class: He and his father were shopping one summer at a bazaar in Buenos Aires. The temperature was over 105 degrees and there was an old woman wearing a full-length fur coat, presumably for no other reason than to show everyone how rich she was. The father and son noticed she was sweating profusely and her eyes rolled into the back of her head before she collapsed and died of heat stroke.
Most of us don’t die a physical death from consumeristic addiction, but a spiritual death, one in which we substitute real meaning with false meaning, is more prevalent as described by Laurence Shames in The Hunger for More: Searching for Values in an Age of Greed. As he explains:
People look to their goods not just of pleasure but for meaning. They want their stuff to tell them who they are. They ask that inanimate things, mere objects, serve as stand-ins for momentous notions. Not just pretty flowers but a built-in serenity is taken to exist in the pattern of a Laura Ashley wallpaper. Not just style but stateliness of person is presumed to be made manifest by a Ralph Lauren blazer. “Taste” becomes a sort of cult by whose expensive magic such eminently human traits as sensuality, dignity, even humor are transubstantiated into consumer goods; and since those traits are taken to exist in such readily accessible and uncomplicated form on store shelves, there is less reason to search for them in other people or even in oneself. People disappear into their clothes. Their conversation becomes merely a part of the ambience of the restaurants they frequent. The pen they write with is taken to be more revealing than what they might scrawl.
In the throes of consumerism, our soul appears to be leeched away by our shopping obsessions until the soul completely dissipates and is replaced entirely by our arsenal of products, a feeble bastion for warding off the existential vacuum. To drive his point home, Shames uses the example of two shopping fiends:
Shopping, for some, had become a macabre detour in the otherwise unstylish quest to find oneself. Consider the “Sonia Sister”—women who frequented designer Sonia Rykiel’s boutique at Henri Bendel in Manhattan, and who, according to the floor manager there, “gradually . . . bec[a]me obsessed with acquiring all the right pieces” and took on a “spooky resemblance to one another.” For them, the clothes became a sort of exoskeleton, which, as in the case of insects, was the sole protection and support of the gelatinous and trembling critter inside. When you bought “taste,” you bought yourself a personality, and it was that, over and above the much-blabbed-about “quality” of the goods, which justified the price.
The hunger for personality, identity, and meaning, and the misdirected ways we try to satisfy that hunger, makes us selfish. Of course, selfishness raises its ugly head in more ways than materialism and dominance. There is the simple lack of consideration for others, which requires all sorts of rules to be imposed where consideration for others is lacking. Take the example of gyms putting 20-minute limits on their cardio machine during peak hours so that some members don’t hog the cardio equipment, doing an exercise for two hours straight while a long line of members wait their turn. Or take the all-you-can-eat buffet that has a sign telling people to stand in an orderly line and avoid touching the buffet food with their hands.
There is also the selfish impulse to be heard, to lecture, to talk over everyone and never learn to listen to others. Living insulated in a Universe of One is perhaps the ultimate selfishness.
So the selfish personality looks like this: He is someone whose needs must always be met; he is someone who constantly jockeys for attention; he is someone with in insatiable craving for power; he is someone forever hoarding his trinkets and trophies. This is not the picture of a happy person but a disturbed, lonely child, an adult suffering from arrested development. And once again we are looking at the Maturity Scale as a way of measuring our success, or failure, in finding meaning.
With regards to my own selfishness and how it affects my ranking on the Maturity Scale, I’m afraid I have a lot of room for improvement. What I am talking about specifically is my undesirable tendency to dwell too much on my personal suffering, a condition that exaggerates my own ordeals and causes me to be less attentive than I should to the suffering and needs of others. This condition of exaggerating my sense of pain in the world has caused me to become a petulant malcontent and as such I fear my qualifications for teaching Man’s Search for Meaning are in question.
As I read Frankl’s book and prepare to teach it, contemplating Frankl’s edict to choose the right attitude in the face of suffering, I am haunted by this malcontented persona I’ve developed over the years, one that has made me admire such caustic and sarcastic writers as Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Vladimir Nabokov, and, today, Joe Queenan. I’ve invested thousands of hours cultivating this caustic worldview and searching the writings of others whose screeds vindicate my own. It almost seems too late to turn back now.
And then there’s my hardwiring. My mother says there are bilious, gloomy expressions I had as a child—and she’ll show me the photographs to prove it—that remain with me to this day and I am reminded, again, of Rodney Dangerfield saying you are what you are. You’re born a certain way and that’s it. Take the example of Eric Weiner, the author of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. At one point during his travels, he contemplates that he may never find happiness because he is addicted to sadness. Come to think of it, I might be too. What if Dangerfield is right? We’re born with certain predilections and there’s no changing who we are.
But I couldn’t entirely believe Dangerfield. There must be some mustard seed of faith in Frankl’s message. Otherwise, I wouldn’t feel so driven to teach his book the way I do. But honestly, I don’t feel I have found “ultimate meaning”; nor do I feel that I have adopted the right attitude to be worthy of my suffering.
Some would say that as a family man and as a working man, I should be able to draw my ultimate meaning from those things and I’m sure they are making a valid point. But sometimes I’m overcome by a certain doubt that my life would have more meaning if it was less about conformity to social norms and consumer appetites and more about me being less selfish and more focused on my ideals: love, sacrifice, fortitude, etc. But I am too selfish, too self-indulgent, and too fearful to say I’m focused on my ideals. As a result, I feel I am not worthy of teaching Frankl’s teachings.
If anything, since writing this book and confronting my qualifications for teaching Man’s Search for Meaning, I feel like my desire to find meaning has actually decreased and my desire for trinkets, specifically for watches, has intensified. In fact, lately I’ve been resisting the urge to buy a colossal sized watch, spanning three inches across the bezel, the Invicta Sea Hunter. I resent the energy I expend not buying it. That’s energy that could be committed to finding ultimate meaning.
It appears part of me is rebelling against my better self. There is a certain inner struggle or even war inside me as I hold up my character to the standards described in Frankl’s book. The more serious I search for meaning and study the values Frankl explains are the only solution to the existential vacuum, the more powerful my consumer urges become. If I’m not careful, I could, as Laurence Shames has warned, “disappear” into the gargantuan Sea Hunter.
11. How Do We Rank on the Dreaded Deathbed Test?
As I prepare to teach Man’s Search for Meaning, both as an instructor who wants to do a good job teaching the book, and as a human being who wants to be worthy of teaching it and as someone who desires to be a good husband and father, I find myself going back over and over again to Viktor Frankl’s Deathbed Test. It occurs during a therapy session. A thirty-year-old rich woman whose life has been devoted to her selfish needs is asked to imagine herself much older in life as she spends her final moments on her deathbed and is asked to contemplate the meaning, or lack thereof, of her existence. Frankl asks her, “What will you think of it? What will you say to yourself?” The woman says she had an “easy” life in which she was married to a millionaire, yet flirted with other men. She was a tease who squandered her life on vanity and selfishness and self-indulgence and she concludes that her life was a failure.
Would my own deathbed test compel me to reach a similar conclusion? After all, I am vain and I am easily enthralled by luxury items, “manly” watches and deliciously fast cars, to name a couple. How would I sum up my life on the deathbed if asked to do so at this very moment of my life, just months before teaching Man’s Search for Meaning to eighty college students? My deathbed summation would go something like this.
I was a man of obsession. Once I dug my teeth into something, I was like a pit-bull in that I could not let go of my obsession. During my life, I was like this with all things, materialistic things, religious ideas, books, teaching, my own vain body image, my reputation with others, my desire to make people laugh, to name a few examples. My obsession often made me myopic. I’d get too close to things and lose the bigger picture. My obsessions often caused me take myself too seriously. I was, more often than not, my own worst enemy.
Related to my obsessions, I had a tendency to live too much inside my head. I’d over-think things, exaggerate the drama of mishaps, disappointments, and the like so that I felt I had been delivered a deep cut or blow, a sense of injury that compelled me to devote too much administering assuage in the form of self-pity, self-gratification, and consumerism. And more often than not, my reactions—that is over reactions—to the mishaps caused greater problems than the mishaps themselves.
Frankl may have explained my over reactions as an addiction to drama and drama was a feeble attempt to fill the existential vacuum.
Another consequence of lacking meaning was a life consumed by being overly self-conscious. I attribute this exaggerated self-consciousness to Avoidance Personality Disorder (if I may engage in amateur self-diagnosis), which means I always felt I was being judged unfavorably by others and often avoided social situations, but when I did socialize I felt obliged to entertain others in order to prove my worthiness or I felt compelled to give others advice on a variety of subject, most noticeably consumerism. I wanted to be the guy who could steer someone in the right direction on the purchase of a radio, a camera, a watch, or a car and I always made people feel good about themselves like a reliable friend who could always be trusted with life’s highest questions when in fact I didn’t know what the hell I wanted for myself so how could I help others? I was the case of the blind leading the blind.
I exaggerated my weaknesses and strengths and as a result rarely had an accurate self-appraisal.
I did not possess Frankl’s religious faith. I raged against the idea of a God who afflicted the human race with relentless suffering and cruelty but called himself all-powerful. And I feared this God would throw me into eternal hell flames for my unflattering views regarding his unrelenting wrath and unfathomable contradictions.
Yet I craved a different face of God, rendered as a “Tender Friend” by two Quaker writers, Rufus Jones and Thomas Kelly.
I was always turned off by the writing style of St. Paul, a supercilious tone that always struck me as full of pompous self-regard and misanthropy weakly disguised behind grating sanctimony.
At the same time the very things I detested in St. Paul I saw in myself.
I was always struck by the power of books to change people’s lives so dramatically, on the same level as Paul’s vision at Damascus.
But I prevaricate. I need to get to the “bottom line” verdict on my life based on the standards issued in Frankl’s masterpiece, and I am sad to say I must judge my life a failure if for no other reasons than my life has been saddled with vanity and fear. I was so vain I once dreamed that I was walking bare-chested through a throng and people wept with joy as they saw my ripped torso and in addition to enjoying the monumental ego massage of such admiration I was even more gratified that the masses could enjoy seeing someone so spectacular so that my walking shirtless through a crowd was on my part an act of compassion for others: I was, after all, punctuating their banal lives with a vision of glory.
But even more damning than the vanity was a life dominated by fear. Fear of debt, fear of delinquent payments, fear of overspending, fear of obesity, fear of saying the wrong things, fear of not being liked, fear of being boring in front of my students, fear of failure, fear of being taken over by my phony self, fear of colon cancer and brain tumors, and of course, fear of death. My fears were given a huge exclamation point by a lifelong of nightmares, hellish dreams in which I was always tiny, lonely, helpless, and estranged from people and the world. And sometimes I dreamed of my own death and woke up barely able to breathe.
This last fear reminds me of something Franz Kafka once wrote: “The fear of death is the fear of an unfulfilled life.”
And this is my greatest fear of all: To die without living a fulfilled life. In contrast, Frankl describes dying people in his book with brave, dignified souls. These are people who have found meaning and as a result they face their impending death without bitterness or fear.
Frankl talks a lot about fear in his book and how fear causes us to squander our lives. I would like to know how to apply his lessons to my own life because I see his writings about this subject as much more than an intellectual exercise. I see his lessons as a matter of life and death.
12. A Rebuttal
Is my Deathbed ranking accurate? Is my judgment as a failure at meaning correct? In all honesty, I hear a counter-voice to the self-appraisal in the previous chapter. For one, my judgment about my life of meaning is over simplistic and fails to account that the life of meaning, or not, is not an absolute proposition but a relative one, and “meaning” is a fluid status ranking somewhere on a Meaning Scale. For two, the self-condemnation of the previous chapter seems exaggerated and self-indulgent and falls into the trap of creating drama where none need exist, a possible reaction to the existential vacuum or an obsessive-compulsive who is prone to hyper judgments of all kinds. And third, I am taken aback by the thought that I am, ironically, over-thinking my qualifications to teach Man’s Search for Meaning. I should just commit to teaching it as best I can and not get bogged down in this histrionic, self-important “Am I Worthy?” idiocy.
Perhaps I’ve erred in my reading of Frankl’s book. He is urging us to embrace meaning in our lives, but he is not telling us that we exist in absolute or meaning or absolute non-meaning. How can I during the Deathbed Test say that I was an absolute failure? I derived meaning from my family, from my maturity, from my teaching job, from my hard-fought wisdom, from my many victories over my insidious ego (in spite of many failures). I may have lost many of my battles, I may have succumbed to despair and nihilism and inflated self-importance more than I wanted to, but I did find some meaning. True, my meaning was not absolute and my character was not as brave and dignified and selfless as Frankl’s, but I was a consciousness person concerned with more than just appearances. I was a complex human being with strengths and weaknesses. I was someone who often aspired to improve.
That’s a far more generous self-appraisal than the one given in the previous chapter. The self-condemnation in that chapter, declared so boldly and definitively, has all the nuanced judgment of an over dramatic adolescent. Sometimes we make the mistake of wallowing in self-deprecation, diving into it with a gusto that smacks of a inflamed egotism and self-regard. Part of me thinks I should ease up on myself, give myself a little breathing room, and take a look at some of the shades of moral gray in my life with more generosity and compassion than I showed in the previous chapter.
And finally, I am struck with the thought that I should focus on explaining Frankl’s principles as best I can to my students and keep my self-drama out of it. There is too often a mistake in engaging in too much self-analysis. As is often the case, when I veer in one extreme, I summon my opposite in order to admonish me for sinking too deeply in one direction. Imagine, if you will, then, a stout Marine commander, his florid jowls trembling with rage, as he barks in the twang of Foghorn-Leghorn this bracing vituperation: Quit your whining, you pencil-neck geek. Your students don’t give a damn about your little private dramas, your petty little fears, your prissy little self- doubts. Don’t make the book about you. Make it about its priceless ideas. Now put on Your Big Boy Pants and teach like a man.
This over-thinking of mine, which summons the scolding of my Inner Marine, is revolting, the kind of self-absorbed, wimpy, middle-class, college-educated, privileged indulgence I despise.
Over-thinking is also dangerous. Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss explains how the Thais have a philosophy that believes in not thinking too much. Weiner contrasts their philosophy with his own tendency to over-think and attributes his over-thinking to his lack of happiness: “I’ve spent most of my life trying to think my way to happiness, and my failure to achieve that goal only proves, in my mind, that I am not a good enough thinker. It never occurred to me that the source of my unhappiness is not flawed thinking but thinking itself.”
It’s in Thailand that Weiner considers the wisdom of minimizing his thinking. As he explains: “Thais are deeply suspicious of thinking. For the Thais, thinking is like running. Just because your legs are moving doesn’t mean you’re getting anywhere. You might be running into a headwind. You might be running on a treadmill. You might even be running backward.”
This healthy skepticism toward thinking, especially in its extremes, seems to have resulted in more happiness in Thai culture. Weiner writes: “Thais do not buy self-help books or go to therapists or talk endlessly about their problems. They do not watch Woody Allen movies. . . . The Thais, I suspect, are too busy being happy to think about happiness.”
Reading Frankl’s chapter on logotherapy, it would seem Frankl would agree with much of Weiner’s assessment. Frankl distinguishes logotherapy from psychotherapy, explaining that psychotherapy is all about introspection and reflection, ruminating on the past to explain one’s condition in the present. Logotherapy, on the other hand, focuses on how one can find meaning in the future, establish an ultimate goal, that gives one reorientation and transformation. Logotherapy is, therefore, a “meaning-centered psychotherapy” that “defocuses all the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms which play such a great role in the development of neuroses. Thus, the typical self-centeredness of the neurotic is broken up instead of being continually fostered and reinforced.”
I don’t think Frankl wants us to read his book and prepare our own lives for meaning through an ongoing loop of over-thinking, dread and self-laceration. He wants us to look to the future, to throw our wasteful life away, and such a proposition is too fearful for the “mediocre and half-hearted,” those who claim they want to find meaning but who, like the rich man who sadly turns from Jesus when asked to give his riches to the poor, have their hearts rooted too firmly in a life comfortable in its mediocrity so that they can sufficiently stave off the nagging feeling of a life defined by vacuous conformity and pettiness.
Fear of letting go of such a life is a major impediment to finding meaning and Frankl faces this fear and warns us of its dangers.
13. How Do We Let Go of the Things That Are Killing Us?
To embrace meaning, we must, Frankl tells us, assert the courage to give up a lot of things. We must look at our lives stripped bare of all our false necessities, comforts, vanity, and diversions. We must let go of our provisional self-interest. We must let go of our instinct for safety. We must find a way to let go of our fear of death by valuing meaning and integrity more than our physical comfort and safety. Easier said than done, of course, but Frankl lived such a life. We read in Man’s Search for Meaning that over and over he lived according to his own principles of courage and dignity no matter how extreme the circumstances, including times his own life was in grave danger. Whenever he was faced with a presumably safer option of leaving his friends or the inmates who needed his medical help, he always resolved that it was better to be where he was needed rather than to go where it was deemed safer. And in many cases, these “safer” places would have been a certain death for Frankl while his comrades who fled to the “safer” places met their death. As Frankl puts it: “They tried to save themselves, but they only sealed their own fates.”
Frankl further explains the way fear pushes us toward our self-demise with an analogy that explains how those who obsess over staving off death actually precipitate and invite the very thing they wish to avoid. This is the allegorical story of Death in Teheran. As Frankl explains it:
A rich a 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.
The story illustrates how living in fear compels us to live a life of self-betrayal and how we are our worst enemies. This fear, Frankl, shows throughout his book, is a reaction to an unfulfilled life that results from having no meaning. He writes about inmates fleeing and finding that death awaited them. For example, just before the Germans surrendered the concentration camps to the Allies, some of Frankl’s fellow inmates transferred to a hut where the Nazis burned them alive. Frankl escaped fate, which toyed with people. Frankl writes, “We found out just how uncertain human decision are, especially in matters of life and death.” In his case, had he focused on escape and self-preservation, he recounts many times he would have died. But his focus was being loyal to his friends. One striking example is when, just before resolved to escape, he looked into the eyes of his dying friend and when he saw his look of hopelessness, he knew he needed to say to give his friend comfort. He was so close to making an escape, but he chose to help his friend. After making the painful decision to stay behind, he knows he did the right thing and he writes, “I had gained an inward peace that I had never experienced before.”
I must admit I’m both inspired by Frankl’s heroism and somewhat abased because I keep asking myself if I would rise to the level of courage and compassion he demonstrated or would I be another survivor resorting to the most basic instincts for self-preservation. I’m not going to waste my time pondering something I cannot prove either way, so instead I’m going to look at what it would take to transform to someone who clings to the things that destroy his life. He clings the very fear of death, which actually accelerates his own death, both literally and spiritually. He clings to the fear of life’s possibilities and success, which entail increased responsibilities. He clings to a life of vanity and appearances, which make him lonely and miserable. And he clings to all these things as a sort of security blanket, which not only give him a false sense of security but impede him from ever maturing so that he is a lifelong child in the worst sense of the word.
The problem is that even intellectually if we know we must give up some things to lead a meaningful life, our emotions don’t care. They want what they want. It seems the only way to let go of our security blankets, especially the ones that are killing us and impeding us from meaning, is to substitute them with something more compelling and worthy. If we don’t get rid of these security blankets—facades of power, comfort, and all the other false necessities we rely on for our distorted self-identity—we remain stuck in the hell of a life without meaning.
On the surface it doesn’t make any sense that we would want a life in which we’re frightened of success so that our existence is defined most of all by learned helplessness. When I was a kid, one of my favorite Captain Kangaroo episodes was a reading of the children’s book, Stone Soup, that explained this phenomenon. When travelers or soldiers arrive to an unfamiliar town and are hungry, the townspeople are too selfish to share their provisions until the soldiers use a ruse: They start making a soup of stones. The idea piques the interest of the selfish townspeople who slowly but surely contribute a small share of ingredients to the soup in order to see just what will materialize. Their selfishness is replaced by fascination with the soldiers’ creative concoction and by contributing to it they participate in a community event that brings them out of their shells. The folk tale is a story about nail-biting victims learning how to improve their lives through reciprocity and community building, which they learn is a superior alternative to a self-insulated provisional existence.
The tale also teaches that being a helpless and self-centered victim with no responsibilities is less desirable than having some initiative and embracing the responsibilities that such an initiative entails. But the point is we can’t be told not to be selfish and live a life of learned helplessness. We have to learn through experience that a life of reciprocity and initiative is a better life. For example, I heard the comedian Ricky Gervais talk about a 1,200-pound man he saw on Oprah, a gelatinous mass with two fish-like eyeballs sticking out of it, as I remember Gervais’ description. The morbidly obese man had to be lifted out of the house with a crane and hospitalized and Gervais was incredulous that when the man did not see any warning flags when he tipped the scales at such a colossal weight. Most of us, Gervais said, have warning flags go off when he hit 300, but this guy was oblivious at 400, 500, 600, etc. I assume that the fat man’s senses were too dulled to be alarmed by his escalating weight and he just lived in obesity with no consciousness of it. I am reminded of a quote by Kierkegaard: “Despair is not knowing it.” We often don’t know how high we’ve ascended on the Fat Scale or the Misery Scale or whatever horrible scale we can come up with and as a result we keep moving upward with nothing to curtail our direction.
Viktor Frankl writes about changing our lives by first stripping our lives bare to their naked existence. Otherwise, we remain blind to our despair and we keep doing the same things over and over that reinforce that despair. A terrifying example of this is Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich in which the husband and wife live among the upper classes but fight ferociously with one another about the most trivial things such as over-ordering cake for a lavish party. It’s clear that Ivan and his wife hate each other’s guts and do so during their intractable, excruciating marriage yet find diversion by holding up an image to their society of the perfect couple who lives a “proper” and “correct” life.
When I lecture on this subject, I call this obsession with image the Chanel No. 5 Moment. I heard the term used by the comedian Sandra Bernhard in the 1980s. I always think of it whenever I teach a life of image to my students and I always give them the following example, based on a composite of couples I’ve known about over the years:
A boyfriend and girlfriend frequent a night club where they always make sure to have a different wardrobe and are horrified if anyone at the club is wearing the same clothes they are. They always sit on the same bar stools and look superciliously at the other mingling and dancing people. They are in a perfect pose with their hair coiffed just so and with their martinis held in just the right position. The boyfriend likes to whisper little jokes in his girlfriend’s ear upon which she laughs in an affected way so that she tossed her head back and reveals her beautiful long neck, glistening with a diamond necklace that reflects the light on the overhead chandelier. The light splashes off her neck and everyone’s attention is now on the couple. They’ve just had a Chanel No. 5 Moment, the very essence of their existence. Minutes later, the couple is in the boyfriend’s Lexus, parked in the club parking lot. They’re holding hands and giving adoring eyes at each other, still wallowing in the Chanel No. 5 Moment. Everyone thinks they’re in love.
But this is a huge error. In truth, this couple has been together for five years and they hate each other’s guts. Additionally, they have no money since they spend it all on orchestrating these Chanel No. 5 Moments.
Miserable, broke, stuck in a rut, they don’t see their life for what it really is, a complete sham. As Kierkegaard said, “Despair is not knowing it.” The couple won’t understand their existence until their stripped of their Chanel No. 5 Moments and stare eye to eye with their naked existence.
Few of us have the courage, will, or even wherewithal to strip our lives to their bare existence. Ivan Ilyich’s life of privilege and power veiling a hellish marriage and the couple’s life of attention-getting veiling their hateful relationship show how desperately we cling to our security blankets, even if those security blankets are killing us, unless we have a better alternative.
For example, as toddler I had assigned the name Geekee to my favorite blanket. Tattered and pee-stained, Geekee was my prize possession, my cocoon of silvery spun silk, which I carried with me every where I went for my first four years on this planet. At night, I rubbed the blanket’s corners on my cheek, the pleasant tickling sensation lulling me to sleep. To my consternation, my parents were not as enamored with Geekee as I was. They complained that Geekee smelled. It was threadbare. It had pale yellow stains that I paraded to the public who must have believed that my parents were too cheap to buy me a new blanket. At four years of age I had “outgrown” Geekee, they said, and it was time Geekee and I part ways. Every time they suggested getting rid of it, I would go into a rage that would not subside until they dropped the business of me losing Geekee. This battle between my parents and me continued until one day as we were moving across the country from Florida to California my father slyly opened his window and told me to look out the window opposite his, for he said there was a baby alligator on the side of the road. As I looked in vain to spot the alligator, my father ripped Geekee from my hands and threw it out his open window. It all happened so fast that I didn’t know my father had grabbed my blanket. Instead, I believed his lie that the powerful wind had sucked Geekee from my grasp and had flung the blanket out of the window. I told my father to stop the car at once. We had to retrieve Geekee. But my father said we had to keep on going. Besides, he said, Geekee was now serving a higher purpose: It was now keeping the baby alligator warm. With no mother to fend for him, the little reptile needed the blanket’s warmth far more than I did. Imagining the baby alligator swathed in my blanket consoled me. In fact, I was glad the baby alligator had Geekee more than I did. Perhaps giving up Geekee was my first Man’s Search for Meaning moment, learning how to give up something in order to help someone in need and realizing the meaning we receive from helping others helps us let go of our unnecessary security blankets.
Do I have any security blankets today, as a forty-eight-year-old adult, that are preventing me from defining my life and my place on the Meaning Scale without any delusions? Probably. I have a full-time job in what is the worst economic period of my lifetime and I look at other adults around my age losing their long-held jobs and facing the challenges of trying to re-invent themselves or of taking jobs that pay less than half of their previous income. My neighbor, for example, is a top-level manager in the aerospace industry and he told me he just had the brutal task of implementing his “second wave” of layoffs, including people with PhDs and families who had been with the company for close to ten years. At the same time, I’ve been hearing news reports that so-called experts are predicting the job recovery to take place five years from now, during which time many people become “unemployable” because of their loss of self-confidence combined with their undesirable status among employers.
While not as extreme as the concentration camps of course, intractable unemployment is a form of being stripped to one’s bare existence. Honestly, I don’t think I’d fare well in such a situation. Over a year ago, I was picking up take-out in a shopping plaza when I saw a meticulously groomed gray-haired man with a pizza delivery T-shirt, and neatly pressed khakis walking out of a pizza restaurant. He was holding a stack of pizzas and walking toward a delivery car. The man looked to be about ten years older than I, and there was something about his intelligent bearing and dignified manner that suggested he had had a white-collar job before delivering pizzas. I was curious why he had to do something usually reserved for college-age students and at the same time struck by his affable comportment.
Could I brave a pizza-delivery job in my fifties with such dignity if I had to? I honestly don’t know. And what about other forms of being stripped to my bare existence such as dying of cancer? I’m not sure I’d fare well in this department either. How we respond to unemployment or a terminal illness seems to be strongly connected to where we rank on the Meaning Scale. A good example of this is the aforementioned Ivan Ilyich who while enduring an excruciating, drawn-out interminable, and fatal illness (what appears to be cancer throughout his stomach and colon), contemplates his “correct” and “proper” life and realizes his life was a sham, a deception, and a farce worthy of the utmost contempt. It was also a life that impeded meaning.
14. How Can We Avoid the Common Life of Fraud and Deception?
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich opens its second chapter with the famous line: “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” One of the novella’s themes is that most of us embrace the common, “ordinary” life and sad to say such a life is one of fraud and self-deception. The catastrophic fakery is not the product of evil people living on the fringe. Rather, it is the common lot of the mainstream who languish through a life of meaninglessness and charlatanism, clinging to this fake life as if it were the highest pursuit imaginable. And even worse, most people don’t even know they’re living this “proper,” that is, “horrible,” life. Reading the novella, we see over and over that Ivan Ilyich lived a “proper” and “correct” life and it is precisely this conformity to that which is “proper” and “correct” that perpetrates a fraud and the existential vacuum discussed in Man’s Search for Meaning.
No doubt, the “proper” and “correct” life has a huge appeal for most of us; otherwise, the terrible life would not be so ordinary and commonplace. What is this “proper” life? What is its powerful draw? How does it make us lead a life away from meaning?
First, a definition of the “proper” life: It is a life that emphasizes power, vanity, and selfish ambition dressed up behind the flowery garments of middle-class niceties and proprieties. When we live the proper life, we give implicit encouragement to power-mongering, vanity, and selfish ambition by praising others for their “achievements” and “success” while putting up an affront of piety, claiming to admire the more noble virtues, loyalty, courage, sacrifice, humility, etc. But these latter qualities are only important to us as a show, not as real substance. For example, in the novella it is explained that when no one was looking Ivan Ilyich, a judge, was cruel and obnoxious to his underlings, but when his dealings with his subordinates were under the banner of “official business,” that is, those dealings would be seen and scrutinized by others, Ivan Ilyich’s behavior was “fair” and “decent.” We also read that he loved to withhold his power and authority, not out of humility, buy by showing others how remarkably restrained he was.
The “ordinary” life, then, is one in which we want to be perceived as good, just, and generous even though we could care less if we our character is really worthy of being those things. Again, we can look at Pascal’s observation of this hypocrisy to better see the ordinary life of fraud and self-deception:
We are not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves and our own being. We want to lead an imaginary life in the eyes of others, and so we try to make an impression. We strive constantly to embellish and preserve our imaginary being, and neglect the real one. And if we are calm, or generous, or loyal, we are anxious to have it known so that we can attach these virtues to our other existence; we prefer to detach them from our real self so as to unite them with the other. We would cheerfully be cowards if that would acquire us a reputation for bravery. How clear a sign of the nullity of our own being that we are not satisfied with the one without the other and often exchange for the other!
Pascal’s description is of the ordinary human condition. And indeed it is a terrible one in part because such a morally bankrupts life is perceived as normal when it is lived by the majority and as such is “ordinary.”
According to Frankl, conforming to this immoral and meaningless way of life creates the existential vacuum. This imitation is not instinct but a learned behavior. As Frankl explains:
At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behavior is imbedded and by which it is secured. Such security, like Paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. In addition this, however, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).
In the case of Ivan Ilyich, he entire “proper” life was a conformity to a life he did not really want. It was an idea of a life that had been presented to him as a way of winning the approval of others and he did not realize he despised this life he had chosen until he was dying away in a home where he was held in contempt by his own family for imposing the rude inconvenience of becoming fatally ill. It is only as he endures a terrible, slow death and as he sees his own grave that he begins to ask himself, “What if my whole life had been wrong?” It’s sad that he does not ask this question until lying on his death bed. He was too distracted by all his diversions, as philosopher Thomas V. Morris would tell us, to face life’s important questions until death is knocking on his door. Morris explains this procrastination in Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life: “How many of us would think about going to a gas station only after the car stalled for lack of gas? And yet too many of us never stop to reflect on what is needful for a good life until is too late.” All the diversions Ivan Ilyich relied on to stave away the question that his whole life was a lie are explained as a universal problem by Morris in this way: “Our lives are empty. We cannot face the vacuum. So we fill our lives up with junk, with trash, with refuse.” Explaining what the philosopher Pascal really meant when he explained what we fill our hearts with, Morris says it more bluntly: We fill our hearts with “crap.” Our lives of diversion and deception, the life that caused Ivan Ilyich to ask himself if his whole life had been wrong only when he was faced with his own mortality, made realize that his life was complete bullshit.
When we reach the point, like Ivan Ilyich, that our lives are full of crap, we tend toward nihilism, the belief that there is no meaning. The danger of bullshit and its resulting nihilism has been explained in Professor of Philosophy Harry G. Frankfurt’s terse essay, published as a book, On Bullshit. In defining the term, Frankfurt relies in part on Max Black’s book The Prevalence of Humbug in which Black writes that humbug is “deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” This definition of humbug, which can be applied to bullshit, is a precise summary of Ivan Ilyich’s life, one of “deceptive misrepresentation,” to others and himself. Moreover, Ilyich’s life was one rife with pretentiousness and ornamentation, a façade, a deception, or, if we want to cut to the bone, complete bullshit. Not until he was dying, horribly alone without any love from his own family and “friends,” does he contemplate that his whole life was built on a sham.
Is there anyone in contemporary society, real or fictitious, whose life can be studied as a life that is, like Ivan Ilyich’s, a complete fraud? One salient example is Seinfeld’s George Costanza, whose life without meaning is shown in its full hideousness in Daniel Barwick’s essay “George’s Failed Quest for Happiness: An Aristotelian Analysis,” published in Seinfeld and Philosophy. In this essay, we see that George Costanza and Ivan Ilyich suffer similar afflictions: They are both the “many” or “ordinary” and as such lead “horrible” lives; they are both unstable and untrustworthy because they equate happiness with its “obvious” superficial definitions such as pleasure and status; they both experience, in the absence of meaning, only the most “transient happiness” (based on good fortune), which always needs upgrading; both feed on spite and vindication; both measure their happiness by comparing it to others’; neither seek meaning of their potential in order that they might flourish or experience what Aristotle calls eudaimonia; and both realize that they never experienced fulfillment and that their entire existence is a huge mistake and a fraud and as a result both succumb to nihilism.
While George is quirky and neurotic and unforgettable in his extremes, he is, according to Daniel Barwick, one of the “many,” a term by Aristotle used to describe the majority or “ordinary” who do not seek wisdom but blindly follow their irrational desires. Following these impulses leads to self-destruction and despair, which is why “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Both George Costanza and Ivan Ilyich are studies in “how not to live one’s life.” One important lesson we can learn from studying their misery is how transient their happiness is. Costanza erupts into a child’s joyous eruption quickly followed by feelings of rejection and despair. The problem is that Costanza’s highest values—petty vindictiveness, carnal pleasure, to name a couple—are always short-lived and show their inefficacy in pleasing the soul. Every short-lived pleasure must be followed by a greater one. Ivan Ilyich falls into the same trap, requiring high job status and income, followed by a temporary appeasement with his wife, followed by them bickering again, and their acrimony can only be assuaged by yet another promotion and pay-raise and on and on they go, trying feebly to veil their mutual hatred with greater status and wealth.
Another self-destructive quality shared by George Costanza and Ivan Ilyich is petty spitefulness evident in George’s insatiable appetite for gloating over the human race every time he snatches a perceived victory over them. As we read in Barwick’s essay:
George essentially encounters two kinds of experiences that he would characterize as happiness. First, he experiences momentary elation, typically when he has achieved some victory over others. Often, he expressed this victory in terms of attaining something that he has always wanted, but the desirability of the thing attained is almost always dependent on George’s perception denied to him. . . . This is George’s way: to see himself in the context of others; to adopt a sort of scarcity mentality where there is never enough to go around and there must always be a loser (usually him). By transforming others into losers, he erroneously believes that he is thus transformed into a winner; that he is what he is only by comparison to others. Whether called approval-seeking, other-directed, or reactive behavior, such conduct is not uncommon. George, however, is a caricature of a man who measures himself by measuring himself against others.
Similarly, Ivan Ilyich has fallen into the trap of lusting over things, not for their own sake, but because he perceives they are desired by others. A job position that he wants is increased in desire when he sees that others want it and when the job is denied him he becomes bitter and obsessed, childishly so. Upon losing the promotion, he goes into a sullen rage and the narrator explains “that what was for him the greatest and most cruel injustice appeared to others a quite ordinary occurrence.” Feeling victimized, Ivan Ilyich languishes in a condition of “ennui,” chronic depression and boredom with life. Throughout his adult life, his mood oscillates between elation and self-pity depending on his fortune. And from his worldview, like George Costanza, good fortune is having people fawn all over him while putting his perceived enemies to shame. Such misguided passions render both Ivan Ilyich and George Costanza to be stunted emotionally. We would call each of them, to use the modern parlance, a “man-child.”
Because neither have any core meaning in their souls and because neither have flourished as emotionally adult human beings, they are prone to facing their abyss with nihilism and despair. On his death bed, Ivan Ilyich sees that his entire life was a mistake and a farce and realizes all his efforts at leading a “correct” life have been in vain. Likewise, George Costanza sees his life as an equal sham, hopeless and futile, and he is overcome with regret. His nihilistic self-loathing is captured in a Seinfeld scene from “The Opposite,” referred to in Barwick’s essay in which George says: “It all became very clear as I was sitting out there today . . . every decision that I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat . . . it’s all be wrong. Every one.”
What is the alternative to this nihilistic self-loathing and regret? Or better put, how is living the opposite of both George and Ivan the best way to find happiness in the best sense of the word, which would be having a meaningful life? Barwick argues that the opposite life of George consists of seeking the good in the sense that Aristotle meant the good: “The good, for Aristotle, is whatever man, in virtue of his nature, is actually seeking. What does man seek? Unfortunately, there is no single English word that captures the meaning of Aristotle’s term, eudaimonia. It will be sufficient for our purposes, however, to adopt the most common explanation, which is that the good for man is the fulfillment of his function.” And this function, Barwick explains, his the practice and habit of moral virtue. In other words, living a life of virtue leads to a particular kind of happiness that eludes Ivan Ilyich and George Costanza.
I think it would be safe to say that flourishing, or living a life of fulfillment by living a virtuous life, is compatible and supports Frankl’s contention that we should not be like the many or the ordinary who live a life of “bitter self-preservation”; rather, we should “remain brave, dignified, and unselfish.” Few people live according to this virtue, as Frankl states: “It is true that only a few people are capable of reaching such high moral standards.” However, our only chance at real achievement, which is fulfillment and meaning and virtue, is by making ourselves worthy of our suffering.
George Costanza stands as a warning to what happens when we recoil from our suffering and see it as justification for our bitter, nihilistic, childish orientation. We become slobs. And George Costanza is the quintessential slob and the highest example of how not to be worthy of our suffering. As Barwick describes him:
His baseline state of perpetual melancholy and cynicism is punctuated by bouts of rage (usually against those whom he perceives are persecuting him in some way and usually misplaced), obsession (perhaps with his weight, baldness, a woman , or a new pastime such as parking cars for a living), lust (usually satisfied vicariously through Jerry or Kramer), and deep depression (usually necessitating a trip to the beach, where George goes to think his most despondent thoughts). His miserable existence is alleviated only rarely by even the most transient happiness: even in such cases, we see that George’s joy (usually centering on some victory over a perceived enemy) is forced and hollow. . . . If by chance you are a Seinfeld neophyte, take my word for it: George is a failure, a flop, a nonstarter, a paradigm of inefficacy, sloth, and incontinence.
One of the dangers of the “ordinary” and “terrible” life is that cynics see these lives as the true human condition and as such the cynic embraces a life that rejects the possibility of meaning, that is, a life of nihilism.
15. When Does Nihilism Impede the Search for Meaning?
Generally speaking, nihilism is against everything Viktor Frankl stands for because it is a philosophy that explicitly states there is no meaning, that values are relative, that the way we are is the product of environmental and biological factors and we are helpless in shaping who we are, which is essentially animals, and that since we experience nothing after death, “anything goes.” Additionally, nihilism tells us, “morality” is a middle-class affectation, a cunning invention of the Powers at Be to keep the masses, the peasants, and the dumb, toothy hordes in check. There are variations of this view but it seems there are two major divides of nihilism, disingenuous and sincere. Both forms can impede our search for meaning but the former is the far more pernicious variety while the sincere form, while providing a stumbling block, can actually strengthen our search for meaning.
Before we examine disingenuous and sincere nihilism, we should first look at nihilism’s opposite, the belief in meaning as laid out by Viktor Frankl, of which there are thirteen major tenets:
1. The human condition is suffering and the only viable response to suffering is to find meaning. We must therefore acknowledge that there is a purpose in life, greater than the purpose we find in creative work and passive enjoyment, which “admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces.” It is imperative that we are motivated first and foremost by this higher purpose. Otherwise, we will languish in “deformed time,” fixated in our past, and suffer a spiritual death.
2. “Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress” as was endured in the concentration camps. Acknowledging this freedom, we must defy being a “plaything of circumstance” and thus we must understand that “there is a danger inherent in the teaching of man’s ‘nothingbutness,’ the theory that man is nothing but the result of biological, psychological and sociological conditions, or the product of heredity and environment. Such a view of man makes a neurotic believe what he is prone to believe anyway, namely, that he is the pawn and victim of outer influences or inner circumstances.” We are neither pawn nor victim. Rather, we possess an inner freedom that cannot be lost no matter how extreme the circumstances. This inner freedom allows us to be worthy of our suffering. And being worthy of our suffering is the ultimatum life presents us: Either be worthy of our suffering, or not.
3. Life presents us with the moral imperative to treat our life as something of significance and consequence and the converse is also true: We must not despise our lives and treat our lives as if they were of no consequence at all. As Frankl writes: “And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom: which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.”
4. There are moral absolutes in this world evidenced in part by Frankl dividing the world into two races of people, decent and indecent.
5. We have to do more than imagine a life of meaning; we must actually live it. Frankl writes: “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” We are additionally accountable for the responsibilities life demands of us.
6. We must embrace suffering, the finiteness of life, and death to maximize and complete our life. “Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”
7. We must radically alter our attitude by changing our orientation from “What do I expect from life?” to “What does life expect from me?” This question brings up our number one responsibility in life,
8. There is no One Size Fits All Meaning. Every person’s meaning is specific to his or her circumstances.
9. We must confront the emotions that seem so overwhelming; otherwise those emotions will devour us. Quoting from Spinoza, Frankl writes: “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”
10. We must not abuse and squander freedom by imitating our oppressors.
11. Meaning cannot be found within ourselves; it must be found in the world. As Frankl writes: “By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
12. No matter how despicable and worthless our lives have been, we are called to redeem ourselves by living out the essential rule of logotherapy: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
13. Only a few people are capable of reaching great spiritual heights but the difficulty and small percentage of people who do reach such great heights does not abnegate our responsibility for pursuing a life of higher meaning.
Nihilism unequivocally rejects the above tenets: We have no freedom to choose our dignity or a life of high moral purpose. There is no purpose in life except for the maniacal mirages and chimeras that we become obsessed with unless we reasonably accept the “nothingness” of existence. Our lives are of no consequence at all and any our belief in our consequential existence is a sign of phony sanctimony and delusional grandeur.
At a first glance, it would seem that the nihilist might subscribe to his worldview in order to justify his rather low standards. In fact, he could rationalize being like George Costanza, who as we already read is “a failure, a flop, a nonstarter, a paradigm of inefficacy, sloth, and incontinence.” Rationalizing one’s slob existence, then, is what I’m getting at when I talk about the disingenuous nihilist. One unforgettable example can be taken from the famous Flannery O’Connor short story, “Good Country People,” featuring the self-styled nihilist and pseudo-intellectual Hulga Hopewell who, like George Costanza, is an unemployable sloth and emotionally-arrested adult who lives with her mother. While living a parasitic existence and constantly rebuking her mother for her ignorance and worthless middle-class morality, Hulga has convinced herself that she, owner of a PhD in Philosophy, is a genius superior to the human race. To bolster her image as a tough-minded nihilist, Hulga rejected her birth-given name, Joy, legally changing it to a name that sounds more like a monster to better suit her steely-eyed rejection of conventional morality. To add to her nihilistic uniform, she clomps around proudly on her artificial leg, the result of a childhood accident, which she wears like a badge of pride. She stomps around the house all day scolding her mother by issuing lectures laced with quotes from obscure philosophers. For all her book smarts, however, she gets duped in the story by a third-rate con artist who, posing as a Bible salesman, can see that behind Hulga’s pseudo-intellectual veneer is a frightened, ignorant child.
Hulga represents the worst kind of nihilism, the bitter pose of the coward, the sloth, the lecher, and the malcontent who gravitate toward a philosophy to rationalize their worst defects. Clearly, nihilists are at war with the kind of meaning Viktor Frankl lays out in his book and they would dismiss “meaning” as an illusion and as a “social construction.”
But there is another type of nihilist, the sincere one, who doesn’t necessarily become a complete nihilist but gradually finds himself losing faith in meaning and as a result succumbs to nihilism. Viktor Frankl writes about the forces that led to this type of nihilism in the concentration camps. The first cause of nihilism was the loss one’s individuality and self-respect leading to depersonalization. As Frankl writes:
A man’s character became involved to the point that he was caught in a mental turmoil which threatened all the values he held and threw them into doubt. Under the influence of a world which no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity, which had robbed man of his will and had made him an object to be exterminated (having planned, however, to make full use of him first—to the last ounce of his physical resources)—under this influence the personal ego finally suffered a loss of values. If the man in the concentration camp did not struggle against this in a last effort to save his self-respect, he lost the feeling of being an individual, a being with a mind, with inner freedom and personal value. He thought of himself then as only a part of an enormous mass of people: his existence descended to the level of animal life. The men were herded—sometimes to one place then to another; sometimes driven together, then apart—like a flock of sheep without a thought or a will of their own. A small but dangerous pack watched them from all sides, well versed in methods of torture and sadism. They drove the herd incessantly, backwards and forwards, with shouts, kicks and blows. And we, the sheep, thought of two things only—how to evade the bad dogs and how to get a little food.
The second cause of nihilism is fear, the kind that made camp inmates believe they had no free will but were the pawns of merciless fate. Such feelings led to apathy and helplessness and in this state it was impossible to find any meaning in their suffering.
Nihilism’s third cause is losing faith in the future, which, Frankl says, made the prisoners lose their “spiritual hold.” Once a prisoner gave up any possibility of hope in his future, his system would shut down and he would accelerate his own death. Over and over, Frankl gives examples of prisoners who died shortly after losing hope for their freedom.
Finally, bitterness and disillusionment experienced by the prisoners when they returned to their former life contributed to nihilism. They became bitter when after they returned to their home towns, they met people who, ignorant of the atrocities the prisoners faced, seemed lacking in empathy and the imagination to comprehend the suffering endured by the survivors. And they became disillusioned with their God or life itself when they could not reconcile the amount of cruelty they had witnessed with a life-affirming worldview regarding God, fate, or both.
These prisoners and survivors of the concentration camp put up no pseudo-intellectual façade of nihilism; they had through their experiences become nihilistic to the bone.
Another group of people who, if not nihilists, struggle with nihilism, are those who have, against their will, lost their faith in their idea of an omnipotent God and their inability to reconcile such a God with the amount of cruelty and suffering in the world. One person who misses the comforts of his God is Bart D. Ehrman. In God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer, he writes about the painful loss of his faith as he experienced and here is one incident that speaks to his gradual loss of faith as he attends a Christmas Eve service with his wife and tries feebly to take comfort from the layperson’s prayer to God: “You came into the darkness and made a difference. Come into the darkness again.” Ehrman wants to believe in the prayer but he cannot. He writes: “Yes, I wanted to affirm this prayer, believe this prayer, commit myself to this prayer. But I couldn’t. The darkness is too deep, the suffering too intense, the divine absence too palpable.” Ehrman can no longer find hope in this God who, Ehrman writes earlier, seems to have abandoned this world:
Where is this God now? If he came into the darkness and made a difference, why is there still no difference? Why are the sick still wracked with unspeakable pain? Why are babies still born with birth defects? Why are young children kidnapped, raped, and murdered? Where are there droughts that leaves millions starving, suffering horrible and excruciating lives that lead to horrible and excruciating deaths? If God intervened to deliver the armies of Israel from its enemies, why doesn’t he intervene now when the armies of sadistic tyrants savagely attack and destroy entire villages, towns, and even countries? If God is at work in the darkness, feeding the hungry with the miraculous multiplication of loaves, why is it that one child—a mere child!—dies every five seconds of hunger? Every five seconds.
Ehrman is no nihilist by any means. He is a self-described agnostic, but he struggles, with the loss of his faith, to affirm life. For example, Ehrman states that he is fond of the passage in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov in which Ivan, “an intellectual and skeptic” says he wants nothing to do with God. Ivan says, “It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God’s, created by God, that I do no accept and cannot agree to accept.”
Sincere, humble, and intelligent, Ehrman struggles to affirm this life we have in which suffering is life’s dominant feature.
Not surprisingly, it is precisely this suffering that Frankl says we must embrace to find meaning. Meaning is born from suffering. We are called to be worthy of our suffering. We affirm life by embracing suffering.
Intellectually, I agree with Frankl, but emotionally I tend to be more like Ehrman. I want to fall in love with the God described by the poets and prophets and I want to embrace meaning the way Frankl so brilliantly argues, but I feel to dejected at times and too full of piss and vinegar at other times when looking at the world’s suffering. Frankl, who knows a hell of a lot more about suffering than I do, says suffering is not an occasion for nihilism and life-negating rage; it’s an opportunity for finding meaning.
Not all sincere nihilism is about rage. Sometimes nihilism is accompanied by a penetrating melancholy, the kind I used to experience the most when I was a teenager and my favorite song was Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues.” The persona of the song describes himself as a bit of a misfit and a libertine who maintains his integrity and solitude, playing his saxophone into the deep of the night. At one point he croons, “Drink Scotch whisky all night long and die behind the wheel. They got a name for the winners of the world. I want a name when I lose.” Perhaps the songwriters were being ironic, using this persona to express a certain type of person they knew. Or perhaps the song is more autobiographical. I don’t know. But I do suspect the nihilism in the song strikes a certain adolescent note. To wallow in the song’s melancholy is a bit juvenile, self-indulgent, and narcissistic. Perhaps this type of nihilism, an addiction to melancholy, is a mix of the sincere and the disingenuous. Self-pity may start as a sincere impulse, but when we coddle it, the self-pity becomes an affectation and a way of turning away from the world. Clearly, this impulse goes against Viktor Frankl’s message of finding meaning in the world, not by turning inward into the psyche. And once again I am challenged to be less self-indulgent in this regard if I want to teach his book with any credibility.
16. An Interlude
A cynical voice rises up and says that while I’ve done a good job explaining the difference between a life of nihilism and a life of meaning in the context of Viktor Frankl’s book and while I feel I have a deeper understanding of the crucial issues that Frankl raises, in the end the discussion of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment is a waste of time. Will my students really change as a result of my teaching them Man’s Search for Meaning? Will I change? Does anyone really change when reading an inspirational book or seeing a film or some other work of art? We may feel the momentarily inspired, we may passionately discuss the themes with each other, we may make resolutions to change, but it seems more often than not we just resort to our mediocre, aimless behavior. Frankl writes about how people saw the film, based on a Tolstoy novel, Resurrection, and felt compelled to face their own mortality by living a life worthy of suffering and death but this was only a transitory feeling soon forgotten by the pursuit of earthly comforts and pleasures: “After the picture we went to the nearest café, and over a cup of coffee and a sandwich we forgot the strange metaphysical thoughts which for one moment had crossed our minds. But when we ourselves were confronted with a great destiny and faced with the decision of meeting it with equal spiritual greatness, by then we had forgotten our youthful resolution of long ago, and we failed.”
Most of us want to do good, most of us want to live a life of meaning, most of us would rather be worthy of suffering, but even decent conscientious people easily get lulled back into a life of self-interest and laxity. People watch great films and make resolutions that last a few minutes or a few days at most. Or people do the same watching Oprah, or going to church, or reading Man’s Search for Meaning. Let me give you another example. My officemate teaches health classes and one subject is smoking and its dangers. He shows a video of a doctor examining two lungs, sitting like slabs of meat, on two examination tables. The smoker’s lungs are bloated and sickly yellow. The students gag at the sight of those diseased lungs, but during the break my officemate reports that the smokers go outside the classroom and light up their cigarettes.
Bad habits and addictions aren’t the only things that hard difficult, if not impossible to change. There is also the matter of self-interest causing us to compromise our principles. Let me give you a personal example. A few years ago, I found my conscience bothered by eating animal products. I had read about the horrors and cruelties of factory farming and felt compelled to become a vegetarian, if not an outright vegan. My principled diet did not last long. I found I could not get sated on a vegetarian diet and was overeating carbohydrates and sugars resulting in weight gain. Then I read The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith who writes about getting all sorts of medical problems from forcing herself to be a vegan for twenty years. Then my GP told me he was treating two morbidly obese patients who are vegetarians. And he added that malnutrition is worst in vegetarian cultures, including India. Then my wife Carrie wanted to get pregnant and she wanted us both to eat animal protein to increase my potency and her fertility. And then we had twin girls and our pediatrician said human beings are omnivores and should eat some meat, including our daughters. So in the end my self-interest compromised my principles. I eat some animal protein, I try to buy organic, but in the end I see principled eating as futile. The organic market is a boutique industry catering to less than one percent of the population. The horrors animals face as they’re raised and slaughtered at the butchering factories continues. And some would argue that we should not care about the animals as long as there are starving people in the world. In other words, our survival is a priority over principles and values.
A cynical voice in me says we don’t live by values and meaning. We live by what’s best for us. And the same voice says few people really change when confronted with the necessary changes to lead a meaningful life that Frankl explains.
My cynical voice also tells me that I should not even be thinking about meaning at all, that such a foray into this subject is for those who have no life, for those who do not live fully. I am reminded of Eric Weiner’s discussion of thinking too much when he visited Thailand. He writes that “The Thais, I suppose, are too busy being happy to think about happiness.” Perhaps the same is true of meaning. Perhaps if I were too busy leading a meaningful life, I would be too busy to write a book about meaning.
So am I wasting time teaching Man’s Search for Meaning? Am I wasting my time trying to change into a person who’s worthy of my suffering? After all, I’m the same person now, two-thirds into writing this book, that I was when I started writing it. At least I think I am.
But conceding a deep strain of cynicism about the possibility of change and the pursuit of meaning, why do I keep coming back to Viktor Frankl’s book? Perhaps my cynical voice is blind to some compelling reasons to teach Man’s Search for Meaning. For one, my cynicism blinds me to the possibility that change can be gradual and nuanced. I seem to be looking for a cataclysmic conversion experience like Paul at Damascus, a dramatic transformation from the Existential Vacuum to a Life of Meaning. Perhaps change is more arduous, more incremental, and demands a change of routine, which is followed by more automatic good habits.
I’m also drawn to Viktor Frankl’s book out of fear. Do I want my life to end up like Ivan Ilyich’s? Or George Costanza’s? Or Hulga Hopewell’s? Do I want to lie on my deathbed, like Ilyich, asking if my whole life was one big giant mistake?
In some ways, I’d be worse off than Ilyich because, unlike him, I’ve read Man’s Search for Meaning. I know better and therefore I’m more accountable for my actions.
Speaking of accountability and fear, there is a certain Judgment Day in Frankl’s book. It’s called the Deathbed Test in which you imagine yourself, many years later, appraising your life. I don’t want to hear myself say, “I was cowardly, cynical, misanthropic, petulant, and self-indulgent. I was a great whiner. An entertaining whiner, perhaps, but still just a whiner. I whined, I complained, and I groaned all the way to my grave.”
I’d like to be less of a whiner than I am, more strong and more brave, so I feel compelled to find change through Viktor Frankl’s self-styled logotherapy and the principles contained in Man’s Search for Meaning. I still feel I should teach it, learn from it, and change from it.
So this book continues.
17. How Do We Not Despise Our Lives?
Viktor Frankl argues that we are responsible for our attitude in the face of tough circumstances, that we are not helpless pawns, that our decisions have consequences, and that we should not despise our lives or at the very least we should not treat ourselves with contempt. But I see that most of us do just that. I’ll resolve to stick to healthy diet, for example, and then go to a family event where I’ll eat three slices of pumpkin cheesecake and overall consume five hundred percent more calories than I had allocated myself. Or I’ll buy a scintillating watch I don’t need because “it’s so damn cheap I can’t afford not to buy it.” Other times I’ll condemn myself for road-raging after I had promised myself I’d be “chill on the road.” Or I’ll berate myself for using ill-advised language in front of my young children right after promising myself I would not contaminate their ears with my salty sailor tongue and then suffer the embarrassment of them repeating my words in front of others.
To a degree there is something normal about the way we admonish ourselves for it is natural that we will consistently fall short of our standards and ideals. But take some more extreme examples that go beyond self-admonishment. My Shakespeare professor once told the class about a wealthy surgeon he knew whose wife had left him. The wife let the surgeon keep the house, but she took all the furniture. When my professor visited the doctor three years after the divorce, he said he was surprised to find the doctor in a tattered robe and his house was empty, still unfurnished. As my professor tried to offer words of counsel to the doctor, the still grieving man, with dried saliva in his beard, was holding a calculator and whispering the cost of the furniture to himself over and over. My professor said, “The doctor was dead and there wasn’t a shrink big enough in this world who could help him.”
This doctor must have hated himself for not being able to shake himself loose from the sense of betrayal and self-pity that consumed him after his wife divorced him. Clearly, his reaction to the divorce was worse than the divorce itself.
Another example: My wife told me about a radio advice show in which a man called in and said upon driving home he could not go inside his house. He would park his car in the driveway and drink from a flask of whiskey while listening to the commotion between his wife and children inside. Only after being sufficiently brain-numbed from the alcohol could he muster the nerve to go inside his own house.
Clearly, in both examples, the two men hate their life. They despise themselves and they see themselves as enslaved men, shackled to demons they are convinced they cannot conquer. Furthermore, they see their suffering and life as completely meaningless and therefore they despise their lives.
Feeling trapped and having lost control of our lives in the extremes rendered above, we hate who we are and who we’ve become. There are other, equally compelling, reasons for coming to a point of self-loathing. Often we see ourselves as helpless to an addiction that is ruining our life. Or we hate ourselves for screwing up at a job interview because of anxieties. Or we have a childish view of success, all or nothing, which tells us we must ascend to an extravagant level of wealth and fame; otherwise we are merely ciphers unworthy of the esteem of others, including our own.
No matter what the scenario, we are challenged in Man’s Search for Meaning to not surrender to these forces that would cause us to despise ourselves. It is one of Frankl’s major tenets that we must reject the idea that we are completely helpless, lacking in self-control, and being subject to forces outside ourselves. We must not, he says, submit to powers that will steal our inner freedom. One of the dangerous consequences of submitting to those powers is that we will despise ourselves and come to believe, in error, that our lives are of no consequence. And why wouldn’t we come to this conclusion? Overcome with powerlessness and the sense of being a nonentity, what other emotions are there but ones of despair and self-hatred?
And yet Frankl makes it clear that self-loathing is no option. In fact, we must live a dignified life, the very opposite of one full of self-hatred. For Frankl, the way out of self-hatred is not self-introspection but by finding a higher purpose, a way to fill the void with meaning. Only by working toward a higher purpose can we change our fundamental character and eventually become worthy of our suffering.
One person who struggled, famously, to elevate himself from his obsessive, defeatist, self-scrutiny was St. Paul who wrote about how he did the very actions he hated and shunned the very actions he willed to perform. As he writes in Romans: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” He’s trapped in this predicament until he gives up trying to do good through his own efforts and surrenders to his God.
It appears that if we replace the word “God” with “Meaning,” we arrive at the same psychological process in Viktor Frankl’s account of how the sick, self-loathing soul is healed. In other words, we cannot stop hating ourselves unless we have a sort of conversion experience in which our focus is no longer on our loathsome self but on a higher purpose.
But by conversion I am not talking about embracing dogma, teaching, or doctrine. Frankl makes it clear that in our search for a higher purpose, Meaning is not handed down to us on a silver platter. Rather, we struggle through logotherapy to arrive at meaning based on our individual circumstances. As Frankl writes:
Logotherapy is neither teaching nor preaching. It is as far removed from logical reasoning as it is from moral exhortation. To put it figuratively, the role played by a logotherapist is that of an eye specialist rather than that of a painter. A painter tries to convey to us a picture of the world as he sees it; an ophthalmologist tries to enable us to see the world as it really is. The logotherapist’s role consists of widening and broadening the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible to him.
How do we see the world as it really is when we are blinded by disgust, self-loathing, and self-pity? Frankl explains that one way of seeing is having a sense of doing something meaningful in our future. As an example, Frankl writes about his weariness in the camps, struggling day to day, and reaching a point where he had hit a wall, as it were, at the point of giving up:
I became disgusted with the state of affairs which compelled me, daily and hourly, to think of only such trivial things. I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject. Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past. Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself. What does Spinoza say in his Ethics?—“Affectus, qui passio est, desinit esse passio simulatque eius claram et distintam formamus ideam.” Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.
What about the aforementioned doctor walking around his empty house in his robe as if he were living in a tomb? And what about the husband who needs to get drink before entering his house? How can these men get a “clear and precise picture” of their emotions? If they did have an objective grasp of not only their emotional state but how they were contributing to it, wouldn’t they then change? I don’t know. As a cynical person, I find it a difficult challenge to get an objective grasp of my own emotions, for it is the habit of a cynic to indulge in the masochistic pleasure in one’s despair and self-loathing. There is a huge amount of egotism in this kind of indulgence. Further, this ego-generated self-loathing is a compulsion and a habit, a very hard habit to break.
The compulsion for self-loathing reminds me of William James’ The Variety of Religious Experience in which he contrasts two types of people, the “healthy-minded” and the “sick soul.” The healthy-minded seem almost oblivious to the world’s suffering for they are intoxicated by love, compassion, and their own magnanimity. In contrast, the sick souls are mired and fatigued by the world’s misery and a sense of futility and have come to loathe their very existence. The fatigue these sick souls suffer is the result of a lower threshold for life’s woes and aggravations. As James explains:
Recent psychology has found a great use for the word “threshold” as a symbolic designation for the point at which one state of mind passes into another. Thus we speak of the threshold of a man’s consciousness in general, to indicate the amount of noise, pressure, or other outer stimulus which it takes to arouse his attention at all. One with a high threshold will doze through an amount of racket by which one with a low threshold would be immediately waked. Similarly, when one is sensitive to small differences in any order of sensation, we say he has a low “difference-threshold”—his mind easily steps over it into the consciousness of the differences in question. And just so we might speak of a “pain-threshold,” a “fear-threshold,” a “misery-threshold,” and find it quickly overpassed by the consciousness of some individuals, buy lying too high in others to be often reached by their consciousness. The sanguine and healthy-minded live habitually on the sunny side of their misery-line, the depressed and melancholy live beyond it, in darkness and apprehension. There are men who seem to have started life with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit; whilst others seem to have been born close to the pain-threshold, which the slightest irritants fatally send them over.
A survivor of the concentration camps, Viktor Frankl is neither healthy-minded, that is blind to the dark side of the human condition; but nor is he a sick soul, imprisoned by a sense of futility and meaninglessness. He is rather a self-described “Tragic Optimist,” one who believes we must acknowledge that suffering is an inevitable part of human existence and rather than run away from it, we must embrace it by becoming worthy of it. That we can choose to become worthy of our suffering is the optimism contained in Frankl’s belief system.
But I’m still stuck on the doctor with his calculator and the man gulping whiskey inside his parked car. And my own low misery-threshold. How do we get from Point A, being self-loathing souls prone to a sense of futility, to Point B, becoming full-fledged tragic optimists? As I write about Viktor Frankl’s tragic optimism, I find myself agreeing with it in intellect and spirit, but I can’t say my agreement with Frankl has changed me. If I’m going to be honest, I have to say I see a strength Frankl talks about in the face of suffering, a strength I cannot claim to have. Frankl lived what he said about suffering: “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
I can say aspire to be more like Viktor Frankl and I can say I desire to not be like the self-pitying doctor and the alcoholic husband. But in my heart I know my attitude toward suffering is not as robust as Frankl says it should be. Rather, I see myself as someone fixated on the Sisyphean view of the universe, a life in which every step we fight for to get up the hill is followed, much to our frustration, by three steps backwards. This sentiment is expressed in William James’ description of the “The Sick Soul,” as he quotes the German poet Goethe.
“I will say nothing,” writes Goethe in 1824, “against the course of my existence. But at bottom it has been nothing but pain and burden, and I can affirm that during the whole of my 75 years, I have not had four weeks of genuine well-being. It is but the perpetual rolling of a rock that must be raised up again forever.”
In my heart I do not celebrate suffering as an opportunity to strengthen my soul and to find meaning as Frankl does. Rather, suffering to me seems more like the kind depicted in the Myth of Sisyphus, the cursed figure who must push a boulder up a mountain only to have the boulder descend farther than he can push it upwards and all for nothing. At times I feel today trapped in a Sisyphean struggle as my wife and I raise our twin babies, now less than a year old old. People are always asking me what it’s like for me, a man in my late forties with no parenting experience, to be raising twins without the help of babysitters and nannies. I honestly have no answer. I’m too busy keeping my head above the water to reflect, to digest, or to contemplate. By the time my wife and I get the twins in their cribs at bedtime, around seven P.M., and make eight bottles of formula for the next day, we don’t answer the phone, we don’t talk, we don’t do anything except prepare for bedtime, around eight o’clock, so we can meet our babies’ needs throughout the night.
To make my struggle more formidable, my friends, and my brother in particular, are always warning me that as the babies get older the parenting struggles gets worse. “The problems you have with your babies go away,” these experienced parents tell me, “but those problems will be replaced with far greater challenges. You have no idea how brutal the psychological warfare is going to be. Your kids will imitate the worst behavior they see and, believe me, there will be a lot of bad kids to imitate from.”
Honestly, I’m not encouraged by these remarks. And I’m reminded of the very first thing the instructor told us at baby multiples class: “Your babies are parasites who will suck the life out of you until you die.”
Being overwhelmed and enervated by the Sisyphean nature of life is not the orientation Viktor Frankl wants us to have. We are, Frankl says, to joyfully embrace suffering when we know it’s committed to our higher purpose, such as raising children.
But Frankl’s orientation toward suffering presents a challenge to me since my hardwiring evidences that I’m entrenched in the Sisyphean or Futility worldview. For example, I was sixteen in the summer of 1978. The past few months had been tough. My parents separated, and eventually divorced, and my grandmother had just died of leukemia at the age of sixty-four. It was decided I’d spend the summer with my grandfather in San Pedro. He was working for his friend, Forbes, in Carson. Forbes owned a machine shop and my grandfather and I would load and deliver parts in a flatbed truck to industrial centers and ports around Los Angeles. I hated the work. Long back-busting days starting at six and ending around four after which I’d drag myself to the YMCA to workout. I’d come home and go straight to sleep, knowing the monotony would be repeated all over again. I remember one night in particular as I tossed and turned on the pull-out couch, I thought to myself: “So this is what’s it’s going to be like after I get out of school. A full-time job. Misery day in and day out. And for what? So I can go home, catch a workout, steal a little dinner before bedtime, and go to sleep so I’ll have enough energy to drag myself through the same drudgery the next day? And for what? Nothing, that’s what. Life is shit.” In my mind, all jobs were the same, more or less. You had to show up, you had responsibilities, and you were essentially doing something you didn’t want to do. So at the age of sixteen I had found the truth of existence: Life is shit.
And here I am many years later trying to teach Man’s Search for Meaning, but at my very core I am, and always have been, a cynic and a nihilist. What does this make me, a vegetarian butcher? Even more disturbing, I am a married man with twin baby girls. A man entrenched in such a cynical attitude is not a pleasant personality for his wife and two daughters to wake up to every day. What’s the cure for such an attitude? Viktor Frankl tells us it is meaning and purpose. What is my Meaning? And how do I get to this Promised Land?
18. How Do We Know What Life Demands from Us?
In his chapter “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” Viktor Frankl writes that a patient’s best path to healing and recovery does not result from immersing himself into his past demons but is based on finding a higher purpose for his future, namely, the meaning of his life. But Frankl warns that the therapist should avoid generalities. Regarding the question “What is the meaning of life?” Frankl writes:
I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms. For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out in a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.
If an epiphany is required to find meaning, as I believe it is, then indeed epiphanies are very personal, individual experiences. As I heard comedian Patton Oswalt say in a recent radio interview, and I paraphrase, we cannot go out and seek our epiphanies; rather our epiphanies find us, catching us by surprise. Likewise, Frankl writes that we do not go out and seek meaning. Rather, meaning seeks us. As Frankl explains:
As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.
The essence to understanding meaning, then, is understanding that the meaning quest entails that the tables are turned, as it were; there is a reversal in which we begin making demands about what we want from life but if we’re paying attention, it is life, not us, that makes the demands. According to Peter Kreeft’s analysis of meaning in his book Three Philosophies of Life, this reversal does indeed involve an epiphany or a revelation:
Viktor Frankl speaks of this experience of startling, sudden reversal of standpoint or perspective in the context of the concentration camps. He says in Man’s Search for Meaning that many of the prisoners learned to stop asking the question “What is the meaning of life?” and realized that life was asking them what their meaning was. Instead of continuing to ask “Life, why are you doing this to me? I demand an answer!” they realized that life was questioning them and demanding an answer—an answer in deeds, not just words. They had to respond to this question, this challenge, by being responsible.
These “sudden reversals” often change our original path. For example, I adopted my dog Gretchen from Rover Rescue, founded and operated by Cathy Rubin who before she died of cancer at the age of fifty-four committed her life to saving unwanted and abused animals. Her original career was that of a clinical psychologist. She had her own practice and also did forensic work for the courts, but after the Northridge Earthquake of 1994 she volunteered to help families find their dogs lost after the quake. But as her obituary states in The Easy Reader, a local newspaper, she had her own “reversal” in which life demanded something from her:
A turning point occurred in 1994 when she volunteered at an animal shelter after the Northridge earthquake, helping reunite lost pets with their owners. After a few months, the kennel still seemed as crowded as when it had begun, and she began to wonder. “I asked the kennel supervisor why it was still so crowded, and they explained to me that the shelters in LA are always crowded,” she recalled. “I had this thought that the shelter would be emptied out and that would be it. I found out that back then they were putting to sleep, in L.A. County, about 250 dogs a day.” Rubin was never a bystander. She became involved with the shelters, and soon made a huge impact. Oakland, who met her as a fellow volunteer in the shelters, said Rubin galvanized people into action. She introduced mobile adoption fairs, taking the animals out in public to find prospective new homes.
Cathy Rubin’s decision to respond to this demand changed many lives, including mine. I remember when my wife and I adopted Gretchen, a scared Finish Spitz, nine years ago. No one wanted her because she was so petrified of people that when approached she’d squat and pee. Some adopters returned her after no longer being able to deal with Gretchen’s “squatting” and cowering. But my wife Carrie and I, at Cathy’s prodding, adopted Gretchen and made her a happy and healthy dog. I remember Carrie telling me how our marriage was different, for the better, after we started caring for Gretchen. We argued less about trivial things. We were closer. And the nurturing of Gretchen planted the seeds in me that I, someone who never wanted to have children, might have something in me that could make me a viable father.
Cathy Rubin’s “turning point” saved over a thousand dogs from being euthanized and she changed the lives of thousands of people, myself included, as well.
Another example of someone who reached a point when meaning found him is Jeff Henderson, a world-class chef and mentor to young “high-risk” people who have lived lives of drugs and gang-banging. Henderson teaches these young individuals how to hone their cooking skills so that can find viable employment outside a life of crime. Henderson, who writes about his transformation in his memoir Cooked: My Journey from the Streets to the Stove, is a former drug dealer who lived in denial about the pernicious effects his drug dealing had on society until he saw something in prison. An inmate swallowed a balloon with heroin inside and when the balloon burst inside his intestines, the other inmates impeded anyone from getting the man medical help and the man died. Henderson saw that drug addiction would make people give up all their scruples and allow something like that to happen. Seeing that he was accountable for his actions, he no longer saw himself as a victim and in prison he started to find ways to improve himself. It was during this phase of his life that he fell in love with cooking and found that his cooking could win people over in a good way. His behavior helped him get out of prison after almost ten years and when he got out, he struggled to become, eventually, head chef at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. His mentorship was televised on the Food Network as The Chef Jeff Project. That’s how I found out about the book and soon after used it on my freshman composition syllabus. In my twenty-five years of teaching that class, no book has ever received so much praise from the students. Jeff Henderson didn’t so much choose his meaning, as Frankl writes. Meaning chose him.
As someone who wants to understand Man’s Search for Meaning, and to live it, so that I can teach it with a certain integrity in the classroom, what is my epiphany? What reversal in my life has revealed what life demands from me? I can’t answer these questions with certainty. I can only look at clues. For one, I taught Man’s Search for Meaning five years ago and while the students generally said good things about the book, I felt I had done a mediocre job teaching it and soon after I replaced it with another book on my syllabus. Then a few months ago, my conscience nagged me. Why did I give up teaching such a great book? Why couldn’t I do a better job of teaching it? What would I have to do to be more effective at communicating Frankl’s ideas? And so I sit here writing this book. Do I equate the writing of this book with my great epiphany, my great reversal? I resist saying yes because to do so would be presumptuous and presumptuousness on my part is not going to help me listen to what life demands of me. But I will say this: I know a lot of college instructors, myself included, who scratch our hair out trying to choose the books that will have the greatest impact on our students. Maybe we don’t choose the books. Maybe the books choose us.
19. Why Can’t Meaning be Presented to Us on a Silver Platter?
When I was nineteen perusing several Franz Kafka books at my university library I came across this quote: “Truth is what every man needs in order to live, but can obtain or purchase from no one. Each man must reproduce it for himself from within, otherwise he must perish. Life without truth is not possible. Truth is perhaps life itself.” The quote slapped me in the face, or to use another Kafka quote, it was the “frozen ax that cracked the frozen ocean” in my brain. Thirty years later this warning that we must find truth inside ourselves or perish seems relevant to the question of the meaning quest in the context of Frankl’s book. We are, Frankl urges us, to find meaning without the preaching and dogma of others. We must find it in ourselves. This is no option but essential to our survival. Manly years later I’d read something attributed to Jesus in the a newly found Gospel quoted in Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
Both Kafka and the Gospel of Thomas tell us that truth, and therefore meaning, must come from within. And according to Frankl it is for us to decide what meaning is when it comes knocking on our door. But how do we know when meaning chooses us and as to what kind of meaning? Based on what authority? And can this meaning be delivered to us on a silver platter? The answer to the last question is no, meaning cannot be delivered to us in a package neatly wrapped with a bow on top. We are not according to Frankl to search for meaning in the abstract. Nor are we to derive meaning and “moral exhortation” from a master, a guru, or a therapist, or some other authority figure who dictates what is best for us. The dangers of looking for meaning outside ourselves are several, not the least of which we too often abnegate responsibility for our own decisions and never mature as a result; we find that embracing doctrines may make sense to us intellectually but not give us the power to change; and that if the authority later changes and contradicts his or her doctrine, the very one we came to embrace, we will be left feeling betrayed and lost and find ourselves looking for some other guru to take the responsibility of finding meaning for us.
Frankl argues that we understand for ourselves what our responsibilities are. In the realm of therapy, specifically logotherapy, Frankl writes:
Logotherapy tries to make the patient fully aware of his own responsibleness; therefore, it must leave to him the option for what, to what, or to whom he understands himself to be responsible. That is why a logotherapist is the least tempted of all psychotherapists to impose value judgments on his patients, for he will never permit the patient to pass to the doctor the responsibility of judging.
This principle that the patient must find his own meaning, that he is responsible for defining his own meaning and his ensuing behavior is the central argument of psychotherapist Sheldon B. Kopp’s If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! As he explains the dynamics between the patient, the “pilgrim,” and the therapist, the “guru,” he warns that the patient’s first instinct is to be a child and let the therapist, acting as a parent, take control of the patient’s problems and that if the therapist were to do this he would be perpetuating the patient’s core problem, of never maturing, of never developing, of never emerging from his childhood fantasy of being rescued. As Kopp writes:
And so, it is not astonishing that, though the patient enters therapy insisting that he wants to change, more often than not, what he really wants is to remain the same and to get the therapist to make him feel better. His goal is to become a more effective neurotic, so that he may have what he wants without risking getting into anything new. He prefers the security of known misery to the misery of unfamiliar territory.
The patient appears resistant, then, to taking responsibility for his own life, for his own actions, for seeking his own change, even if change is ostensibly why he is in therapy. His real motives, however, are to remain a child and throw the responsibility of decision making on the therapist. As Kopp continues: “Given this all too human failing, the beginning pilgrim-patient may approach the therapist like a small child going to a good parent whom he insists must take care of him. It is as if he comes to the office saying, ‘My world is broken, and you have to fix it.’” Moreover, the patient wishes to be saved by an Absolute Truth packaged neatly and easy to understand in all its parts. As Kopp writes: “The seeker comes in hope of finding something definite, something permanent, something unchanging upon which to depend. He is offered instead the reflection that life is just what it seems to be, a changing, ambiguous, ephemeral mixed bag. It may often be discouraging, but it is ultimately worth it, because that’s all there is.” From Kopp’s perspective, we are not rescued by any definite truths that may be handed to us and even if such truths were explained to us they would not rescue us from our problems. Nor would they give us the power to change.
In logotherapy, as with the search for meaning, we cannot be rescued or remain the type of person who seeks to be rescued. This is a child’s fantasy. As a fantasy, it is the orientation emotionally-arrested people have toward any authority figure, be it a therapist, a guru, or even God.
Our belief in God does not makes us emotionally arrested, according to Erich Fromm writing in The Art of Loving. It’s the kind of belief we have, or more specifically, the type of orientation we have toward God. In the mature orientation, Fromm writes that God is the one who says to Moses, “I-am-becoming is my name.” Fromm explains this title this way:
The most adequate translation of the sentence would be: tell them that “my name is nameless.” The prohibition to make any image of God, to pronounce his name in vain, eventually to pronounce his name at all, aims at the same goal, that of freeing man from the idea that God is a father, that he is a person. In the subsequent theological development, the idea is carried further in the principle that one must not even give God any positive attribute. To say of God that he is wise, strong, good implies again that he is a person; the most I can do is to say what God is not, to state negative attributes, to postulate that he is not limited, not unkind, not unjust. The more I know what God is not, the more knowledge I have of God.
Fromm argues that as we become more mature and more free from our childhood fantasies, we see God more and more as described above, as the negation of an anthropomorphic tribal chief and instead becomes an ideal for our highest aspirations: “Then God becomes what he potentially is in monotheistic theology, the names One, an inexpressible stammer, referring to the unity underlying the phenomenal universe, the ground of all existence; God becomes truth, love, justice. God is I, inasmuch as I am human.”
In contrast, there is a childish version of monotheism, according to Fromm, the one in which we remain shackled by our fantasy of being rescued:
Quiet evidently this evolution from the anthropomorphic to the pure monotheistic principle makes all the difference to the nature of the love of God. The God of Abraham can be loved, or feared, as a father, sometimes his forgiveness, sometimes his anger being the dominant aspect. Inasmuch as God is the father, I am the child. I have not emerged fully from the autistic wish for omniscience and omnipotence. I have not yet acquired the objectivity to realize my limitations as a human being, my ignorance, my helplessness. I still claim, like a child, that there must be a father who rescues me, who watches me, who punishes me, a father who likes me when I am obedient, who is flattered by my praise and angry because of my disobedience. Quite obviously, the majority of people have, in their personal development, not overcome this infantile stage, and hence the belief in God to most people is the belief in a helping father—a childish illusion.
It appears then that for Fromm religion is not intrinsically good or bad. The real issue is our orientation toward religion. Either we have an infantile notion of God or we have a more mature version in which we don’t so much “talk God” but “live God.”
Just as we can have an either infantile or adult orientation toward religion, so can we have these two opposite relationships with our gurus, therapists, philosophers, etc. All their doctrines mean little to us unless the truth is born from within ourselves. Listening to someone tell us the “truth” may have only limited value if any value at all. As Kopp writes:
The Truth does not make people free. Facts do not change attitudes. If the guru is dogmatic, all that he evokes in his pilgrim/disciples is their stubbornly resistant insistence on clinging to those unfortunate beliefs that at least provide the security of known misery, rather than an openness to the risk of the unknown or the untried. That is why that Renaissance Magus, Paracelsus, warned that the guru should avoid simply revealing “the naked truth. He should use images, allegories, figures, wondrous speech, or other hidden, roundabout ways.”
Change from a meaningless life to meaningful one does not come from passively listening or writing down the truths that our chosen authorities and experts tell us. Change comes from the war within ourselves. Frankl has written about this war all throughout his book, the war between the “provisional” selfish existence doomed to the “existential vacuum” and the meaningful life in which we become worthy of our sufferings. In Sheldon Kopp’s many years as a psychotherapist, he has learned that therapy is precisely overlooking this war within his patients: “The pilgrim, whether psychotherapy patient or earlier wayfarer, is at war with himself, in a struggle with his own nature. All of the truly important battles are waged within the self.” As the patient finds more meaning, his lower self, as it were, loses power and the internal war subsides as the patient’s “true nature” triumphs. As Kopp explains the patient’s desired evolution:
If he ever achieves his true nature, gets beyond the point of struggle, he may wonder why the therapist-guru did not tell him at once the simple truths that would have made him free. But as a therapist, I know that though the patient learns, I do not teach. Furthermore, what is to be learned is too elusively simple to be grasped without struggle, surrender, and experiencing of how it is.
Our only real change, then, comes from undergoing this war with ourselves and experiencing the truth for ourselves. Dogma is worthless.
Similarly, Frankl avoids ladling dogmas over his patients and tries to help them change themselves. In his logotherapy chapter he presents this challenge: “Let us now consider what we can do if a patient asks what the meaning of his life is.” The question cannot be answered in the abstract or with a generality. Instead, Frankl wants his patients to listen to what life demands of them. In the same way, Kopp wants his patients to be quiet and learn to listen. However, their urgent, anxious nature makes it difficult to listen to that which might help them. As Kopp describes the patient-pilgrim this way:
Starting out as he does in the urgency of his mission, it is difficult for the pilgrim to learn this patient yielding. This is to be seen in the old Zen story of the three young pupils whose Master instructs them that they must spend a time in complete silence if they are to be enlightened. “Remember, not a word from any of you,” he admonishes. Immediately, the first pupil says, “I shall not speak at all.” “How stupid you are,” says the second. “Why did you talk?” “I’m the only one who has not spoken,” concludes the third pupil.
Finding the truth from within, then, is in part learning how to listen to oneself. This listening is similar to what Frankl says about the therapist—the logotherapist—helping the patient become aware of his unique responsibilities: “Logotherapy tries to make the patient fully aware of his own responsibleness; therefore, it must leave to him the option for what, to what, or to whom he understands himself to be responsible.”
In agreement with Kopp’s thesis that the patient must heal himself, Frankl emphasizes in logotherapy that it is “neither teaching nor preaching.” Rather it is up to the patient to define his responsibilities: “It is, therefore,” Frankl writes, “up to the patient to decide whether he should interpret his life task as being responsible to society or to his own conscience.”
So far we’ve seen that the danger of trying to find meaning from external authority is dangerous because looking for absolutes and looking to be rescued impedes us from growing beyond the infant stage; listening to neatly packaged doctrines has little or now power to change us. Change comes from immersing ourselves in the battle within. There’s a third danger: Your guru, your leader, your authority might change his mind. He might move on to something else and leave you hanging. I’m reminded of an entry in Camus’ Notebooks. He writes about a famous philosopher who gains a huge following from a book he wrote and then later in life he says he was all wrong. What effect would that have on his followers? They would have been better off having found the truth in themselves rather than hanging the responsibility on this philosopher. His proclamation that everything he said was a fraud would surely incite their wrath because now their responsibility for finding meaning has been placed where it belongs—on them.
This need to place responsibility for others shows a lack of freedom and worse a fear of freedom. The failure to assert freedom, like the failure to find meaning, results in self-destruction and explains why Kafka and the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas warn that if we do not find the truth within ourselves we will perish. To find the truth in ourselves requires maturity, an evolution beyond our infant stage. This drive to mature and become ourselves and can turn against us if it does not grow. As Erich Fromm explains this self-destruction in his book Escape from Freedom:
It would seem that the amount of destructiveness to be found in individuals is proportionate to the amount to which expansiveness of life is curtailed. By this we do not refer to individual frustrations of this or that instinctive desire but to the thwarting of the whole life, the blockage of spontaneity of the growth and expression of man's sensuous, emotional, and intellectual capacities. Life has an inner dynamism of its own; it tends to grow, to be expressed, to be lived. It seems that if this tendency is thwarted the energy directed toward life undergoes a process of decomposition and changes into energies directed toward destruction. In other words: the drive for life and the drive for destruction are not mutually independent factors but are in a reversed interdependence. The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life. Those individual and social conditions that make for suppression of life produce the passion for destruction that forms, so to speak, the reservoir from which the particular hostile tendencies--either against others or against oneself--are nourished.
Logotherapy, then, is about finding the truth inside ourselves. It’s about defining our own meaning. Dogmas and doctrines from therapists, gurus and the like are worthless. The logotherapist tries to open our eyes to our possibilities and we are called to find what meaning life demands of us. To do this we have to have a level of maturity and listening and openness. If we fail to mature in this way, we will perish.
20. When Is Selfishness Vital to Meaning?
To be worthy of our sufferings Frankl says we must take up our cross to find meaning and fulfillment. His Christian metaphor establishes a belief in compassion and a certain self-sacrifice, a call to duty in this world. But does the mature, fulfilled person always behave in a selfless way? Can such a person ever be selfish? To answer these questions it seems important to distinguish two kinds of selfishness. There is one kind in which is self-destructive, to be sure. This destructive type of selfishness leads to isolation and moral dissolution. For example, in Thailand they have a name for a certain foreigner who arrives to their country to shop for sex. As Eric Weiner writes in The Geography of Bliss this type of person who is driven to consume pleasure above everything else becomes like a mindless rat pressing levers to release pleasure-eliciting electrodes in a Canadian lab experiment:
That pretty much describes the life of a foreign man living in Bangkok. Except instead of pressing a lever, he’s digging into his wallet for a few more baht. The same principle is at work, though. The same mindless obedience to their pleasure centers. Yet if pleasure were the path to happiness then the farang, the foreigner, in Thailand would achieve bliss, and so would the Canadian rats. Yet neither has. Happiness is more than animal pleasure.
Indeed, Frankl argues we must elevate our lives beyond an animal existence or we will live in a sort of self-centered hell. Weiner describes this hellish figure, the “sexpat,” addicted to an “excess of pleasure”: “The sexpat is easily identified by his sunburned face, huge beer belly, and generally unkempt appearance. The sexpat knows that as long as his wallet is in reasonably good shape, the rest of him can fall to pieces.”
But is all selfishness a sort of drive for “mindless pleasure” that makes us descend into the sexpat’s moral dissolution? Can there be any forms of selfishness, like self-love, that are healthy? In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm says that are deeply rooted cultural biases against healthy types of self-love and he traced this unfair stigma to both religious thinker John Calvin and Sigmund Freud. Fromm explains:
It is assumed that to the degree to which I love myself I do not love others, that self-love is the same as selfishness. This view goes far back in Western thought. Calvin speaks of self-love as “a pest.” Freud speaks of self-love in psychiatric terms but, nevertheless, his value judgment is the same as that of Calvin. For him self-love is the same as narcissism, the turning of the libido toward oneself. Narcissism is the earliest stage in human development, and the person who in later life has returned to this narcissistic stage is incapable of love; in the extreme case he is insane. Freud assumes that love is the manifestation of libido, and that the libido is either turned toward others—love; or toward oneself—self-love. Love and self-love are thus mutually exclusive in the sense that the more there is of one, the less there is of the other. If self-love is bad, it follows that unselfishness is virtuous.
But Fromm argues that we cannot love others if we don’t love ourselves just like we can’t really love our own family if we don’t have love for the stranger. In the realm of loving there is no compartmentalizing. In contrast, the person who cannot love himself or the stranger, the logic goes, cannot love himself either. He cannot love, period.
So, then, there is indeed a type of selfish person, the narcissist, but there is a sort of self-love that might be confused with selfishness but is not selfishness at all. There is in fact a type of self-interest that is healthy for both the self-interested person and the people who interact with that person. For a case in point, I am thinking about Sheldon Kopp defending his own particular selfishness or self-interest, which is a good thing. He writes about this selfishness by contrasting it with a Jewish tale, The Legend of the Lamed-Vov. The name refers to a rare type of human being who possesses a “heartbreaking depth of caring” that makes them, the “Just Men,” hyper-sensitive to the world’s suffering: “So inconsolable are the Just Men in their anguish about human suffering, that even God Himself cannot comfort them.” This is a type of selfless altruism in the extreme and Kopp argues that to exercise such an extreme empathy does no one any good. For the person is acting on a sort of neurosis and guilt: The person helps others out of a sense of obligation and this type of “help” bears no fruit. Erich Fromm writes about the same kind of neurosis in The Art of Loving in his description of the “selfless mother” who suffocates her children with attention but this attention is not love and it only serves to infect her children with anxieties. In the same way, Kopp says we are not well served in taking up our Cross like the Just Men in the Legend of the Lamed-Vov who constantly weep at the suffering of the world and who tremble at the prospect of killing a house fly. In contrast, we are better served exercising a healthy self-interest as Kopp, a therapist, does in the policy of whom he picks for his client list:
As a psychotherapist, I am no longer willing to accept anyone as my patient to whose pain I do not feel vulnerable. If someone comes to me for help whom I do not experience as the sort of person who is likely to become personally important to me, I send him away. I am no Lamed-Vov. I do not live for God’s sake, but my own. Every hour spent treating a particular patient is an hour of my life as well. Much of my life is over. Some of what is left is already filled with the emptiness of my loneliness, that pain in each of us that can from time to time be eased, but from which there is no final escape, save death. . . . It seems foolhardy not to try to take what care of myself I can, and so I choose to work only with patients about whom I feel hopeful in sharing my time. There are some patients whom I believe I could help, but whom I send away nonetheless, feeling that being with them would not be good for me. If I am not able to be open to their pain, I may perhaps find professional satisfaction in working with them, but no personal joy. It’s a bad bargain, and one I am no longer willing to make.
In other words, if Kopp doesn’t have a passion for a particular patient, he sends that patient away. He is, to borrow from that old adage, being cruel to be kind. He is saving his passion for those patients for whom he feels the therapy will be viable and not wasting the other patients’ time, and his own, for therapy sessions that will most likely be exercises in futility. Knowing what are passions are, and our limitations, is for us to decide. Acting on guilt or some obligation to an abstract principle in the absence of passion usually ends badly. I’m thinking of the much publicized divorce of Sandra Tsing Loh who writes books about parenting. In her autobiographic essay, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” about her divorce, published in The Atlantic, she writes about how did not have the energy or the desire to keep her romance alive with all her busy mother duties and in the face of her divorce she feels disillusioned about the institution of marriage and warns people to think twice before they embark on this legally-binding contract. As an abstraction, marriage provides us with a glorious narrative about how we grow as human beings. Through monogamy and through the self-abnegation and sacrifice we conduct for our children and spouse, we grow beyond anything we could ever imagine as single people and we experience a transcendent joy. For Sandra Tsing Loh this narrative was a myth and she can not muster the passion for being married to her husband any more.
In our quest for meaning, even with Frankl’s call to carry our cross, we have to be honest about where our passion lies. No, we should not be passionate about living the life of the sexpat who languishes through Thailand in a state of moral decay as he feeds his “passion,” which is really no passion at all but an addiction. But nor should be error in the other extreme, neurotically obeying a guilty conscience and obliging ourselves to projects we for which we feel no ardor or which are not suitable for our temperament. By understanding our limitations and the areas that we our passions are lackluster we do both others and ourselves a favor by being selfish in this regard. As Kopp explains how his “selfishness” also helps his patient-pilgrims:
Research in self-disclosure supports my own experience that the personal openness of the guru facilitates and invites the increased openness of the pilgrim. But I operate not to help the patient, but to help myself. It is from the center of my own being that I am moved to share my tale. That it turns out to be so helpful to the patient is gravy. Whenever I make the mistake of giving a piece of myself in order to get the patient to share more of himself, he balks at the shoddy, self-righteous manipulative quality of my efforts. In recent years, most often instead I trust my feelings, and do what I feel like doing without trying to control its effect on the patient. When an untrusting patient speculates on whether I am being genuine or just using psychotherapeutic techniques, he finds me totally uninterested in the distinction. I have not wondered whether I am being genuine or technical for almost as long as I have given up wondering whether I am being selfish or unselfish. What’s the difference? How can the answers to such questions possibly help me? I try to be guided by Carl Whitaker’s advice to feed the patient not when he is crying that he is hungry, but only when I feel the milk overflowing from my own nipples.
If you find the overflowing nipples metaphor a bit heavy-handed, let it suffice to say we are distinguishing selfishness as a form of narcissism with selfishness as a form of self-knowledge in which our recognition of our passions and limitations help us avoid futile situations with others so that we don’t waste their time and ours.
21. How Does Self-Effacing Humor Lead to Meaning?
One of Frankl’s tenets is that We must confront our fears and anxieties before they consume us. One way to deflate the power of these fears and anxieties is by distancing ourselves from those emotions and seeing them more objectively and clearly. Quoting from Spinoza, Frankl writes: “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.” One of the logotherapy methods Frankl uses to diminish the power of fear, anxiety, and shame is the practice of “paradoxical intention.” Frankl writes:
Logotherapy bases its technique called “paradoxical intention” on the twofold fact that fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes. In German I described paradoxical intention as early as 1939. In this approach the phobic patient is invited to intend, even if only for a moment, precisely that which he fears.
Frankl gives the example of a physician whose fear of sweating makes him sweat as would the anxiety during his failed attempt at suppressing the perspiration. Through “paradoxical intention” Frankl helped the physician change his response to his sweating. Instead of trying to suppress it, he tried to actually encourage it to hyperbolic proportions. As Frankl writes: “A week later he returned to report that whenever he met anyone who triggered his anticipatory anxiety, he said to himself, ‘I only sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!’ The result was that, after suffering from his phobia for four years, he was able, after a singe session, to free himself permanently of it within one week.”
The physician’s experience reminds me of something my college professor Rodolfo Galan once said to the class, “You can’t see the humor of your situation when you’re immersed in the boiling water.” Logotherapy is an attempt to use humor, however self-effacing, to get us out of the boiling water and see, objectively, the absurdity and comic grotesqueness of our anxiety-producing problem. Does this technique work for me? The short answer is yes and no. Yes, the technique helps me laugh at myself, but, no, trying to encourage specific anxieties does not curtail them. Here are some examples: I am very hard on myself and will indulge in self-admonishments that are so severe that I am reduced to a pulp. So now I try to encourage these self-rebukes by imagining a drill sergeant pimp-slapping me every time I do something incompetent or inefficient. If I spill baby formula on the counter, I get slapped. If I forget to run the dishwasher at night, I get slapped. If I put too many raisins on my oatmeal, I get slapped. The image of the drill sergeant makes me laugh at myself but my proclivity for self-laceration remains unchanged.
Another example, would be my huge ring of keys for the college. I have an obsessive anxiety about losing them because I did lose them over ten years ago. Replacing them was a nightmare, a long process that included going to campus police and filling out paper work for each missing key. Worst, I was teaching part-time at a university and the key that I lost in that case required even more extensive procedures. I had to drive to this obscure building, called “Plant Ops,” which that could have been a demonic-haunted house in a Stephen King novel and report to a mustached gentleman with a curt manner who gave me my replacement key only after glaring at me as if my losing my keys was a sign of being criminally negligent. In the aftermath of this ordeal, I put my keys on a huge silver chain and bought a new school bag, a duffel bag with a mesh zip-up pocket specifically for my keys. My anxiety is so bad at losing those keys that when I park at work and open my trunk, there is a moment, the time that elapses between picking up my bag from the trunk and placing the strap over my shoulder, that I fear the keys will fall out of the mesh pocket. To encourage this anxiety, I now imagine a woman’s voice, the kind you would hear talking to you in those expensive cars, saying, “Trunk is open, keys are vulnerable,” over and over again, until I’ve placed the bag over my shoulder and feel the cluster of keys in the mesh pocket. Then the voice stops. This little game I play when opening my trunk is amusing and helps me laugh at myself, but my key-loss anxiety remains as strong as ever.
I’ve tried to get over other fears with little success. To look at another strange example, I cannot look into the face of Burt Lahr’s Cowardly Lion without recoiling in revulsion as if I were looking into the eyes of Satan. This fear of Burt Lahr’s made-up face began in childhood and seeing it today produces the same anxiety. I’ve tried forcing myself to stare at the face on the TV screen while mocking the lion’s lugubrious braggadocio but my I’m still struck by the dreadful sense that I am looking at the physical manifestation of Evil.
Using “paradoxical intention” hasn’t helped my nightmares either. Reading horror novels or watching scary films before bedtime does not cause the nightmares to go away. However, to be fair to Frankl, my nightmares aren’t any worse for having read a horror novel or for watching a horror film.
Nor has “paradoxical intention” curbed my vanity. When I workout at the gym, I always “compete” against other people who flank me on the other treadmills, never letting them go faster than I am going. One method of “paradoxical intention” I use, trying to actually encourage my vanity, is this: When I’m running on the treadmill I imagine that powerful, tentacle-headed aliens have invaded the planet. As the extraterrestrials have announced over their spaceship’s PA system, their evil scheme is to enslave the human race unless I can run ten miles on the treadmill in under eighty minutes. Only by accomplishing this grueling task can the human race be spared all sorts of tortures and degradations and remain free to control its own destiny. The fate of humanity is in my hands! With the world’s survival at stake, my treadmill run is televised on every TV station on the planet, with the sober-voiced Ted Koppel announcing this high-stake contest. On the bottom of the TV screens are digital read-outs of the minutes and seconds remaining as I run faster and faster in a race to save my fellow humans. To prod me along with spirit and cheer, there is a huge audience nearby. Their relentless screeching and pleading is nothing less than a deafening, ear-splitting chorus. I am their hero.
This grandiose fantasy has not curbed my vanity. It’s only served to make me worry about myself and wonder if I should get my head examined and possibly sign up for a soul transplant. Nor has “paradoxical intention” abated my friend’s own battle with grandiosity. My friend (who shall remain nameless) who is talented doing wood work likes to pretend his has his own TV show when working in the garage. As he explained to me in an email:
I work with a lot of wood, building furniture and decorations, using saws and measuring. As I work, I am constantly—out loud occasionally but mainly in my head—explaining every step, cut, and careful measurement to the studio audience and those watching at home. “This leg needs to be thirty-four and one-quarter inches. That’s the thirty-five inches of the height of the table minus the three-quarters thickness of the tabletop. Now I’ll do the same to the other three legs.” I really have to hit the Bostonian pronunciation of “quarter,” lest the audience see through my mask.
My friend’s self-mockery, like my own, hasn’t curbed his need for an audience.
Finally, I have an anxiety about friendships. When I meet someone who shares my intellectual interests and I see a friendship brewing, I become anxious that eventually I will be revealed as a fraud: The person will find me too needy, too cowardly, and too weird and too burdened with emotional baggage to be worthy as a friend. This idea that we are appealing in the beginning and then lose our cachet reminds me of a metaphor I heard a sports writer make about the athlete who seems so good but then melts down: This writer used the metaphor of “leaking oil.” Once the oil leaks, your true nature shows and it turns out you’re a lemon.
In this case, the use of “paradoxical intention” would require me to “leak oil” upfront so there’d be no surprises. I can tell you from experience that when I encourage my more eccentric qualities to show up early, this logotherapy technique does not work. You end up overwhelming people.
So in general principle I agree with Frankl’s “paradoxical intention” as a way of learning to laugh at ourselves as a first step in unshackling ourselves from our crippling anxieties and other personality defects. But I found the method doesn’t erase my undesired behavior as easily as Frankl’s example of the sweaty doctor who by trying to perspire no longer does.
My failure at incorporating this bit of behavior modification points to the larger question: Did immersing myself into Man’s Search for Meaning and writing a book, from a cynic’s perspective, help me overcome the “existential vacuum” and become more worthy of my suffering? That, of course, is the million-dollar question.
22. Conclusion: Did I Become Worthy?
As my book comes to a close, I’m feeling rather cynical about my prospects for being worthy of teaching Man’s Search for Meaning and perhaps a bit depressed. While I learned a lot about Viktor Frankl’s standards for being worthy of our suffering, I feel more inadequate now than I did before I started the book, perhaps because now I know what’s expected of me. Almost done with the book, I don’t feel any more heroic. In fact, I’m stuck with that image of George Costanza dressed as clown for a children’s birthday party scramming out of the house before anyone else when the kitchen fire alarm goes off. And I’m stuck with thinking of Rodney Dangerfield and his pronouncement that we never really change. And I’m still stuck with that image of myself as an “oil leaker.”
I feel like I was a fool for believing that if I sat down and wrote about Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that has meant so much to me since I was in my early twenties, that I might become a better person, a more meaningful person, but as I sit here I’m sense the “existential vacuum.” Worse, now that I’ve crystallized the kind of life I must lead, as explained by Frankl, I’m overcome with the huge gulf between how I live and the ideal life that I now comprehend more than ever.
Even though I might have a better grasp of Frankl’s book better than anyone in my neighborhood, my life is no different than theirs: Like me, they work for a living and then they return to their suburban homes. In the evenings, you can see the flickering images of large-screen TVs in everyone’s living room windows. After we’re finished with our favorite programs, we sit at our computers and shop on the Internet for clothes and jewelry that we lusted after while watching TV.
After writing this book and after immersing myself inside Viktor Frankl’s urgent truths, how am I any different than anyone else?
Maybe that’s the point. I’m not different. I’m not better. I’m not special. Now that I’m a self-styled Viktor Frankl expert, am I supposed to be holding court in my neighborhood? Did I see myself sitting on my front porch while my neighbors approach me for advice on how they can find Meaning and become worthy of their sufferings?
If anything, they’re probably better than I am even though most of them have never read or even heard of Viktor Frankl. I doubt they would score as high as I do on the Cynical Scale or the Self-Pity Scale or the Needy Scale. So it’s not I who should be teaching them about life’s most important issues; it’s they who should be teaching me.
But in spite of these cynical, self-deprecating thoughts, the inversion of my more grandiose ones, I have to concede that there was some substantial value to writing this book. For one, I understand Frankl’s material more than I did before and that will make me more effective when I teach it next semester. I learned that our free will is very limited and that we have a very small window to act before we are taken over by our worst impulses. I learned that the type of positive attitude Frankl is talking about, to be worthy of our suffering, is far different than the kind of positive façade that is used to manipulate others. I learned that Man’s Search for Meaning is a very religious book in the demands it puts on us, but that it is does not require subscribing to any religious faith. I learned that not all meaning is equal. The meaning one person finds may conflict with another person’s meaning and Frankl does not give us an Absolute Authority to determine which truth is superior to another. Related the previous point, I learned that if there is an absolute in Frankl’s book, it’s the psychological process from apathy to meaning and vice versa. And pushing ourselves towards meaning is in fact a war we must wage against ourselves. Furthermore, because often our meaning will conflict with someone else’s, we have to understand that we cannot enjoy the comfort of consensus and agreement. People will always be against our beliefs and ideals.
I also learned that Man’s Search for Meaning is not a bible that gives us all our answers and comforts us with the sense that all of life’s answers have been presented to us on a silver platter. Man’s Search for Meaning is not an authoritarian book. It is more humanitarian in that Frankl writes about how we must find the truth for ourselves.
Finally, I learned that adhering to Frankl’s principles is not an all or nothing proposition. My desire to conform to the ways of Mean’s Search for Meaning have not miraculously transformed me into Mr. Meaning. Rather, I am a work in progress.