Few books have come as highly recommended as Viktor Frankl's. Man's Search for Meaning. I find this interesting, as does Dr Frankl himself. When asked what he thought about his book being a number one best seller he replied;
I do not at all see in the best seller status of my book so much an achievement and accomplishment on my part as an expression of the misery of our time. If hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book who's very title promises to deal with the question of the meaning of life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.
I'll admit that the title is also what drove me to finally read this book as I was going through a time of my life that I felt that I lacked a sense of direction, a lack of meaning. Sadly I can't say that I found an answer here. For I disagree with the premise of the foundation of Dr. Frankl's logotherapy. Dr. Frankl's logotherapy can be summed up by this quote by Friedrich Nietzsche;
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
This quote has always rubbed me wrong. Not because I feel it to be false, rather that it does not seem to apply to my personal experience. I in no way want to compare my personal suffering to that of Dr Frankl. He endured many unspeakable years in Nazi concentration camps. I will never come close to understanding what he went through. That said, I can only take his lessons and apply them to my personal life for that is all that I know so that is to which I shall compare.
I wish to elaborate on why I don't feel that this "quest for meaning" applies to my personal life. There was a time that I had to decide whether or not to keep living. Needless to say, I ended up choosing life. But why? At the time, it felt as though I had lost everything. My faith in God was gone, my goals and ambitions I had laid out in my mind were no more. Why did I keep going? Frankly...I don't know. I still don't know. All I know is that I made it through those dark days and continue putting my whole effort into each day since. There was no meaning to be found. Nothing I could point to that gave my life guidance. On the contrary, during this time I discovered the work of Eckhart Tolle and I fully embraced the lack of meaning alluded to in many schools of eastern thought. Perhaps this is best referred to as nihilism. According to Dr. Frankl, nihilists, when placed under pressure, would have no motive to stay alive. And this makes sense for the most part. So why did I? Either Dr. Frankl is wrong and man doesn't need meaning, or I have a meaning to which I am unaware to date. It could very well be the latter.
If there is a meaning in life at all then there must be a meaning in suffering.
Life to me is arbitrary. I fully subscribe to the beliefs outlines by biologist Richard Dawkins' in The Selfish Gene. That the only real meaning in life is the survival of genes. Beyond that we are expendable. Since I don't believe that there is a meaning in life, by extension, there is no meaning in suffering.
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's understandable why one would have the need to take up their cross to add deeper meaning to life, but I do not think it is the only way to endure suffering.
Such people forget that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.
The Buddha said, "Enlightenment is the end of suffering." Suffering can bring about enlightenment. Contrary to Dr. Frankl however, the Buddhist's acceptance of suffering and consequently enlightenment does not result in the individual growing or powering through a situation. Rather, an acceptance of what is that puts one more fully in touch with the moment. This is very well said by Baruch Spinoza;
“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”
I would venture as far as to say that by assigning meaning where there is potentially none, we rob ourselves of the clarity of our suffering. This seems to be reinforced by Viktor himself;
Questions about the meaning of life cannot be answered in sweeping statements.
If a question about life cannot be answered in sweeping statements, this would seem to invalidate the meaning that each person discovers in their personal lives. For one cannot say that the meaning of life is such or such as that would be a sweeping statement. Perhaps one can find meaning in an element of life, but that can't be the meaning of life.
Dr. Frankl proceeds to explain a phenomenon called Sunday Neurosis;
Sunday Neurosis is that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over. And the void within themselves become manifest. An existential vacuum.
Perhaps this is the curse of a nihilist. This would definitely explain my personal need to stay so busy and why my anxiety spikes when I sit for too long without activity. Lack of content manifests our existential crisis.
One thing that I found interesting is the parallel important of humor in both Buddhist teachings and the works of Dr. Frankl.
The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on his way to cure. The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living.
I find this an interesting point he is making as humor is more of a coping mechanism to make light of the meaninglessness of life rather than a tool employed by those who have a purpose. Not that humor is off-limits to those with meaning, but if meaning gives man the strength to carry on of what use is humor to them? When we laugh at life, I don't think we often laugh at the perceived meaning, rather it's a way that we punch back at a meaningless existence to give it flavor. Humor is a method utilized by the nihilist to bring joy by poking fun at the present moment.
Happiness cannot pursue, it must ensue.
Additionally, if meaning is required to enjoy life, does that not run contradictory to the above quote? To have meaning is essentially the same as a goal. If you have goals that must be met as a prerequisite to happiness, isn't that pursuing happiness? Rather, look at how when the nihilist does experience happiness it is merely because that is what was present.
I understand that the above was a rather critical view of what many would rate overwhelmingly positive. I did agree with many smaller points made throughout the book. But these were fairly diverse in their topic matter so I'd like to break this down into a two-part post. In the future, we will explore the more positive points.