Narrative: Viktor Frankl - Man's Search For Meaning
I recently finished reading Victor Frankl's personal narrative of his experiences in Auschwitz. It is overwhelming and an incredible testament to the immense power of the human spirit - and learning. I can only vaguely imagine the depths of mental and physical agony he and his companions experienced. The presence of learning in his experience is deeply important...
Of course, critical (n.b. - critical in the sense of being crucial, decisive, indispensable, and essential) narratives that inform our lives do not need to come from our collective catalogue of humankind's gruesome failures. At the same time, it is sometimes through our frightening capacity for evil that we might discover our deep potential for learning the art of living.
Frankl poses the question, "How was everyday life in the concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?" His narrative is not one of clinical facts and figures, nor does he (mercifully) focus on describing the atrocities that took place. Further, his focus is on the "average prisoner" - not the heroes (although they are all Heroes) in the commercialized sense. He does map out a kind of mental geography of what became a search for meaning:
"What was needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves, and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. ... Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets out for each individual. ...No man [or woman] and no destiny can be compared with any other man [or woman] or any other destiny."
- Man's Search For Meaning
No one needs to be trapped in a concentration camp to build a personal relationship with the above statement. We might ask a question like, "How is everday life in a corporation reflected in the mind of the average worker?" Immersed in an environment of torment and suffering that had no defined limit, some prisoners found meaning while others did not. Some even took to helping others by "teaching" them to seek their own meaning in the abyss. The nature and character of the learning that took place is inspiring.
If we are to try and "connect" with Frankl's narrative then we must first in some way capture the essential pieces of it that have personal meaning (we'll all be different here). If we are to try and "teach" this narrative then we are trying to help people connect Frankl's experience (as we can only read about) to our own. We will not experience nor understand (thankfully) Frankl's experiences the way he did, but if we are to learn from his narrative then we must in some manner extend his narrative into our own lives. The underlying theme in Frankl's story is captured by Dostoevski comment, "There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings." (Frankl was fond of this insight).
I wish to repeat the statement that critical narratives do not need to originate in themes of suffering. Clearly, the depths of my own suffering in life are in much shallower waters. But don't we all suffer at some point in life to various degrees? The collective symptoms of suffering are becoming better known: the 20th century marked new achievements in deaths and atrocities due to war, miscreant forms of entertainment, increased school violence, our collective ineptitude in providing basic necessities for every human being on the planet, increasing levels of mental agony, the adulation of commercialism, and so on. It is ironic to think about the amount of time we spend talking about networks, communities, connectivity, interactivity, relationships and the like, while continually failing the collective "standardized test" that we all face. The world is not a bad place, but there are bad things in it that cause people to suffer:
"Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. ... Such [people] are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere [people are] confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through [their] own suffering."
- Man's Search For Meaning
So suffering is a responsibility we must all accept. Suffering is not about armchair entertainment - it is about real and wonderfully "average" people in unique situations and circumstances. And if we accept the responsibility for suffering in our world (our own and that of others) we embrace learning (n.b. - I'm not suggesting that all learning comes to us via suffering). If we simply analyze the plot, memorize facts and figures, and get high grades on tests as an end unto itself we are not learning - but we are being educated. The narrative is the inspiration and motivation for learning; the facts, figures, data, statistics, textbooks, and tests are at best a distant second.
Teaching, in Frankl's narrative, means to give oneself freely to a purpose in life without expecting anything in return. Learning, in Frankl's narrative, is a way to find personal meaning in the midst of excruciating mental and physical torment.