Around this time last year, I seem to consistently find myself thinking about happiness and meaning. In fact, I wrote a blog article on the subject and on Victor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. I’ve lost my original article since I’ve been transitioning into a literature review website, but I am recreating parts of it for a second because it seems that I’m thinking about this all over again.
While I was working at Santa Monica College in Southern California, the students were assigned Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning as required reading. I’m guilty of permanently borrowing a copy from the school; sorry, I’m not so sorry. My high school AP European teacher made WWII one of the most interesting topics that we discussed, and I’ve been a huge nerd for the subject since then. Naturally, I couldn’t resist reading the book.
Frankl, a psychiatrist, recounts his experiences in a concentration camp during WWII and summarizes his work in logotherapy. My instinctive first question was: Why isn’t this required reading in K-12? It took so long for me to find this book, and I could have used the lessons so much sooner! I can specifically reference sections in my journals from my early college days when I was questioning my own purpose in life. Actually, you can find it on the first page of my existing entries! Please forgive the melodrama, but I quote entry 01.25.2010 word for word:
“I keep thinking about when I’ll die. It’s depressing; I know. I don’t know what to do with my life. In a way, I feel alienated from everyone else around me because they seem so confident in their future. I’ve done everything by the book so far, well almost everything. Yet, I still feel lost. Is that how it’s supposed to be? I feel like something is missing. I’m missing the purpose of my life. How can I find one? When will I find one?”
Considering my upbringing, I know that girl needed a therapist, or a few. But, this reflection is food for thought to the educator and academic inside me now. How many of our students or our youth struggle with these very thoughts? I think most do for different reasons. It speaks of the bildungsroman of human development which finds identity formation at its center. Who am I? What am I supposed to do? I have noticed that there is one answer which is the most frequent. Well, what makes you happy? My inner (R/r)omantic wants to cheer, but the realist academic wants to cringe.
My inner (R/r)omantic wants to give you hope. You can aim to be whoever you want to be. The academic wants to remind you of a few things. But, you may not be happy. “To be happy” is an absolute state of being. We are changing; our circumstances are changing all the time by the simple fact that the future is fundamentally uncertain, despite mathematical probability and statistics. In my original blog post, I wrote:
“These days, I’m not sure I believe in happiness. It’s such a static concept when I analyze it deeply. Happily Ever After doesn’t account for the complexities and fluctuations of life and existence It’s an extremely romanticized notion constantly reinforced by social norms, consumerism, entertainment, etc. Don’t get me wrong. I still hold hope for humanity. The conditions of human existence can be better, can be improved, but I doubt they could ever truly be happy.”
Can we be happy? I don’t consider myself a jaded person, but I still hold this idea about ‘happiness’ in mind. Reading this book also brought to the forefront other related thoughts. Since I grew up in a challenging environment, as I read the book, my mind connected with Frankl’s experiences in relation to the process of trauma. Don’t get me wrong; my experiences could never compare to the tortures of the Holocaust.
While there were moments of joy and pleasure in my upbringing for me, my most immediate preoccupations as a teenager and young adult revolved around finding freedom from the painful circumstances into which I was born. When Frankl says that “A well-known research psychologist has pointed out that life in a concentration camp could be called a ‘provisional existence.’ We can add to this by defining it as a ‘provisional existence of unknown limit’,” I can relate to a certain extent (70). In all honesty, I didn’t know if I would make it out alive at certain moments. You stop asking yourself, When will this end? You start asking yourself, What will I do if it does? Notice the “IF.” I had a long bucket list, but I doubted whether there was a real worthwhile purpose for fulfilling it.
Frankl is famous for stating that “everything can be taken from a man [or woman] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances” (66). If there is one thing that I dislike most aside from faux positivity, it’s blatant negativity. I wanted my existential footprint to be as authentically positive as possible. Not social media fake; not duck-face-selfie fake. I wanted to be a “prepared for unhappiness” joyful person (92). So, like Frankl implies we should do, I thank my suffering. If I was going to live, then I would leave a positive existential footprint. Because, I understand what Frankl means when he reminds the reader of Dostoevsky’s quote: “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings” (66).
Was Du erlebst, kann keine Macht der Welt Dir rauben.
What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.
– Unknown Poet.
Human nature and existence are ever so fascinating. At the most painful moments, I had to consciously remind myself that if suffering exists so does joy. Cultivating a mind that critically thinks and analyzes in balance is important in my opinion. Today, for the majority of people, the definition of happiness is an absolute state of being that someone can reach and keep forever. My definition is different; for me, happiness is a reflection on how many joyful moments you’ve experienced, your desire to experience more, and the acceptance that joy is both cultivated but impermanent.
How are we supposed to cultivate joy then? What does Frankl have to say about this? He argues that we should not chase after happiness, but we should seek to discover meaning. Aside from describing his experiences in the concentration camps, he presents a summary of his work in logotherapy: “According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” (111). In other words, the way I understand it, if you are suffering or in pain: seek to create something from it or do something for another despite it, go have a new experience or try to meet someone new, or seek to avoid a negative attitude because it only adds more negativity to the experience. If you are going to be depressed, then be positively depressed. Pun intended.
Admittedly, the nuances of logotherapy seem complex and, as with anything complex, is fodder for lengthy critical deconstruction. Frankl somewhat preemptively discusses the simplified message of his work: the just be positive motto. He addresses this optimism by stating that to “speak of a tragic optimism, that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action” (138). The fundamental concept that I gather from these three points is Frankl’s encouragement for individuals to be active. As an educator, I focus on the words he uses: turning, achievement, accomplishment, deriving, change, incentive, to take, action. All of these words are verbs. You must be actively engaged with being alive both in the mind and in the realm of the physical.
As an adult, I’ve actively worked very hard to cultivate a life in which I do not perpetuate the psychological and physical pain and suffering that I experienced in my youth. Have I been successful? I won’t know until I die, but it gives my life meaning. And, I’m satisfied so far. I’ve aimed to learn what brings me real joy.
Frankl says that when he was freed from the concentration camps, he had one phrase in mind: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space” (89). When I left home for college, I was confronted with this freedom in many different ways because of my personal history. But, I think many young adults feel this way when they reach legal age or they reach certain maturity points. Do you want to be safe and do what you’ve done before, or do you want to explore unknown joy which requires risk? Everyone encounters suffering and pain in their lives; therein lies the value of reading Frankl’s work. When you find this freedom of space, you must take ownership of it. What will you do with this freedom of space?
Reading Frank’s work has led me to confront some difficult, personal thoughts about my life and the people that are part of it or in the periphery of it. He states that “In the concentration camps, for example, … we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions” (134).
In my understanding, you may be immersed or you may have emerged from terrible conditions but that neither excuses or condones perpetuating the same conditions or suffering on another. After reading this section, I wondered at length about the strife between these two factions of Holocaust survivors. What did the ‘saints’ do when confronted by the actions of the ‘swine’ and the consequences of those actions? How do you live with and among your trauma comrades who chose to shed the label of oppressed only to become the oppressors or the label of victims only to turn into abusers? What do you do when the ‘swine’ believe themselves to be the ‘saints’? Do you choose to part ways based on your individual experience of suffering or do you choose to honor your collective experience of trauma and remain a unit?
I think of the modern day parallels that we confront in our networks and communities with these questions. Frankl explores some of these important individual and collective concepts in regards to suffering and WWII in Man’s Search for Meaning. He says, “You may of course ask whether we really need to refer to “saints.” Wouldn’t it suffice just to refer to decent people? It is true that they form a minority. More than that, they always will remain a minority. And yet, I see therein the very challenge to join the minority. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best” (154). Ditto. If you feel as if you have no meaning to your life, then do your best to understand that you are not the only one. If you don’t know what to do, then aim to do something decent for humanity.
Like all great books, we can discuss Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning interminably, but I will wrap this up with this quote: “Frankl was once asked to express in one sentence the meaning of his own life. He wrote the response on paper and asked his students to guess what he had written. After some moments of quiet reflection, a student surprised Frankl by saying, ‘The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning in theirs.'” (165). That’s deep. It’s wonderful to believe that writing his blog post and re-creating some of my original reflections can contribute to that for any reader that gets to this point.
Thank you for reading!
All my best,
Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, 2006.
Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.