Happiness, growth more related than you think

A despondent congregant came to speak with me. She felt immense anguish over the large chasm that existed between her current spiritual state and the spiritual state that she felt confident she was capable of achieving and, alas, was not.
What do you say to such a person when you concur that hers is a very real dilemma, worthy of careful consideration and personal concern, and yet, you equally recognize that her heightened degree of private turmoil is such that instead of serving as a source of personal motivation to bridge her spiritual gap it has rather become for her a deep-seated source of internal paralysis and harmful self-loathing?
One can imagine the delicate balance required of anyone considering a response to such a sensitive inquiry. The answer given will either affirm the spiritual dilemma at hand and perpetuate the congregant’s negative beliefs about themselves, or soothe the congregant’s nerves while minimizing what should be a serious issue of concern to any committed Jew. I therefore decided to address both sides of the matter at hand.
I offered suggestions that I thought might booster her spiritual growth, but I also tried to raise her up in her own eyes. “The fact that you care so deeply about your spiritual life, about living your life with the utmost meaning, is itself an incredible achievement that needs to be recognized,” I told her. “Unlike so many others, you are playing the game of life the way it’s supposed to be played. And that alone should fill you with an incredible feeling of pride and self-satisfaction!” I was pleased to see that my words had hit their mark and that my congregant left with a newfound kick in her step as well as a vision of how to proceed going forward.
I found myself reflecting upon this exchange with a congregant upon completing Victor Frankl’s masterful work, Man’s Search For Meaning.
He first clarified his belief that man’s primary motivational force is the striving to find meaning in one’s life, which is in contradistinction to Alfred Adler’s belief in the primacy of the will to power, and Freud’s central focus on the pleasure principle. Frankl recognized the centrality of the will to power and the will to pleasure in mankind, but saw those as expressions of a frustrated will to meaning. “Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money. In other cases, the place of frustrated will to meaning is taken by the will to pleasure” (p.107).
Frankl bemoans what he deems to be the “mass neurosis of the present time,” something he terms “the existential vacuum.” What is this existential vacuum? In Frankl’s words, it “can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as the contention that being has no meaning” (p.129)
In other words, we live in a world in which people have largely ceased believing that human life and the process of living has intrinsic meaning. Rather, more and more individuals are convinced that life is but the “result of biological, psychological and sociological conditions, or the product of heredity and environment” (p.130). And what meaning, what dignity, can there be for man who is essentially reduced to an advanced, randomly conceived machine?
Or as Frankl puts it in a postscript written almost 40 years after the original release of his book, “As to the causation of the feeling of meaninglessness, one may say, albeit in an oversimplifying vein, that people have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning” (p.140).
Frankl adds that one of the primary reasons why this epidemic is so pronounced in the modern age is that “man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing” (p.106). This seems to me a reference to the post-enlightenment’s abandonment of religion en masse. For if religion is that vehicle that most directly asserts meaning into man’s life, and if meaning is the dominant motivational force of man, modern man’s abandonment of religion can be seen as nothing less than catastrophic in its psychological implications for mankind.
It is for this reason that Frankl urges the reader to run once again toward meaning, and not away from it. The challenge: This striving for meaning necessarily introduces a new degree of tension into one’s life that, like the tension of my congregant, is oftentimes uncomfortable. In one of the most compelling paragraphs in the entire book, Frankl writes:
“Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become… We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, ‘homeostasis,’ i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task” (pp.104-105).
It’s worth noting that for all of the tension that the striving for meaning spawns, it is this very progress that generates the seeds to human happiness. Again the wise words of Victor Frankl:
“To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’ Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation” (p.138).
How similar is this reflection to the teaching of the great German Torah sage, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zt’’l (1808-1888), who taught in his commentary to the Chumash (Devarim 4:1) that the word simcha, “happiness,” is etymologically related to the word tzmicha, “growth.” The concept is that one cannot achieve the state of happiness by pursuing happiness directly, as happiness is not a product in and of itself. Happiness is, rather, the natural byproduct of, and emotional response to, the experience of human growth.
The time has come, then, for us to reconsider our emotionally-fraught relationship with tension-filled meaning, if for no better reason than the selfish pursuit of our very own happiness.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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