Existential Quicksand

         Imagine that one day, you are on your evening constitutional and you see someone who is struggling in quicksand. You can see that he is angry about his current situation, and as his anger grows so does his struggles, and he gets more and more stuck in the muck and mire. You watch as he yells and thrashes and makes things worse and you calmly say to him, “it is not about the situation, it is about your reaction to the situation.” Then you tip your hat and continue on your way feeling you have given exactly the advice and guidance that this man in distress needs.

            While such smug, self-satisfying speech makes us feel good and may hold some truth it may not be the most helpful thing to tell someone as they are quickly sinking into the sand towards a presumed grisly end. Yes, if the person stops thrashing, stops being so angry all the time, and steps back and thinks, then maybe he will stop sinking so quickly and will be able to find a way out. But this is not an easy state of mind to achieve when you are in a place of fear and desperation. Maybe instead of offering condescending advice from on high you could throw the person a rope, help them out, and then reflect on why it was that they ended up in quicksand in the first place. Nothing beats a great debrief and reflection after a time of trauma. Asking what it is that you have learned from this horrible and life-scarring event is probably the most soothing and reassuring thing one can do (note the dripping sarcasm). That and a cup of hot chocolate should be enough to assuage any sense of fear.

            Having recently read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I have been moved to consider the, “change your response/attitude to the situation” approach to giving advice or helping people. For those who do not know, Frankl wrote about his experience in the Jewish Concentration Camps during WWII and wondered what it was that made it possible for him, and others, to survive considering his relationship and reaction to the situation. It was a question that Frankle took very seriously.

            As an aside, I strongly encourage people to read his powerful telling of his experience of such horror. Not many people can share the pain and evils of their experience in a way that makes it possible for the reader to get a sense about what it might have been like to be there and in such a way that the reader can trust the author to bring you right up to the horrors of the experience and know that you will not be lost in the chaos and the madness of the moment. It is not gore porn, but an honesty that will affect you, push you, but not damage you. The first part of the book, this powerful sharing of his horrors in the concentration camp, makes this a brilliant work worth one’s time.

            But beyond his recollection of the Holocaust, Frankl offers some very good questions and insight from his experience. I know that scores of college psychology majors and others have written about this book, so I am not going to offer a play-by-play summery of Frankl’s theories. I am not a psychologist, so I cannot speak to the ways in which Frankl’s book contributed to the overall school of psychology, what he got right and what he might have missed. I’ll leave that to the multitude and ever growing schools of psychology. What I do want to offer is my reflection, as a theologian and a human, on Frankl’s thoughts.

            Frankl was in a horrific situation. He was in a place where we know people were beaten and tortured and starved and killed in ways that continues to shock and haunt the collective human conscious of the global community. When he reflects on his survival, Frankl lifts up his perspective, his existential turn towards a hope, a deep positivity that can make a difference. In reflection to this turn Frankl offers the idea of Logotherapy, which is essentially the belief that humanity is motivated by a search for purpose for one’s life and a desire to find meaning in that purpose. In the second half of his book, Frankl offers the advice to, “live as if you were living for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” (Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1984, 131-132). In other words, before you act, think about what you have just done, how it may not have gone well, and be deliberate with how you are now going to live.

            Overall, I really like this approach to living. It has a strong connection to existential philosophy which is something I enjoy. Not just the Sartre, Nietzsche kind of atheistic existentialism that reacts in a nihilist, fatalistic kind of way to the thought that “nothing matters,” but also the Kierkegaard, Camus, Tillich kind as well that considers that everything in life can and does matter. You need both. You need to realize that this life is real and might very well be all that we get and then make the bold and courageous decision to live fully in that life. Being someone who really enjoys the notion of free will, I think the notion of being deliberate in how you live is good and important, and for many, life-saving. And while Frankl has his own nuances and style, I would claim that his approach and description of logotherapy falls within that camp.

            But lets return to our friend in the quicksand and make sure he is still alive. Maybe we have just read Man’s Search for Meaning before coming across our friend in the muck and inspired by the desire to actualize our life, we cry out to him, stop being so negative and so angry and so violent. Make a different choice, calm down, and see how you can find meaning and purpose in your life.

            Maybe our friend listens and slows down his sinking towards the inevitable doom, but is still sinking. This is where I think this approach to life falls short. There comes a point when we, the world community, should get a rope, reach out an arm, do something to help pull the person out. I understand that we want the person to calm down so we don’t get pulled in as well, but then to walk away is not helpful either. Maybe we should ask ourselves what we could do that would bring meaning and purpose to our life, and that might be pulling people out of quicksand. And then, with the person we helped to rescue we can both build a fence around the quicksand so that others do not end up in such a place as well. Sometimes, most of the time, it is much easier to struggle through life with a community that can offer help. It is our life to life, to claim, to grow into, but we need not do it alone.

            There is an approach to faith and life that can lead toward a victim mentality and acceptance of the negative in life that is dangerous, and such existential philosophy (in the wrong hands) can feed this approach. It is telling people that where you are, you have no hope changing your situation, nor should you, and so you have to learn to accept it. Or it is saying that you have to do something to make your life better, but it is all resting on your actions, and it is your responsibility. Everything is placed on the individual and then he or she is left alone. What if, instead, our culture, our communities, our churches, our society asked itself what is our purpose, our meaning in relationship with the individual? What if we wondered what about our existence on a communal level? In our debates about politics, about the role of churches and other institutions, this question is something that looms in the background but is seldom asked. Maybe it is because we have not yet made a therapist couch big enough for an entire institution to lie upon. To ask the question of purpose is worth while especially in relation with the individuals within and in proximity to the institution. People are not alone, in isolation, struggling in their own pit of quicksand. Society, gatherings of individuals need to consider how to be deliberate in their relationships with those who are struggling. I believe that Frankl’s book can facilitate such a reflection on the personal and the corporate level. And such a reflection and actions following such reflection can only be good.

            And, down with quicksand!