Vision Overcomes Hardship in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor E. Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning introduced me to the writing of Viktor E. Frankl, a 20th century psychiatrist and holocaust survivor. In the mood for seeking larger meaning, vision, and an inspiration for a recent testimonial for overcoming adversity with psychological strength, I was drawn to Frankl‘s best-selling work.

I found the reminders and echoing of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in the treatment of Frankl‘s Man’s Search for Meaning reassuring. Frankl builds his logotherapy with an awareness of Kierkegaard‘s will to meaning. That Frankl further counterpoints Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler by arguing not for drives of pleasure or power but for meaning strikes me as a truly remarkable accomplishment.

Mans Search for Meaning 2(Viktor E. Frankl)

The book itself starts first with not so much of Frankl‘s experiences in the concentration camps throughout Europe during World War II as an exploration of some of the personality profiles of those that experienced the concentration camps. The editorial consideration here was not as much to downplay personal narratives of those that had come. The decision was to offer something different.

Man’s Search for Meaning then introduced the psychiatry of logotherapy. The edition that I was reading was a later version that aimed to make modifications based on the learning and growth within this branch of psychiatry, which again advanced upon focusing on meaning rather than “not the drive to sex or pleasure, as Freud theorized, or power, as Nietzsche and Adler argued” (www.goodtherapy.org).

Friedrich Nitezsche was a philosopher in his own right that focused in no small part on human drives and passions as central to a meaningful human experience.

Mans Search for Meaning 3(People define meaning!)

A powerful aid and benefit that I took from Man’s Search for Meaning came with the exploration of logotherapy. In discussing self-actualization and experiencing meaning, Frankl mentioned three different ways to discover meaning:

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed.
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone.
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

The first of those is self-explanatory. Offering the world a new thing like a smartphone, or a best-selling book, or the means for two friends that later become husband and wife, are examples.

The second could involve experiencing the goodness of an act of kindness, the truth of an uplifting statement of gratitude, or the beauty of the autumn colors as leaves change from green to golden, brown, or red. Loving another person offers meaning and connection of its own.

When facing circumstances that you cannot change and which cause tangible pain, anxiety, or both, your approach to that pain can transform the experience of suffering into bearing witness to that pain and transforming it into a human achievement. The example Frankl offered on this score was that of an aging medical doctor who had been suffering greatly after his deceased had died. There was comforted when he realized that his wife’s passing first meant she would not suffer the grief that he was feeling.

I came away with the reward of new insight and encouragement. Viktor E. Frankl further rewarded me with a deeper structural understanding of psychiatry along with distinctions between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  I give Man’s Search for Meaning 4-stars out of 5.

Matt – Sunday, October 15, 2017

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To shrug would be wrong with Andrew Solomon’s ‘Noonday Demon’

To shrug would be wrong. Andrew Solomon‘s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression deserves so much more. Noonday Demon brings so much advocacy, scholarship, and personal truth to its tale that I cannot help but recommend this highly for those with an open mind and feelings.

Noonday Demon examines depression, mental illness, and anxiety. He explores a number of his own experiences with the disease, as well as that of his mother. The non-fiction narrative looks into other cases upon which Andrew Solomon is familiar and conversant. This is the first book that I’ve read that treats this subject both firsthand and with some academic rigor (at least from my reckoning).

There were several areas that stuck with me as noteworthy and memorable. I will quote a few passages that were forceful and compelling.

Noonday Demon 2(Andrew Solomon)

Solomon quotes George Brown at the University of London, a founder of Life Events Research, on the nature of depression and anxiety:

“Our view is that most depression is anti-social in origin. There is a disease entity as well but most people are able to produce major depression given a particular set of circumstances. Level of vulnerability varies, of course, but I think at least two-thirds of the population has a sufficient level of vulnerability. According to the exhaustive research he’s done over 25 years, severely threatening life events are responsible for triggering initial depression…Depression is a response to past loss and anxiety is a response to future loss.

Ellen Frank from the University of Pittsburgh gets into the potential causes of depression, in a sense almost blaming those who suffer for their illness:

“I do not believe that if the causes of your problem were psycho-social that they would require a psycho-social treatment nor that if the causes were biological they would require a biological treatment.”

Solomon pulls no punches in his unapologetic disagreement for this as well as for the weak evidence for claiming that these suggestions indicate a path for returning those suffering back to health.

“It’s fashionable for psychiatrists to tell you first the cause of your depression…and second, as if there a logical link to cure; but this is poppycock.”

Solomon takes on the notion of self-medicating as a means of trading the pain you do not understand for one that you do. Emotionally, I find it hard to judge the decision-making, even though I hope for better.

“Pains are not destiny. If you take drugs, you do it deliberately. You know when you’re doing it. It involves volition. And yet, do we have choice? If one knows that there is ready relief for immediate pain, what does it mean to deny oneself?
     Part of what is so horrendous about depression and particularly about anxiety and panic is that it does not involve volition. Feelings happen to you for absolutely no reason at all.
     One writer has said that substance abuse is the substitution of comfortable and comprehensible pain for uncomfortable and incomprehensible pain, eliminating uncontrollable suffering which the user does not understand in favor of a drug-induced dysphoria which the user does understand.
     In Nepal, when an elephant has a splinter or spike in its foot his drivers put chili in one of his eyes and the elephant becomes so preoccupied with the pain of the chili that he stops paying attention to the pain in his foot and people can remove the spike without being trampled to death. And in a fairly short time the chili washes out of his eye.
     For many depressives, alcohol or cocaine or heroin is the chili, the intolerable thing the horror of which distracts from the more intolerable depression.”

After describing four types of suicide, and then staking out approval for one particular type, Solomon brings the case home by paraphrasing Sigmund Freud:

“Freud himself said that we have no adequate means of approaching the problem of suicide. One must appreciate his deference to this subject. If psychoanalysis is the impossible profession, suicide is the impossible subject.”

The bringing together of a compelling narrative is Solomon bringing his argument together for recognizing that there is a politics of mental health. The cases strikes me, as a layperson, as strong. While this argument aims at speaking to the people of the United States, the case for helping a demographic in need is emotionally compelling.

“The question of what constitutes mental illness and who should be treated rides very much on the back of public perceptions about sanity. There is such a thing as sanity and there is such a thing as madness and the difference is both categorical and dimensional, of kind and degree. Ultimately there is a politics of what one asks of ones own brain and of the brains of others. The problem is not so much the politics of depression as our failure to recognize that there is a politics of depression.
     A particularly disturbing recent op-ed article [at the time of writing] in The New York Times written by a psychiatrist at a conservative think tank in Washington in response to the new Surgeon General’s report on mental health proposed that helping the mildly ill would deprive the seriously ill as though mental health care were a finite mineral resource. She stated categorically that it was not possible to get unsupervised people to take their medications and proposed that those mentally ill who end up in prison probably need to be there.
     At the same time she proposed that the 20 percent of the U.S. citizenry who carry the burden of some kind of mental illness in many instances do not need therapy and therefore should not get it. The key word here is need because the question of need turns on quality of life rather than existence of life.
     It is true that many people can stay alive with crippling depression, but they can also stay alive, for example, with no teeth. That one could manage okay on yogurt and bananas for the rest of ones life is not a reason to leave modern people toothless. A person could also live with a club foot but these days it is not unusual to take measures to reconstruct one.
     The argument in effect comes down to the same one that is heard over and over again from outside the world of mental illness, which is that the only people who must be treated are those that pose an immediate expense or threat to others.”

Should there be more help? Is there no help because people choose to not understand? This is the political animal that Solomon says exists. To shrug at this would be wrong. My call to you is one of awareness; compassion; pressure applied smartly and in astute ways.

Noonday Demon 3(Quotation from Noonday Demon)

I too, am saying that I rate this book highly. I give Noonday Demon 4.5-stars out of 5 stars.

Matt – Friday, July 14, 2017