September 17, 2019

Searching For Meaning

By Isiah Smith | Jan. 28, 2017

“Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm”

 -- JAMES MADISON

I like to start an essay with a touch of humor and -- I hope -- brilliant witticisms. But I just can’t bring myself to this time.  Since early November, I’ve endured protracted periods of gloom and despair. My usual sunny optimism evaporated like snowballs on South Beach. For brief moments, I sensed the beginnings of a national nightmare. 

Worse, I am not alone; on many of the faces I see I sense a sign of despair. A staggering number of fellow Americans have approached me in the last couple months on the streets, in the shops, everywhere, and asked, “What just happened?”

For solace I turn to the power of the written word, a way to put meaning where none seems to exist.

So what book did I choose to restore my equilibrium and reignite in me some hope for the future? What wise and prophetic writer did I turn to allay my angst, and make me believe again?

Viktor Frankl wrote my choice for an uplifting book many years ago.

When World War II broke out, Viktor Emil Frankl was director of therapy in a large mental hospital in Vienna and the organizer of a group of successful youth guidance centers. Along with his family and many other doctors, he was sent to a Nazi concentration camp. There he spent three harrowing years, where he endured unspeakable suffering and unimaginable pain.

 In 1946 Frankl published Man’s Search for Meaning, chronicling his horrific experiences. Between 1942 and 1945, Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, where his parents, brother, and pregnant wife all died. During these traumatic times, Frankl labored to find a reason to go on living and to find meaning in the meanness.

What I found most disturbing about Frankl's account of his imprisonment was not the backbreaking work, the all-pervading fear, nor even the constant, maddening hunger, all of which would be enough to break the spirits of any human being. What has stuck with me across the decades since I first read this hopeful book was the unrelenting degradation the prisoners suffered daily, designed to force them to accept the Nazis’ judgment that they were less than human.

When they were forced to carry heavy tanks filled with human excrement for disposal, some of the sewage would almost always splash in their faces. If the prisoners tried to wipe the waste away, or instinctively react with disgust, they would be punished by the Capos (trusted prisoners, chosen mostly for their brutality) and beaten with a club or whip. Because of this, the prisoners learned to suppress the horror of having human waste splashed in their faces!

Though many Americans report feeling something like this in recent months, no such thing has happened and nor is it likely to.

Frankl argues that we have an incredible power to shape our attitudes and responses to the challenges life presents us, and that we inevitably grow thanks to these challenges.

When I shared with a well-placed and successful friend of mine in Washington D.C. what I was writing and thinking, he reacted impatiently and with great exasperation. “Things can’t get worse than this. Remember, we just elected a reckless, unstable, ignorant, inane, infinitely vulgar, climate-change-denying white-nationalist misogynist with authoritarian ambitions and kleptocratic plans.”

“Come on. We don’t know what’s going to happen yet,” I responded. “Re-read Frankl’s book. I can guarantee you that nothing we experience in the next four years will come close to what Frankl and his family suffered in the concentration camps.  To think otherwise is to let one’s imagination overrule our common sense.”

“Of course not,” he responded indignantly. “But if that guy implements half the things he’s threatened to, we are in for an awful four years.”

In my resulting gloom, my Swedish son in-law reminded me of a study we had discussed by Jesse L. Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky, titled “Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland; Or, Why It's Amazing that Federal Programs Work at All.” The study found that implementing sweeping changes in a huge democracy is easier said than done. Often it’s simply a fool’s errand, and people on both sides of the aisle are bound to be disappointed (do the Swedes know us Americans better than we know ourselves?).

But what do I know?

I know this: Frankl’s opus holds timeless wisdom that is still relevant and fresh after all these years. “A man who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” he wrote, quoting Nietzsche.

Anyone can choose, under any circumstances, what “will become of him -- mentally and spiritually.”

Frankl argues that the kind of person you are is a result of an “inner decision,” rather than your situation…and that bearing your suffering with dignity is in and of itself a real achievement.  “It is this spiritual freedom which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and personal.”

To Frankl’s way of thinking, suffering is an opportunity to make meaning out of life. Regardless of the circumstances that surround us, we can still find deep meaning through the way we handle those circumstances; bravery, dignity, selflessness, and morality are the way.

People who choose to live in the past, lamenting what could have been, turning a blind eye to the reality of the lives we live now, miss opportunities to make something positive our of their experiences and finding ways to contribute to the greater good.

Frankl lived his philosophy. After his release from the camp, he resumed his career and became an esteemed psychiatrist, with many books to his name. His theories are still taught in universities around the world.

We still have the power to change things, and one election in the endless river of time is powerless to change that reality.

Isiah Smith, Jr. is a former newspaper columnist for the Miami Times. He worked as a psychotherapist before attending the University of Miami Law School, where he also received a Master’s Degree in Psychology. In December 2013, he retired from the Department of Energy’s Office of General Counsel, where he served as a Deputy Assistant General Counsel for Administrative Litigation and Information Law. Isiah lives in Traverse City with his wife Marlene.

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