Today’s pages (p149-154) commence with the second aspect of Viktor Frankl’s ‘tragic triad’: guilt.
How can we find meaning in our lives in spite of the presence of guilt?
For Frankl, no crime is fully explicable. No crime can be ‘fully traced back to biological, psychological and/or sociological factors’, he writes.
Totally explaining one’s crime would be tantamount to explaining away his or her guilt and to seeing in him or her not a free and responsible human being but a machine to be repaired.
Indeed, to explain away such a crime would be to do a disservice to criminals themselves.
Instead, Frankl recognises the freedom of the criminal act – and the criminal’s responsibility for ‘overcoming guilt by rising above it, by growing beyond [themselves], by changing for the better’.
The twin aspects of freedom and responsibility that are the foundations of Frankl’s philosophy make our guilty acts both a matter of personal choice and an opportunity to find meaning by facing up to our behaviour and overcoming it.
Frankl also argues that ‘collective guilt’ – holding one person responsible for the behaviour of another – is totally unjustified.
This is an incredibly powerful statement from a man who was himself the victim of a state policy of collective condemnation and punishment.
The final aspect of the tragic triad is death.
Frankl begins by pointing out that each moment is ‘dying’; each moment is transitory, and this fact alone ‘challenges us to make the best possible use of each moment of our lives’.
Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.
Tongue-twister it might be, but Frankl’s imperative forces us to face the death of the moment, and to double check with ourselves that we are taking the right action.
[A]s soon as we have used an opportunity and have actualised a potential meaning, we have done so once and for all.
Note the choice of words: opportunities are not ‘taken’ for Frankl, but ‘used’.
Opportunities to make meaning in our lives are not eternally floating out there in space, just waiting to be taken.
Opportunities for meaning are successive moments that are used up, whether we are consciously aware of the fact or not.
Such opportunities present themselves quite literally in the present, but the past is just as important to Frankl’s concept of responsibility:
[P]eople tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.
When we make use of an opportunity, we have ‘rescued’ a potential meaning and ‘safely delivered and deposited’ it into the past, where it is ‘irrevocably stored and treasured’.
It is with the past, with our memories of meanings actualised, that we hold ourselves to account.
Hence Frankl’s imperative.
- Take a moment’s pause before you act.
- Imagine you have been reincarnated (or that it’s Groundhog Day or that you’ve gone Back To The Future) and that this is actually the second time you are living this moment. Déjà vue!
- Remember that the first time this happened you did the same dumb thing you were about to do YET AGAIN just before Step #1. Zut alors!
- You are now free to change your choice. Will you?
In today’s society, we don’t value the past as highly as Frankl does. For Frankl, it is the elderly, not the young, who should be envied:
It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future.
But they have more than that.
Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past – the potentialities they have actualised , the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realised – and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.
Frankl’s final words in Man’s Search for Meaning are a call to join the ranks of the ‘saints’ or ‘decent people’.
For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best. …
Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.
And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.
Thank you for reading Man’s Search for Meaning with me over these past days. I hope you’ve found something useful in my rehashing. I know I have!