Monday, July 29, 2013

An Insufficient Why

A few weeks ago I was at work, packing my bags to leave for the day. Another guy named "P" came down into the locker room, also packing to leave. The difference was that he was packing to leave for good. He just came back from a combat deployment, his time in the army is over after one enlistment, and he is done.

P has kind of an interesting life story. He speaks Chinese fluently, having studied it in college. He traveled and worked in China for a year or so. He is a bar registered lawyer who practiced with a law firm for several years. He also spent two years in Africa working for the peace corps teaching at a school, where he taught himself French, which he also speaks fluently. To top it all off, in his thirties he decided to join the Army and go Special Forces.

One time, a little over a year ago, he asked me, "Does your faith give you meaning in your life?"

I answered that, yes, it does, but that is not necessarily why I believed it. I believe because I have come to see that the Faith is True. It is that truth that gives meaning.

He nodded thoughtfully, and said, "I ask because I joined the Army hoping that it would provide me with a sense of meaning, and I was disappointed to find that it really didn't."

With this background, and knowing that I also plan to get out  of the Army about this time next year, it was not surprising that he should ask while he was packing, "So, what are you going to do after you get out of the army?"

I answered, "Try to do something meaningful with my life." It was a rather non-specific answer, since I actually do have a fairly detailed plan (for me). But he wasn't really asking what job I was going to do, or what college I was planning on attending.

"Something meaningful. Well, there is the big question, isn't it? What really is meaningful in life?"

"That is the question, isn't it?" I replied. "That really is the biggest reason why I am getting out. Do you know who Victor Frankl was?"

He shook his head.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychoanalyst in the early 1930's. Since he was Jewish he was deported by the Nazis some time after their takeover of Austria. He survived throughout the war, and out of his experiences he wrote, "Man's Search for Meaning," a book examining the psychological phenomena he encountered in what was arguably one of the most abnormal experiences for a human being to endure. In fact, it was Frankl who coined the phrase, "An abnormal response to an abnormal situation is normal behavior."

The burden of his book was the role of purpose in Auschwitz and other such places. He observed that those people who survived were the ones who had some purpose, some meaning, something worth enduring for. Those who did not have this transcendent sense of purpose either simply gave up and died, or they survived by doing incalculable damage to their own psyches. Only those who believed in something made it through with anything like their mental health intact.

Not all such purposeful people survived, of course, for no amount of  purpose will stop a bullet or make you immune to poison gas. Indeed, some with the deepest sense of faith and purpose did not live. At one point in the book he makes a point of separating himself from the martyrs by saying, "We who have come back, we know- the best of us did not return.” There were those who had such a deep and powerful purpose that it gave them the peace and strength to die well. 

Since I read that book, some three or four years ago, I have been pondering it very deeply. There is something haunting, almost accusing, in the strong, patient insistence on meaning. He coined a phrase by Neitzche of all people, "A man can endure almost any 'how', so long as he has a sufficient 'why'." It is this that P was searching for in his varied and rather remarkable like thus far. He is trying to find a sufficient why.

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