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Boring Billboards

April 18, 2010

The last few weeks en route to my daughter's school, we passed a billboard flashing an alluring new sports car. Above the car were only three powerful words: Lust Conquers All.

This past week, the billboard was changed. The new billboard now features a group of hip young men and women smiling in designer wear with the name of the designer proudly displayed above.

The message of both billboards, and thousands like them, is clear. To lead happier, more fulfilling lives, you need these things—this type of car or these designer labels.

Followers of Freud would undoubtedly see these advertisements as proving his theory that man's primal motivation is his desire for pleasure. Adlerians, on the other hand, would note how they fit Adler's philosophy of man's striving for superiority. The right car and the right labels can bring you pleasure and power.

Power and pleasure are definitely strong forces. Advertising agencies have played on these drives to convince us of our need for many products – from the perfect vacation to the perfect accessory. But is there more to the human psyche than just these drives?

Viktor Frankl was tormented by this question. In logotherapy, the system Frankl developed, now touted as the third Viennese school of psychotherapy, he argues that by seeing the human psyche as a conglomerate of fragmented parts and drives, like the will to pleasure or power, the wholeness of the human person is destroyed. Man is ultimately depersonalized and viewed as an object, ruled by "mechanisms."

From Frankl's perspective, the underlying motivation in all human beings is their "will to meaning." Frankl backs his extensive theory with studies and statistics where the majority of respondents asserted that "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" or "finding a purpose and a meaning in life" was their highest goal. In his own experience as a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, he witnessed man falling to the depths of depravity, but also reaching the highest levels of faith and goodness despite suffering.

In Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning, Frankl argues: "Rather than being concerned with any inner condition, be it pleasure or homeostasis, man is oriented toward the world out there and within this world, he is interested in meanings to fulfill and in other human beings… He knows he is actualizing himself precisely to the extent to which he is forgetting himself and he is forgetting himself by giving himself, be it through service to a cause higher than himself, or loving a person other than himself. Truly self-transcendence is the essence of human existence.

"The more he forgets himself by giving to causes of another person the more human he is. And the more he is immersed and absorbed in something or someone other than himself, the more he really becomes himself. "

Moreover, the boredom and apathy so prevalent in our society is because "man's will to meaning is frustrated on a worldwide scale. People are haunted by a feeling of meaninglessness which is often accompanied by a feeling of emptiness…"

Frankl's theory, developed decades ago, still rings true in our times. How, then, according to his system, does man find this elusive "meaning"? How can we define what "meaning" is?

This is where Frankl seems to get stuck.

"Meaning must be found and cannot be given. To try to give meaning would amount to moralizing…. Morals will no longer define what is good and what is bad in terms of what one should do and what one must not do. What is good will be defined as that which fosters the meaning fulfillment of a being. And what is bad will be defined as that which hinders this meaning fulfillment.

"The Logotherapist leaves it to the patient to decide what is meaningful and what is not, or for that matter, what is good and what is bad…

"Meaning must be found by one's own conscience. Conscience may be defined as a means to discover meanings, to 'sniff them out' as it were."

But in giving the conscience the power to lead us to meaning, Frankl acknowledges that it "may also lead us astray. Conscience may err, and I cannot know for certain whether my conscience is right and another's conscience, which tells him something different is wrong, or whether the reverse is true. Not that there is no truth: there is. And there can be only one truth. But no one can be absolutely sure it is he who has arrived at this truth.

"So man can only stick to his conscience, although until he lies on his deathbed, he never knows whether it is the true meaning his conscience mediates to him."

In his reluctance or inability to define objective morality, Frankl falls short of providing a path toward finding meaning. To him, there is "one truth" but he fails to access or define it. All meaning and morality becomes necessarily subjective.

In his best-selling book, I'm OK—You're OK, Thomas Harris describes the root of this hesitation. "Establishing value judgments has been seen by many in the field of psychology, as an abominable departure from the scientific method to be shunned righteously and at all cost. "

He quotes Nathaniel Branden: "The tragedy of psychology is that values are the one issue specifically banned from its domain. It is not true that merely bringing conflicts into conscious awareness guarantees that patients will resolve them. The answer to moral problems is not self-evident; they require a process of complex philosophical thought and analysis."

As a survivor, Frankl couldn't accept a definition of man as someone who is only motivated by base drives of pleasure or power because he witnessed people who found the greatest wellsprings of faith, compassion and humanity even in the hell of Auschwitz. These were people who viewed their lives and actions as meaningful and purposeful.

But at the same time, Frankl stops short of providing a workable definition for "meaning" or a universal code of morality. For the Nazi oppressors, conscience was non-existent and to the contrary, they may have found their "meaning" according to Frankl's definition by "giving themselves over to a cause" in fulfilling their goal of obliterating the "sub-human" Jews from this world.

As Harris expresses, "If there is no universal 'should' there is no way of saying that that Albert Schweitzer was a better man than Adolf Hitler. If not, the only valid observation we may make is that Albert Schweitzer did such and so, and Adolf Hitler did such and so. Even though we make further notations that Albert Schweitzer saved so and so many lives and Adolf Hitler instigated the death of millions of people, we see this only as statistical markings on the page of history and discount any relevance of ethical reflection toward the modification of human behavior. The worth of people, or persons, after all, cannot be proven scientifically. Albert Schweitzer thought he was right. Adolf Hitler thought he was right. That they were both right is an obvious contradiction. But by what standard do we determine who was right?"

Frankl succeeds in broadening our perspective on man to see the human psyche as more than mere component drives. He powerfully portrays a deeper, more spiritual foundation of man, expressed through his longing for meaning and transcendence. He convincingly argues that even in suffering, pain or death, man can discover this meaning. Yet, even Frankl with his spiritual and conscience-oriented ideology fails to provide direction on how to access this meaning and how to define an objective morality.

So, in my mind's eye, I can see a time in the future when I'll still be driving down the street and noticing the billboards. But rather than trying to sell products to consumers by catering to their base drives for power or pleasure, these billboards will be advertising a path to greater meaning and transcendence.

But until that time, I can't help but wonder: is it at all possible for science or psychology to meld with religion and come to a workable, universal definition on what is objective morality?

Perhaps if we could find an answer to this elusive question, finding meaning in our lives would be more accessible to us all.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

A Psychotherapist in Auschwitz

April 11, 2010

Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad ... Listen Israel, G‑d is our L‑rd, G‑d is One.

These words are a highlight of our daily prayers, expressing powerful pearls of faith.

These words have been whispered throughout the ages, in times of grave challenge, in dark hidden cellars, by those breathing their last breath, at an auto da fé in Spain or a gas chamber in Nazi Germany.

These are also words of hope and happiness, sung in joy while celebrating significant milestones.

But I didn't expect to read these Hebrew words in a timeless best-selling classic, a psychology book that has been touted by the Library of Congress as one of the ten most influential books in America.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl has sold more than twelve million copies worldwide. Frankl describes his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps, but more than his travails, he writes as a psychologist about what provided him with the strength to survive.

Frankl poignantly describes how prisoners who gave up on life and hope for a future were inevitably the first to die. They died less from lack of food than from lack of something to live for. By contrast, Frankl kept himself alive by thinking of his wife, and dreaming of lecturing about how his experiences reinforced what was already a central part of his thesis before entering the camps – that the primary motivational force of every person is a search for meaning.

Frankl's autobiographical memoir is followed by an outline of his therapeutic doctrine of curing the soul by finding meaning in life. His theory gains credence from the backdrop of his personal experiences in the concentration camps and how he found meaning while confronting his suffering.

A strong underlying thread throughout his book is the strength, fortitude and love that he drew not only from memories of his wife, but from his faith.

As he asserts in his book, Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning: "G‑d is not dead, not even 'after Auschwitz.' For belief in G‑d is unconditional or it is not belief at all. If it is unconditional it will stand and face the fact that six million died in the Nazi Holocaust; if it is not unconditional then it will fall away if only a single innocent child has to die...There is no point in bargaining with G‑d, say by arguing: 'Up to six thousand or even one million victims in the Holocaust I maintain my belief in Thee; but from one million upward nothing can be done any longer, and I am sorry but I must renounce my belief in Thee...A weak faith is weakened by predicaments and catastrophes, whereas a strong faith is strengthened by them."

Shortly after arriving at Auschwitz, Frankl was stripped of his most precious possession—a manuscript that was his life's work, which he had hidden in his coat pocket. Realizing that the odds of his survival were small, "no more than one in twenty-eight," he had what he describes as "perhaps his deepest experience in the concentration camps."

"I had to undergo and overcome the loss of my mental child. And now it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a mental child of my own. So I found myself confronted with the question whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of meaning.

"Not yet did I notice that an answer to this question with which I was wrestling so passionately was already in store for me, and that soon thereafter this answer would be given to me. This was the case when I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chamber...Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in a pocket of the newly acquired coat one single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisroel. How should I have interpreted such a "coincidence" other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?"

And then in the concluding sentence of this best-selling book that has been translated into twenty-four languages, Frankl again draws on this timeless proclamation of faith.

"Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright with the L‑rd's prayer or the Shema Yisroel on his lips."

What is it about the Shema Yisroel prayer that has inspired so many through the most trying of times and has provided such meaning and purpose to help us survive even the most despairing circumstances?

I think aside from its simple assertion of belief in a single Higher power and the deep mystical meaning hidden within the words of this special prayer, there are four key psychological elements that have made it our bedrock of faith:

1) Relevance: Listen, Israel—A religion or way of life cannot start and end with theories; it must also address the humanness within us. The Shema does not begin in the realm of ideology, in the heavens, with a depersonalized statement of faith. It speaks by addressing each and every one of us. Listen, Israel, listen to this message, and make it a part of your being, because this is not speaking above you, not at you, but calling to you.

2) Belonging: The Shema prayer is in plural ("our G‑d" and not "my G‑d"), spoken as a collective group, addressing us all as Israelites. Human beings have a need to identify with one another. We gain strength from one another and fortitude from being a part of something greater than ourselves. More attractive than ideology is a sense of belonging to one extended family – despite barriers. That sense of community is one of our strongest assets.

3) Personalization: G‑d is our G‑d. G‑d is "ours." G‑d who is transcendental and infinite is also our personal G‑d who is with us at every moment in time, holding our hand in times of celebration as well as times of despair. G‑d is not just an objective ruler, who created and regulates the cosmos. He is "ours," near to us, subjectively understanding the deepest part of ourselves, more than we do; He is with us in times of need, joy and pain.

4) Individuality: As much as we all need a sense of belonging and community, we must not negate our individual differences. The Shema statement ends with the words "G‑d is one" (rather than G‑d is "singular" or "alone"). The oneness of G‑d is present within the diversity of the world. As the Chassidic masters have said, "There is nothing other than Him." While conformity stunts growth, the "oneness of G‑d" should empower us to discover and cultivate the G‑dly oneness and uniqueness within each of us.

A basis of Frankl's theory is that forces beyond our control can take away everything we possess except one thing—our freedom to choose how we will respond to the situation.

After describing the anguish of his experiences in Auschwitz, Frankl concludes his personal memoir: "The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more—except his G‑d."

That can become our most empowering credo.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.
Often we need a break from our daily routine. A pause from life to help us appreciate life.

A little pat on the back to let us know when we're on track. A word of encouragement to help us through those bleak moments and difficult days.

Sometimes, we just yearn for some friendship and camaraderie, someone to share our heart with. And sometimes we need a little direction from someone who's been there.

So, take a short pause from the busyness of your day and join Chana Weisberg for a cup of coffee.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.
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