Man’s Search for Meaning is a big bag of gems. There is potentially no end to the mining and polishing of the thoughts contained inside, for one inclined to think and write on the themes that Frankl introduces so vividly and poignantly.
Without making any promises (to myself or anyone else), I think this book might be one I return to for writing prompts a number of times beyond this single blog post.
To begin with, I’ll just start with Frankl’s observation — which comes in Part I of the book, dealing with his concentration camp experiences — that we often insist on our own expectations of Life without stopping to consider what Life’s expectations are of us. He makes the observation within the context of attempting to prevent the suicides of other camp inmates. In their despair, they are saying, “Life has not met my expectations,” and his reply is: “Perhaps you have not met Life’s expectations of you!”
How’s that for a slap in the face to wake you up to reality?
We are so very fond of our pop psychology cliches. Of particular relevance is, “What is it you (I, we) want to get out of life?” To which, Frankl is responding, “What is it you (I, we) should to give to life?” We make it all about what can I get. Frankl is saying, based on experiences that few people still living today can relate to, we should be making it all about what we can give.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that, framing it in that way, it starts to sound a lot like our pervasive pop psychology. But it’s not, not when Frankl is saying it.
He casts all of these ideas within a context of unavoidable suffering. One of his primary goals, explicitly stated, is to help people find meaning in their unavoidable suffering. That’s an interesting project. It’s interesting because it’s very popular today in many intellectual circles to cast all suffering as avoidable. There are a lot of folks out there who appear to honestly believe that, given the right science, technology, education, or politics, we can eliminate human suffering. But let’s be honest, that’s false.
I’m not promoting some neo-Buddhist ethic based on “all life is suffering.” What I am saying is that as long as human beings exist, there will be suffering and some of that suffering will be unavoidable. A fact that one Buddhist parable points out.
The Buddhist Parable of the Mustard Seed tells the story of a woman who lost a child to death. In search of a solution, she is directed to the Buddha, who tells her a handful of mustard seeds will be enough to craft a medicine that will return her child to life. The condition is that she must collect the mustard seeds from homes untouched by death. This task, obviously, is impossible, because every home has been touched by death. The point being, of course, that everyone suffers.
While I cannot affirm that all life is suffering, I can affirm that all life involves suffering. But suffering doesn’t have to be bad, evil, or — as Frankl points out — meaningless.
A lot of times, when people say things like, “All I want is to be happy, but all life gives to me is crap,” what they don’t realize is that life keeps giving them crap because they’re fishing in a sewer. You can’t expect diamonds and cast your line into a cesspool. Diamonds require digging in a diamond mine. And digging in a diamond mine is work. It is active. Fishing, on the other hand, is passive. You cast out a line and wait for a bite. Passively allowing life to give to you rather than you going out and actively searching, digging for meaning means that you cannot complain when you pull in a turd.
Maybe this isn’t exactly how Viktor Frankl would put it, least of all to a suicidal victim of genocidal imprisonment, but this a reflection, not a recapitulation.
Another problem that’s inherent in making the claim that all suffering is avoidable and meaningless is that it turns everyone who believes that claim into a victim (at least in their own minds). I do not intend any political or social meanings to that assertion, although there are political and social applications. I’m talking more about individuals, as is Frankl. And the problem with this line of thinking is that, if one is a victim in this context, then the perpetrator is life itself.
How can there be a solution to that?
Turning to the political and social overtones that, in 2019, nobody can avoid seeing in this discussion, if we continue to find ever more discrete categorizations of victimhood and society is the perpetrator, what’s the solution to that?
In both instances, I can’t help but think that there are only two alternatives. The first is some form of nihilism in which one simply concedes that meaning is impossible or nonexistent — neither human life nor human culture and civilization has any meaning. The second is to stop fishing and start digging. If life has been giving you turds at the end of your line, then drop your pole, pick up a shovel, and resolve to give back diamonds in return.