It don’t often post my sermons on this blog, but here’s one I delivered today in All Souls Church in Elmwood Avenue, Belfast:
Finding Meaning through Faith: Learning from Viktor Frankl
MEANING IN LIFE?
In response to the question: ‘What is the most important lesson life has taught you?’, one of my favourite contemporary philosophers (if that doesn’t sound too pretentious!), Slavoj Žižek replied somewhat tetchily: ‘That life is a stupid meaningless thing that has nothing to teach you’.
Succinct and brutally honest. But Žižek was at least trying to articulate his worldview that the quest for meaning is in and of itself meaningless….so we might as well just get on with life unencumbered by distractions and wishful thinking. Freedom then, for Žižek, comes from accepting and confronting our meaninglessness. It just is what it is – nothing more and nothing less.
Contrast this outlook with another of my favourite philosophers – although he’s much more than that – Viktor Frankl. Professor Frankl was a deeply interesting man: he was a psychiatrist, a neurologist, a philosopher, prolific author and founder of ‘the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy’ – otherwise known as ‘Logotherapy’ (or therapy through meaning).
Frankl’s worldview, both clinical and personal, was shaped to a significant degree by the fact that he was a Holocaust Survivor. From 1942-45 he lived, or rather existed, in four concentration camps, including the infamous extermination camp, Auschwitz. What he witnessed and experienced there left an indelible mark on his psyche, deepening his comprehension of human nature and the centrality of meaning.
Frankl’s most famous book is ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. It’s a slim volume and it recounts his experience of the Holocaust. Against that backdrop of unimaginable horror, he lost all of his family members and suffered terribly, yet his book is hopeful and inspirational. Each page is replete with meaning.
Now when we talk about meaning, it’s important to remember that Frankl spoke of it terms of ultimate and proximate meaning. The ultimate is difficult to quantify; as finite creatures we often find it difficult to comprehend the infinite. But in simple terms, for someone like me, and yourselves, as people of faith – ultimate meaning equates to God. Proximate meaning on the other hand, is still linked to the ultimate, but it consists of the things that we do, or attitudes we take, that give us meaning in everyday life tasks. So for example, I find an enormous amount of meaning in the work that I do as a mental health advocate; I find meaning in my family life…and so it goes on; that’s proximate meaning, but it’s inextricably linked to my sense of ultimate meaning – or my Christian faith. I can’t decouple the two.
Your story will be different. But as I’ve just said, like me you will find that the ultimate meaning informs what you do in the rest of your life. If there’s a disconnect there, then it leads to tension and strain.
MEANING & FAITH
As Christians we’re called upon to look for, and to find our ultimate meaning – and in doing so we connect God. And here I’m reminded of a sentence from the Book of Isaiah:
‘Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace — in peace because they trust in you’ (Isaiah 26:3).
Here we have the Prophet Isaiah transmitting a very powerful and well thought through message. He makes us think….. that a mind that is steadfast – or fixed on God – is a mind that has engaged with ultimate meaning. When we understand God, in-as-much as we are able given our very obvious human limitations, we find meaning: meaning in happiness….or failure….or pain……or suffering. We find meaning in all that is around us….in the frailty of relationships, the broken dreams and stilted aspirations…..just as much, or even more, as in the positive aspects of life….the beauty of friendships and the wonder of creation.
We transcend ourselves when we fully engage our faith. We look beyond our failures and victories and we see that we are part of something greater than ourselves. Our faith can be expressed in a myriad of different ways. Viktor Frankl was a practising Jew his entire life, but he was very careful not to impose, or even be seen to be imposing, his religious conviction upon others; that was not the way he operated as a therapist, physician or man. He understood that each and every one of us must reach our own conclusion – and find ultimate and proximate meaning for ourselves; we are after all, fully responsible for our own lives and the way we live them.
The Nazi’s who persecuted Viktor Frankl and millions of others, simply because of their religion, race, sexual orientation or political affiliations used their freedom to pursue nihilistic goals. They misused their freedom and perverted their will to meaning; they did not understand the concept of love and it fuelled their malevolence and barbaric cruelty.
Paul the Apostle wrote of how we should properly use our freedom in a letter he wrote to a number of Christian communities in Galatia. He said this:
‘For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one command: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ Galatians 5:13-14
The choice is there for all to see. Paul understood it; the churches in Galatia also understood it. It is a stark choice that applies to us all; it is timeless – we can use our lives selfishly, or we can use them to make a difference, large or small; to truly love our neighbours as ourselves. Viktor Frankl writes of one such occasion, or more likely a series of occasions where the love of neighbour was made manifest in the actions of a number of people; this was a costly and humbling love this still moves me to this day. He wrote in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’:
‘“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man (person) but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”’
This ability to choose one’s own way is a central strand of Frankl’s Logotherapy. Reclaiming that ability is of inestimable therapeutic value. Too often we let events overtake us and we feel stranded. But we have the ability, as Frankl did, to change our attitude in difficult situations.
Consider this story from ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’:
“Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering — to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
And there is just one more thought I want to leave you with today. We are very much a sum of our parts; as we make our way through life we accumulate much in the way of experiences, both negative and positive. That is the nature of life.
With Frankl though, no experience of meaning is ever lost or wasted. We take it with us. As he has said himself: “In the granaries of our past everything is safely stored.” So even suffering cannot erase that sense of meaning and the experience of meaningfulness; it does not, no matter how hard it tries, have the last word. Here we have Frankl again: ‘I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, although these are things which cannot inspire envy.’ “
And so when we look back over our lives, there will no doubt be periods of regret or disappointment, or even times when we’ve been ashamed of our actions or inactions. None of these experiences and feelings have been wasted if we can recognise within them a kernel of meaning. We cannot change the past, nor should we attempt to try, but we can always attempt to place it within that wider context.
We may think of a job lost through redundancy for example. In a life lived where such an event is seen purely through the lens of suffering a misfortune, there is no room for growth and positive experience. But where we have a change of attitude, we can see past the difficulty and be thankful for the space to reflect and re-evaluate, and ultimately, to re-orientate our priorities and to move our life in a different direction.
Many of us will have experienced real hardship for reasons beyond our control; the death of a loved one; the loss of a home; a life-changing illness. Frankl’s experiences teach us that in all situations, even in the unimaginable horrors of the concentration camp, there is meaning. He found it every day in the simple things – the sunset, human company and being able to use his medical knowledge to help and console his fellow inmates.
Nothing is ever lost. When we die there are the memories that live on; there are the people we have helped and the family members we have left behind, their personalities shaped by our influence. The struggles? Well, they live on too, shaped by the meaning we’ve assigned to them.
The physicist and Anglican Priest, Professor John Polkinghorne, gives us one final pause for thought. He puts his understanding of what happens when we die this way: “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves.” So then we have even more reason for hope; the meaning we have engaged with and has so enriched our earthly lives goes with us too.
To conclude, Viktor Frankl, and his Logotherapy, can help us and guide us through our faith journey, encouraging us to finds meaning in our worldview and to practice the ethic of self-transcendence. Looking beyond ourselves, engaging in service and living for others is the very basis of the Christian life.
Understanding Frankl’s message can help us to become better Christians, to understand our motivations and to be happier in our own vocations and content to live the life God has given us.
And let us not forget, as I give the last word to Viktor Frankl: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”