Happiness is a Warm Book

Ok, so Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is admittedly not a book one might describe as warm. It details Frankl's existence in 4 concentration camps throughout Nazi Germany, his eventual freedom, and the psychological states associated with various aspects of his journey and the journeys of other survivors of the Holocaust. Part memoir, part theory, this book has really provoked me to reflect on my suppositions of what it means to have meaning in one's life.

Frankl--a psychologist--details, in the second half of the book, his theory of logotherapy. Logotherapy--from the Greek, logos, for meaning--represented a major break from the Freudian psychoanalysis vein of psychology/psychiatry of the day--thank goodness for that, for Freud was nothing if not a misogynist.

The theory of logotherapy, in short: "in comparison with psychoanalysis, [it is] a method less retrospective and more introspective. Logotherapy focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future." (98).

Frankl's theory appeals to me, in part, because of the shift in onus of responsibility it necessitates. Instead of a somewhat fatalistic understanding of meaning as something that transcends our comprehension far into adulthood--something that puzzles and vexes the soul--Frankl's ideas suggest that we must actively construct and recognize the meaning that lies in every single day of our lives, the meaning unique to each individual. The meaning is there; all we need to do is take a moment to accept that it may not be as grandiose or as elusive as we may have hoped. After all, if I'm absolutely sure the meaning of my life is far beyond my capacity to understand, I'd might as well bury my head in the sand and not bother about acknowledging it. This view, contrary to Frankl's ideas, breeds powerlessness and hopelessness. And it also breeds annoying, spoiled college students who whine about what they want to "do with their life," as if they should be handed, on a silver platter, the magical key to a life of ease and happiness. Quite on the contrary, Frankl's theory effectively negates the idea that our lives cannot be meaningful in the midst of suffering.

Frankl insists (discussing his time in Nazi prison camps, amongst his fellow prisoners), "We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life--daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. 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." (77).

I am appreciative of what Frankl espouses not least of all because the meaning becomes very concrete and to some degree very controllable. One cannot choose one's circumstances, but one certainly can decide upon one's reaction to them--a theme that runs throughout the book. Not only can one control the reaction, but the degree to which the circumstances will fortify one's life--one's perspective, one's sense of self, one's ability to navigate the joys and disappointments life presents. And there is no secret formula. One must conduct oneself honorably, one must move through life with a sense of duty to others.

As a first-year educator embarking on a very new and in some ways scary journey, Frankl's words resonate with me. You see, teaching is in some ways an isolating profession. Students aside, people don't generally wander into your classroom to ask you about how your day is going or how your lesson worked out (mentorship for year 1 notwithstanding). There is a responsibility, because of this degree of. . . well, privacy, really, for the educator to be accountable to herself. I do not have to answer to my colleagues as to whether or not I'm really working as hard as I should be--but I certainly have to answer to myself, every single day and every single time my head hits the pillow. One of the reasons I chose this path is because it is one that requires the individual, that requires me to honor myself and the commitment I've made each and every day. I have to honor my students with my dedication and preparation. But it is only I who will truly know whethere I've chosen right action of which Frankl speaks.

I still don't think I'm quite getting at the core of what I like about Frankl's no-nonsense approach to meaning. Your thoughts?


Ms. X said...

i think a huge part of what i like about his approach to meaning is that he approaches it at all. freud acts like human beings are just helpless brain-robots programmed from infancy to need the help of an "analyst," and there's no room in that description for any kind of "meaning" at all. i just like it when scientists (if we're calling psychology a science) acknowledge the importance of something as nebulous as "meaning."

teach people not books said...

yeah, totally.

freud's all about drives and impulses, never about wanting to live a fulfilling live that is intrinsicly rewarding and is lived in the spirit of service to others. what a douche he is.