Once Upon a time… The End.
That’s the way most stories start, right? The beginnings of a beautiful story with captive princesses rescued (or they escape themselves, apparently), fairy godmothers discovered, and dragons always defeated in the end. Too bad it’s not the real world, right? Well, Viktor Frankl has something to say about that–and he’d argue. And because he says it best himself, I’m just going to use his own quotes and add a bit of my own understanding of them. Happy reading, let me know what you think!
“The meager pleasures of (Concentration) camp life provided a kind of negative happiness — “freedom from suffering” as Schopenhauer put it — and even that in a relative way only. Real positive pleasures, even small ones, were very few. I remember drawing up a kind of balance sheet of pleasures one day and finding that in many, many past weeks I had experienced only two pleasurable moments.”
If anyone has a right to argue against the easy life, it’s Viktor Frankl. He had anything but a tension free life–he was a Jewish doctor during WWII and survived time in both Auschwitz and Dachau, among other concentration camps. He suffered at the hands of the Nazis the loss of his wife, his defamation of his self and the ablation of his rights. If any normal human has the right to claim an easy life after experiencing intense hardship, it’s him. In his book, however, he desires for all mankind to seek the exact opposite.
“I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygeine to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis,” i.e., a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
His “existential vacuum” prescribes tension in the life as a medicine for meaningless. Coming at it from a physics perspective, this simply makes sense. If a hanging object had no force of tension on it, the object would fall to the ground. In this situation the tension force acts as the normal force, assuring the objects stability. To use another analogy, the lack of tension, activity and force in one’s life is like trying to find your way through a large, dark room when there’s nothing there to lay hold on to guide the way out. When your life has tension, there’s a rod to hold to and thus lead you to meaning. If you don’t find the door using the activity/tension you’ve filled you’re life with, then it’s the wrong tension. Find something else and see what that leads you to.
“Man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health. There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that so effectively helps one to survive even the worse conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.”
Starting anything is uncomfortable–humans just like any other object resist a change to their state of being unless a continuous force is applied. Writing this blog is hard, speaking up is hard, changing schools is hard. But like everything in the universe, after a state has changed it gets easier–heating water is much easier and takes less energy than changing it from ice to water. Studying Chinese used to be hard, but now it’s meaningful.It’s fun. It adds to my life.
“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 may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.”
Suffering, while it should not be studied and dwelled in, presents a similar situation. At the beginning it’s the hardest, the most unbearable experience. You wish to turn away and give up. But after a time, if you allow it to and do not resist (hence recognizing that it is hard and you are being stretched) it begins to teach you things, help you grow and create deeper meaning in your own life. Bear your burdens with this in mind–realize that they are there to help you learn something new. If you learn something valuable in every hard lesson or glorious blessing life blows your way, then nobody can say you have led a meaningless life–yourself not the least of these.
“In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
“The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more — except his God.” — P.93
God Bless and May you find deeper meaning in your life,