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Too Much Meaning is Harmful
on March 10, 2018
The problem is not lack of meaning, the problem is too much meaning. It is when meaning intrudes upon life that problems occur.
What Frankl offers with logotherapy is really a form of existential psychotherapy developed to deal with the perceived problems of facing death, lack of freedom, personal isolation and the overall pointless nature of life, oh hum. These concerns come from our desire to project ourselves forward and insist that there is meaning in and to life, they are just the result of having too much meaning and a fixation with the future which often and easily becomes the source of paralyzing anxiety. More correctly, I believe, the human experience of existence is, at best, just a succession of banal events without necessary connection, meaningful causality or purpose. The authority of meaning is only local and contingent, any meaning that we insist upon is fully conditional, not necessary. All progress made in the human condition is conditional, contingent and subject to reversal. The compelling narrative provided by Frankl in chapter 1 is in need of no further elaboration on this point. There is no need for any form of therapy (unless such therapy is truly for the treatment of a physical medical condition) when we awaken to find that life is best led in the present, for and in the here and now, in terms of intensity, immediacy and spontaneity without trying to project our lived experience of the present forward. I am not advocating a hedonistic and easy ‘just be happy don’t care’ point of view. Nor by “oh-hum’ do I mean a form of exaggerated pessimism. No do I mean make no provision for the ‘morrow. My view of the future is what I call the insurance view, simply put into place those reasonable risk absorbing necessaries and forget about the rest. I just believe that we should not sacrifice the present to the tyranny of goals and treachery of plans which beckon and tempt us to concoct dreams and delusions for an unknowable future to which we become enslaved. This is not nihilism. Emphasis on the present life is life affirming, a fixation on the future combined with an addiction to dogmatic search for meaning is life denying. Our attitudes toward meaning cut deeply into our understanding of what it means to be human. To escape from meaning is to escape the tyranny of a madman if I can paraphrase from Plato. To escape from the oppression of meaning and that task master we call the future is the best path to true human flourishing in the present. With the mythology of meaning we will next be expecting ourselves to be exact in a world that is only approximate or purposeful in a world that is accidental. With the pathology of meaning comes the baggage of doing and pursuing, chasing and achieving. As I read the book, I could help but think at various points that Frankl was drunk on meaning or finding meaning. The meaning overdose is as nauseating as the meaning quest is oppressive.
People living under such delusions about the future will become meaning maniacs and look for meaning in whatever world in which they find themselves. Life in the camps was “…nasty brutish and short” to be sure, and anything that provided answers, comfort or explanations was going to be seized upon and believed for example, a belief in meaning and the hope for the future. If one decides to continue with life under such conditions, such belief becomes the only possible defense against the absurdity and madness. The poorest and most dispossessed will look for a way to believe that they are a part of something larger in the present and something more in the future to cope with tragic outcomes not of their own choosing or making. Historically, this has been one of the functions of religion.
I believe that oblivion is the greatest relief when existence becomes filled with torture, brutality, maddens and inhumanity. I cannot agree with Frankl that our existence has an ultimate purpose, even under the best of circumstances, but I respect him deeply nonetheless for the experience he endured and survived to share with us. I am grateful for his efforts. Please do misunderstand the tone of this review. Frankl was a great man, but I do not accept his thesis that unavoidable suffering can be made to have any meaning or benefit or that life is meaningful under any conditions, “…even those which are most miserable.” This strikes me as the rather puerile ‘make the best of any situation’ or the delusional ‘everything happens for the best’ perspective. There is nothing ennobling about unavoidable suffering. To view suffering of any kind as ennobling or somehow beneficial seems to me to be a special kind of neurosis in need of treatment. So marked by his dreadful experience in the camps was Frankl that he tries to convince us that unavoidable suffering can be beneficial. There is no doubt that Frankl had the capacity to endure and survive the suffering with his own form of mental gymnastics, but I do think this is generalizable. I suppose that the fantasy of a purpose in life with a hope for the future was the delusion needed to sustain one under the extreme barbarism of the camps when the conditions endured in the camps should have been enough convince one of the utter psychosis to which human life had descended. At worst, Frankl is creating a generation of meaning fanatics. I am not advocating suicide when one simply becomes annoyed with life but when faced with life in the camps as Frankl relates it, I would opt for suicide as the only rational course of action. I come to the opposite conclusion of Frankl. It is not worth committing suicide over a life without meaning, it is only when questions of great meaning intercede that suicide becomes an option. Too much meaning is a very dangerous thing.
I once saw an interview with Herta Bothe (in much later life), a female Nazi concentration camp guard during World War II. At one point in the interview she was asked “what were you thinking when you committed these horrific acts?” She looked away in silence, then came back and said that she was told that she could either be a guard at the camp or an inmate in the camp. A real Hobbesian choice assuming that was true, but it was still a false dichotomy for there is a third choice and it is the only ethical choice under such circumstances. If the option is truly to be either a sadistic guard or a tortured inmate, with no hope of avoidance or escape in either case, then the only ethical choice and rational course is to avoid both unacceptable options by means of suicide. It would take a reservoir of untold moral courage to make such a choice. I can only ‘hope’ that I could dip into that reservoir to make such a choice. I can only hope that no one is put into the position of having to make such a ‘meaningful’ choice. Too much meaning is life threatening.
Perhaps it is apparent to the reader of this review that what I have done is to radicalize logotherapy and turn it back on itself. The inner logic of logotherapy makes it self-referential. That is, preoccupation with meaning brings about too much concern about meaning and a fixation about the future which brings about fear and neurosis about both meaning and the future. Stated another way, the preoccupation with meaning brings out the anxiety with meaning. Logotherapy prescribes detaching oneself from the source of anxiety. Since I see an overwrought search for meaning and a preoccupation with the future as the source of anxiety, I have applied logotherapy to this anxiety and detached myself from it accordingly. In a sense, I have applied this radicalized form of logotherapy to myself. Thank you after all, Dr. Frankl*****. Five stars are not enough for Viktor E. Frankl the human being.
I guess I live in Frankl’s existential vacuum, funny thing though, it does not seem to bother me. In fact, it is quite liberating. Maybe I have just rationalized my own particular, perhaps twisted, experience of existence.