Saturday, 9 February 2013

Tragic Optimism

The following is an extract from "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl...

“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic "the self-transcendence of human existence." It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself--be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself--by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love--the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

I've been pondering these words quite a lot over the last few days as I have witnessed the suffering throughout our world and much closer to home, as I have attempted to make sense of it all...

Socrates is credited with saying that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I think he is right. To live life fully we do need to know ourselves. That said we can go too far with this. It is so easy to get lost within ourselves in our search for self understanding. I have learnt in recent years that an over examined life is no life at all.

I have wasted so much of my life trying to make sense of the suffering I and those around me have endured; I have wasted so much time looking at the world thinking there is no hope for humanity; I wasted so many years saying what is the point of any of this is? Thankfully I do this far less these days.

We will all experience times in our lives when nothing makes sense; when no matter how hard we try we will be unable to get to the root of the trouble. This is often the case with suffering, both are own and other people’s. How often do we cry out, why is this happening to me. Well the truth is it isn’t happening to you and me, it is happening to everyone and becoming obsessed with trying to find out why this is happening may well stop us from living and learning from what has happened.

Viktor Frankl said:

“What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

I’ve been contemplating these words for quite some time now and looking at my life in retrospect I can see the truth in this claim. I have discovered that by trying to help others come to some understanding about their lives my own life has begun to make sense. I have come to understand, accept and even love who I am by helping others come to terms with who they are. My life today is rich in meaning. It is not devoid of pain I promise you, no life is. There has been real pain these last few days as I and other loved ones have been coming to terms with our Allen’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. A form of cancer that I know is untreatable.

I know that there is nothing that I can do to help Allen, I cannot take away his suffering. That said there is much that I can do to help those I love in their time of need and I know that in doing so I will help myself come to terms with my own suffering.

I have deep affection for Viktor Frankl. He wrote what I believe is the most important book of the second half of the twentieth century, “Man’s search for Meaning”. The book is based on the three years he spent in Auschwitz Dachau and other concentration camps during the Second World War. I do not wish to go into detail about the book now nor give an over view of “logotherapy” which he developed both before and after the war years. What I would like to briefly explore is the concept of “Tragic Optimism” which he describes at the end of the book.

“Tragic Optimism” is about saying yes to life despite its tragedy and suffering, claiming that deep meaning can be unearthed even in the most horrific of circumstances. Remember Frankl’s ideas grew in the hell of Auschwitz.

“Tragic Optimism” describes a “tragic triad” stating that life involved three inevitable kinds of tragedy. These being the pain and suffering present in human existence; guilt for the things we have done or failed to do, the bad choices we have made; and death, knowing that our lives and the lives of those we love are transient. He says that it is hard to find meaning in the face of such tragedies, but that we must in order to live to our true human potential.

He noted that western society had advanced immeasurably during the latter half of the twentieth century and yet people still complained of living empty and meaningless lives, noting that people “have enough to live by but nothing to live for.” He believed that the lack of meaning in modern life was a direct cause of the increase in depression, aggression and addiction, claiming that it was this existential vacuum that led to the cries of “no future”.

Frankl though does not leave us in this existential black hole, he offers a solution. He suggests three ways in which we can find meaning in life. He claims that meaning can and does emerge through our work and or deeds; through experiences and or encounters with other people, through love; and finally and perhaps most importantly through rising above and growing through our suffering.

Frankl suggests that it is easy, in face of the inevitable tragedies of life, to fall into nihilism (meaninglessness) or to chase after happiness, success, power etc instead of allowing meaning to find us. By the way he is not really saying that meaning is the goal, more that meaning emerges as a result of meaningful action. He gives several illustrations, claiming that you can’t just make yourself find meaning in the same way as you can’t just make yourself laugh. We laugh as a result of finding something funny, not because we are told that it will be good for us. The problem it would seem is that we focus on the goal rather than the action itself.
We want to be happy, we want to find meaning, we want to self actualize and we do all we can to strive for this. In striving for these things we fail and yet by giving of ourselves to others, by transcending our own suffering, our lives begin to become rich in meaning.

It is the meaning that emerges from suffering that speaks most powerfully to me.  By the way please do not misunderstand me I am not suggesting that suffering in and of itself is a good thing. As Frankl said if suffering is avoidable then the meaningful thing to do is to do all that can be done to avoid it.

This brings to mind two stories that I recently heard. The first I read in Karen Armstrong’s “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life”. Karen gives the example of Christina Noble as someone who rose above her personal suffering to become a positive force in the world. Christina discovered meaning in her suffering by helping others to a solution to theirs. She is the founder and driving force behind “Christina Noble Children’s Foundation”, which was set up in 1989 to help Vietnamese street children.

Christina herself is no stranger to poverty and homelessness. Following the death of her mother, when she was just ten years old, she encountered a catalogue of horrors, beginning with being separated from her siblings, believing them to be dead, and living under horrific conditions in Irish orphanages. She fled the orphanage at the age of fourteen and learnt to fend for herself in the poorest parts of Dublin. Following a series of  assaults and after being rejected by everyone including the church, she left for London at the age of 18 and suffered further abuse in an unhappy marriage, where she had three children of her own. During this low point, amongst a life time of low points, she had a dream about Vietnam. She says that:

“I don’t know why I dreamed about Vietnam, perhaps it was because the country was so much in the news at the time. In the dream, naked Vietnamese children were running down a dirt road fleeing from a napalm bombing. The ground under the children was cracked and coming apart and the children were reaching to me. One of the girls had a look in her eyes that implored me to pick her up and protect her and take her to safety. Above the escaping children was a brilliant white light that contained the word “Vietnam”.

This vision stayed with her for the next twenty years, it would not go away and it kept her going through some bleak days in her life - In much the same way that Frankl’s vision of his wife kept him going in Auschwitz - The vision finally began to come to fruition in 1989 when she was able to set up her foundation in Ho Chi Minh City. The foundation has grown over the years and has expanded beyond Vietnam into Mongolia and other countries.

The second example that I would like to share with you is much closer to home. It is that of a friend who has watched her father die of sclerosis of the liver in recent weeks. She has herself recovered from alcoholism and is sober many years. That said the pain of watching her father die in such a way has been deeply traumatic. She recently recounted the last hour of his life to me. What touched me the most was that during this last hour, as she watched him slip away, she was able to turn to a young man in the bed next to her father, who is himself in the grip of alcoholism, and offer a helping hand. She was able to help another in the moment of her deepest suffering. She could not do anything to help her father but she could find meaning from his death and her own suffering by turning to offer a hand of love to someone else despite the tragedy in her own life.

Both my friend and Christina were able to find hope, to find meaning, as a result of their own suffering. It was seemingly a suffering which could not be avoided at the time and one which offered no real meaning while they were in the midst of it. That said from their own personal tragedies true meaning did emerge as they offered a helping hand to others who were suffering from a fate they had themselves emerged from. These are just two beautiful examples of hope and meaning emerging from the suffering and tragedy of life.

These are powerful messages of hope, nay even optimism. No one can escape the pain and suffering in life but that does not make life meaningless. We all have to face unavoidable suffering from time to time and yet meaning can be created from this. It is created when the suffering inspires us to attempt to alleviate the suffering in the lives of others. In these very acts we suddenly find our lives are rich in meaning and we can once again look to life through the eyes of optimism even when it is surrounded by tragedy.

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