Monday, November 23, 2015

Living With Meaning

The Search

Rich Inner Life: When the present is dark, drawing from the past can be essential to surviving the suffering of denial. Viktor Frankl [1905–1997] writes in Man’s Search For Meaning (1946): “The intensification of his inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past. when given free rein, his imagination played with past events, often not important ones, but minor happenings and trifling things. His nostalgic memory glorified them and they assumed a strange character. Their world and their existence seemed very distant and the spirit reached out for them longingly” (37)
Photo Credit: ©Perry J. Greenbaum, 2015 

After reading Man’s Search for Meaning*, Viktor Frankl’s 1946 account of his internment at four concentration camps, including at the notorious Auschwitz, I find myself agreeing with his views on what it is that provides the means to endure suffering. It is to have a hope in the future, to find a meaning or purpose of life, which can eventually lead to contentment and happiness. This first starts with meaning; it takes a certain faith in the future, to hope against hope, that some future (personal) redemption will arrive.

This is not at all the same as the pursuit of happiness or hedonism or some other narcissistic or ego-driven pursuit. Not at all. The end result of such a pursuit is an inner life that is bereft of depth and richness.

A rich inner life, notably if it contains sparks of spiritual ideas, can help a person find meaning in spite of any current suffering. It can harness hope and provide the means to overcome obstcales. It can also help find a vision for the future in which one can work towards fulfilling. The past can provide a necessary place of refuge, but its purpose is for the most part as a means of survival to counter the meaningless of the present. It is the future where hope can be found, and it is in this place where the individual can make the necessary changes to find meaning. It takes a personal responsibility, where one is actively involved in bettering oneself.

For Frankl, he determined that meaning was found in helping others find meaning. Frankl, a psychiatrist and neurologist from Vienna, is known for logotherapy, a therapy based on finding meaning in life. This method, following on the work of Freud and Adler, is considered the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy. In a sense, it is the “Will to Meaning” and not the “Will For Pleasure” and not the “Will For Power.”

No normal person seeks suffering, but when it does occur, how a person bears his burden, even the greatest trials, will (eventually and hopefully) inform him on what matters. In this sense, suffering can allow an individual, as a minimum, to see the benefit of its lack, thus impelling and encouraging him to work toward a life of meaning and of doing good. A life of meaning and purpose can act as an antidote to existential nihilism, which is prevalent today among the youth— many of whom are drifting through life without any understanding or hope or any genuine religious belief. Such is a superficial, provisional existence often filled with despair and marked with escapism. [For an excellent philosophical insight, see André Glucksmann’s Dostoïevski à Manhattan (2002).

After human survival, Frankl discovered, while in the midst of such inhumanity, what was essential to man. Humans can live without many things, can survive many indignities, can be deprived of possessions, sleep and even a name, but without this deep connection to an another (or others), he is bereft of something essential. Not surprising, it is love, the kind of which poets write sonnets:
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. (35)
Love is more than an emotion, and it more than a feeling; it is undoubtedly not merely a biochemical reaction occurring in the brain (neuroscience might have precision, but it lacks poetry). A lack of love often accompanies a loss of hope. It is true that, without hope, one flounders in a sea of apathy, going through the motions of living a “provisional existence” (68). Such is a suffering in itself, a denial of life. (I think it is important today to give the young (and the old) some measure of hope in the future. This is not only the job of parents, but of teachers, religious leaders, business leaders and political leaders.)

There were many dark days inside the concentration camps of Nazi Germany; some days were darker than others. In this passage, Frankl speaks about hope, even when hope is hard to find, during a speech he have his fellow prisoners:
I asked the poor creatures who listened to me attentively in the darkness of that hut to face up to the seriousness of our position. They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning. I said that someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours—a friend, a wife. somebody alive or dead, or a God—and he would not expect us to disappoint him. He would hope to find us suffering proudly—not miserably—knowing how to die. (78)
Suffering is never sought or desired, but when it does occur finding the courage to suffer with dignity seems like the right choice to make. Frankl in this passage gives it a spiritual meaning, calling it a “sacrifice,” one that appears “pointless in the normal world, the world of material success,” but easily understood by “those of us who had any religious faith” (78). Finding meaning in suffering, although it sounds absurd, can be beneficial in recovering a sense of self and of purpose.

Otherwise, the suffering will have victory over the individual, leading to bitterness and disillusionment, which occurred to a good number of prisoners after they were liberated from the camps: “There were some men who found that no one awaited him. Woe to  him who found that the person whose memory alone had given him courage in camp did not exist any more” (86).

In such cases, the individual often falls into a depression, as Frankl himself says he did after his liberation (by American troops) from the Türkheim camp, a subcamp of Dachau, on April 27 1945. After returning to Vienna, in August, he finds out that his wife, Tilly Grosser, aged 24, had died at Bergen-Belsen; his parents at other camps (his father, Gabriel, at Theresienstadt, his mother, Elsa, at Auschwitz) and his brother (Walter & his wife) at Auschwitz. (A full chronology can be found here.)

Frankl was utterly alone. “I am terribly tired, terribly sad, terribly lonely. I have nothing more to hope for and nothing more to fear. I have no pleasure in life, only duties, and I live out of conscience,” Frankl says in a letter to Wilhelm and Stepha Börner, September 14, 1945 (160). He, however finds a way to overcame his losses (153). The writing of this book was the beginning of the end of his period of depression.

Some people wake up in the morning and think, “What good can I do today?” Others the opposite. Both derive meaning from their actions, but I would argue that a meaning in doing good, while minimizing harm to others, is a meaning filled with greater satisfaction. And of course the greater good. This works, of course, only if the mind is well, and not ill and sickened with hate. If one has experienced kindness in the midst of suffering, this kindness is amplified, and given more weight than a person would give such a small gesture under normal circumstances.

Such is a sign of a grateful attitude, which marks a healthy mind. As does forgiveness, a not-so-human concept, it seems. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, Frankl did not ascribe to the idea of collective guilt. It was, as Frankl says, “a true experimentum crucis” (170). In a “Commemorative speech for the deceased colleagues of the Society of Doctors in Vienna” (and which is included in the appendix to the book), Frankl says:
And there is only personal guilt! The talk should never be of collective guilt! Certainly, there is also the personal guilt of a man who “did nothing” but who neglected to do such things out of fear for himself or out of trembling trepidation for his relatives. But whosoever would reproach such a man for being a “coward” should first provide proof that he himself, in the same situation, would have been a hero. (171)
This is a fair assessment of the situation. The book says that many persons who came out of the camps were not seeking revenge, but were seeking ways to normalize their lives. A good part has to do with a moral vision of goodness, a belief in the best of humanity, and not its worst. It is not ignoring the existence of evil, but, rather, seeking that which is good, when and where it can be found. This can be summed up in this idea:
Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. It is surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil. The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lower depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp (81).
Such is not surprising, Primo Levi voiced similar thoughts.

*The book was originally written in German with the title Ein Psyholog Erlebt Das Konzentrationslager.