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Man’s Search for Meaning

April 8, 2009

One chapter into Computer Power and Human Reason – interesting stuff so far; more on that in the next post.  This week I also read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a book which I found via Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work (either in Flow or Creativity, I can’t recall and neither is indexed – probably Flow, since I can search inside Creativity via Amazon and Frankl returns no results).   Half of the book narrates Frankl’s experience in Nazi concentration camps, and how he survived.  No doubt his physical survival was a matter of luck as much as anything, but how he managed to come out of it in one piece mentally is what lends the force to his philosophy. 

In some ways it echoes Buddhism – in Buddhism, Man can make a choice to end his suffering, to let go of the wheel and the desires and mental constructs with which he tortures himself.  But in Frankl’s world view, we need to choose to let go of the things that cause us pain, but also to choose to hold on to the things that can save us, if those things are good and true – love for another person, the knowledge that a great work awaits our attention, possibly a work that only we can complete, without which the world will be worse off.  Frankl chose not to give in to the fatalism that was endemic in the camps, not to let depression prevent him from seizing any moment of beauty and peace that was available.  He was capable both of “letting go” of his wife, acknowledging that she could be dead and he couldn’t know it, and simultaneously holding on to his love for her and hers for him, making it a thing that couldn’t be lost even though the person was.  He let go mentally of the manuscript that was taken from him when he arrived at Auschwitz, accepted that it was destroyed and irretrievable, and set himself to recreate his work, giving himself a reason to live in, and after, the camps.

For me, as I postpone writing more chapters out of fear of having to deal with the emotions they’re bound to churn up, the best part of the second section, in which he lays out his “logotherapy,” is when he discusses “anticipatory anxiety.” 

An individual, for example, who is afraid of blushing when he enters a large room and faces many people will actually be more prone to blush under these circumstances.  In this context, one might amend the saying “The wish is father to the thought” to “The fear is mother of the event.”

Ironically enough, in the same way that fear brings to pass what one is afraid of, likewise a forced intention makes impossible what one forcibly wishes…The more a man tries to demonstrate his sexual potency or a woman her ability to experience orgasm, the less they are able to succeed.

Frankl’s cure is almost homeopathic – he counsels a physician whose fear of perspiring makes him break out in a sweat

to resolve deliberately to show people how much he could sweat.  A week later he returned to report that whenever he met anyone who triggered his anticipatory anxiety, he said to himself, “I only sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!”

The same treatment meets with success with a bookkeeper with writer’s cramp who is afraid of losing his job, who is told to scrawl as illegibly and childishly as possible, “advised to say to himself, ‘Now I will show people what a good scribbler I am.’” 

So now I’m saying to myself, “Yes, you’re going to be writing about feelings, and it’s going to be terrible!  You’ll burst into tears and never stop, you’ll suck your thumb and hide under the covers and your head will explode!”  This “paradoxical intention” helps us laugh at the mountain we’ve built, helps us re-molehill the situation.  When you see yourself taking your fear to an absurd length, the “that’s silly” reduction you apply to it carries over to the original fear as well. 

This weekend I think I’m ready to start writing chapters again.  I haven’t been wasting my time with all the reading I’ve done, by any means, nor with the blogging, which has got my “writing muscles” back into shape.  This is the first novel on which I’ve had to do research, mostly because I avoided research as “too hard,” more out of a sense of myself as not equipped or qualified to do something “serious.”  Ironically this time I’ve plunged into it enthusiastically, partly because it’s always been interesting to me, and because of course it postpones the day when I have to write about, and feel, the feelings without which a novel isn’t much more than something to kill time on an airplane. 

Funny, last night I had one of those tiny epiphanies that come factory-installed in your standard MFA short story – I knew with absolute certainty how the novel ends, what the final scene is, something about which I had absolutely no idea before.  I knew that the story had a timeline, I had the skeleton of part 1 of the book, and I knew what the second half would “cover,” but no idea how it would end.  So now I’ve got a road through the story; the twists and turns of the journey aren’t completely known, but the destination is set.  I used to rely 100% on inspiration for my work, used to wait for a manic episode to power me through to the end (though of course mania doesn’t do endings well, since they involve coming down and wrapping up and concluding gracefully).  I’m pretty sure, however, that this “flash of insight” only came because of all the workmanlike effort I’m putting into the project, that it never would have come just from waiting for the Muse.  And I’m also pretty sure that if I can persist through this monolith of feelings-fear that the book will really get rolling.

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