In My Mind's I

Analytic philosophies are fascinating, the people who originate them even more so. What led Victor Frankl to focus on “meaning”?
Batya Yaniger, Israeli psychologist and social worker, was here recently for a conference on Logotherapy — the belief system of Frankl, the Viennese doctor who lived through the Holocaust with meaning always on his mind.
“Logos” is Greek for meaning. By 1959, Victor Frankl had united theory with experience and presented “Man’s Search for Meaning” to a public that’s been reading this book ever since. Like most good theories, his can be expressed simply: Everyone has to find a reason to live, a meaning for living, even in life’s worst conditions. Everyone has choices to make, even in Auschwitz; one is to look toward the future.
Before returning home, Mrs. Yaniger spoke to a rapt group of 40 or so about the traditional Jewish wisdom embodied in Logotherapy, which she calls “the applied psychology of Judaism.” A few examples:
1) Judaism teaches that we’re not as individual as we think we are, that we are all connected, all one. Frankl talks of transcending ourselves, reaching beyond who and where we are to other important people and causes.
2) Judaism says that every day, God sends hints that invite us to come closer to serving Him. Frankl says that every situation is a question looking for an answer; our task is to find the true meaning that’s hinted at in the question.
3) The Chofetz Chaim taught that the Biblical question “Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you?” means all of us must be questioning ourselves at every moment: What does God want from me right now? Frankl teaches that every person’s life is a series of unique moments, each posing the question: What should I be doing right now?
Mrs. Yaniger shared this Hebrew text: “When you understand that everything that happens to you is for good, and that God is guiding your life for one purpose only — to give you eternity — then you will experience something like eternity here in this physical world.” She then provided this Frankl text: “…meaning differs from man to man and from day to day — indeed, from hour to hour. Life is a string of unique situations: ‘If I don’t do it right now’ refers to the uniqueness of the passing moment which gives me an opportunity to fulfill a meaning.”
Frankl was working on his theories, exploring and codifying them, long before the Shoah. But when such a time comes, its experiences — perhaps one single experience — can destroy a belief, or — as in his case — reinforce and solidify it. Lore is rooted in reality, and Yisroel Besser tells this tale in the most recent Halberstam/Leventhal collection, “Small Miracles of the Holocaust”:
“…the beasts took away the physical representation of his philosophy: the manuscript he had been hiding under his shirt … his mental ‘child.’ He was handed a tattered uniform, donned the striped rags … there was a tiny scrap of paper in a pocket, left over fom the poor inmate who had worn these clothes before him. The words written on it: Shema Yisrael….” So here was Frankl’s new “manuscript,” reinforcement of his belief that anywhere, even in this terrible place, there is God … the meaning of the moment.
Part of Frankl’s belief that grew from his Holocaust experience is that there are only two kinds of people in the world: good and bad. Yes, good Nazis as well as bad. And bad Jews as well as good — including the camp capos who followed orders to treat their own people so terribly. Everyone makes choices.
Sometimes people create theories to fit their circumstances, but Frankl’s prior theory helped him survive his.
Batya Yaniger put it this way: “Faith is security within a sea of change. Even though you’re always changing and don’t know what to expect from one moment to the next, God is with you wherever you are.”
In losing yourself by becoming part of something much greater than yourself, she said, you actually find yourself. When you realize that what you do will make a difference, you’ll want to make a difference — “so at every moment, you become more of who you really are.”
Said Rabbi Natan, student of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, “A person must know that all he has in this world is only today, this moment, because in another minute the moment will fly away.” Like him, Frankl believes in listening to God’s voice today. For Frankl, that voice is meaning.

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