A public health emergency in the land of a thousand opportunities?
Continuing on from the previously discussed topic, I would like to say more about the significance of Frankl’s insights on the important topic of “joy”. Everyone wants to experience joy. Without
joy, life is desolate, insipid and empty. The average person would even claim to want joy in life more than meaning. And people often harbour a conviction that with enough money they can buy
everything, even joy.
Average people normally have a natural sense of what is right, but as far as joy is concerned they are gravely mistaken. If they would refer to Frankl’s words on the subject their error would soon be corrected, but the average people of today are no longer bookworms. They are used to pressing buttons and staring at screens, soaking up pre-established models of thought served up by filmmakers, media professionals and a hodgepodge of opinions published on the internet, which they adopt for simplicity’s sake. The more complicated knowledge becomes, the harder it is to understand, and ultimately every flowering of knowledge usually ends in a dulling of minds.
It is the good average people who pay for their error about the nature of joy. For the fact is that joy in life can neither be compelled nor bought. It resists nothing so strongly as an attempt to force it. Joy simply comes to people of itself - or it does not come. Joy comes to people unnoticed at first, and takes them by surprise when they notice it. The most surprising thing, however, is that joy can take up residence in a troublesome life and stay away from a comfortable one. It completely refuses to be bargained with, and in the truest sense of the words, all “bargaining” with the “commodity” of joy is doomed to failure.
In our world of extremes, worried scientists and doctors are currently observing a mass failure of this kind in the USA. Trade in stimulant drugs and painkilling opioids is booming, but instead of a rocketing rise in happy people, there has been a rocketing rise in drug deaths. The authorities are alarmed, and the President has declared a state of emergency. Now there are frantic discussions about how to fight this “epidemic”. The problem is certainly complex, but it has a simple starting point: joy must be produced, or, failing that, an absence of joy must be alleviated by anaesthesia. The artificial production of joy is impossible, but anaesthesia is easy to achieve, and many consumers are satisfied in this way. If food binges, computer games, fast cars, sexual indulgences and the like no longer suffice to distract one from joylessness, then alcohol, heroin, or the newest top-sellers fentanyl and oxycodon will certainly do the trick.
Is there an effective antidote to this epidemic? I say: reading Frankl would be the best first step to developing one. The question is how to track down joy. The joy that comes of itself, surprises us, and is able to light up even a difficult life. It is the faithful companion of meaning. It is a regular guest in any life which is oriented towards meaning. People who see a profound meaning in their activities take joy in what they do every day. People who are devoted to their families take joy in seeing their loved ones prosper. People who hike, do handicrafts, play music, cultivate their garden, write poetry and so on take joy in their immersal in nature or culture. People who throw themselves passionately into social work take joy in every little success they are able to achieve. People who bear sorrow, loss or illness with dignity take joy in many little things. None of these people slide into joylessness, even if they have to change their plans. People who know how to orient themselves to the meaning of a given situation can also do this in precarious life situations. They do not need physical or psychic doping, because they are overflowing with the “defiant power of the spirit” which, as Frankl emphasized, is one of our uniquely human resources. And when defiance reaches its limits, a meaning-oriented person can still aspire to the greatest and highest human achievement that there is, reconciliation with the unalterable. Joy often then sneaks up on that person with light footsteps.
American specialists in various disciplines are racking their brains to work out how the public health emergency they have diagnosed can be countered, both in terms of prevention and cure. Other countries are, of course, also interested in suitable programs for this purpose, because it is well-known that the USA often plays a pioneering role, for good and for ill. So what does logotherapy have to offer for such a program?
It is clear that the situation can only be improved by the collective effect of multiple “healing factors”. As a one-time student of Frankl, it is my task to elucidate what role “logotherapeutic healing factors” can play. The key is to set up a chain reaction between the intensification of the personal search for meaning, and the joy which can be experienced. In many fields of science that engage with this topic, it is repeatedly asserted that people in all age categories have poor future prospects, are unemployed or work too hard, seldom receive praise or recognition, no longer receive support from religion, family or community, affordable treatment for their illnesses, and no listening ear for comfort.
As regrettable as all of this is, they are not simply the victims of bad systems! They should be encouraged to take their fate in their own hands and to meditate briefly every day. What it is meaningful to do, and what is it meaningful to leave undone? Is it perhaps meaningful to persevere doggedly in the search for work? To study for further qualifications at the same time? Is it perhaps meaningful to practice self-discipline in one’s work, so as not to experience burnout? Or to remain motivated despite the absence of affirming feedback from others? Is it perhaps meaningful to adopt a simple, ascetic lifestyle, to preserve one’s health or win it back? Is it perhaps meaningful to build new foundations for relationships with relatives and acquaintances? People who engage in peaceful and honest dialog with themselves in a search for meaning will certainly find meaning, and if they make what they find their guiding star, they will approach the tasks of their life with increased confidence. Their lives will be enriched by the actualisation of values. Their lives will become more and more worth living. Joy will be a more and more frequent guest. And who will then turn to artificial stimulants? Consciousness of values is the exact opposite of a desire for anaesthesia.
One could admittedly be justified in objecting that some people are in too unstable a state to set out on this adventure of a search for values. Some have never experienced suitable stimuli or models, and are estranged from the voice of their own conscience, and some have been lured onto crooked paths, on which they have lost themselves as in a labyrinth. Their natural “will to meaning” has been buried. Their freedom has been curtailed. But they have not lost their deepest human spirit, and cannot lose it; this is guaranteed to them by virtue of being human. Thus there still exists unrestricted hope for them. They need competent and careful help, I would say logotherapeutic help. They need a coach who meets them in the middle of the labyrinth and convinces them that there are ways out. Who tries out new paths with them, opens up a space of freedom for them, elicits visions from them, and generally rekindles their desire for the adventure of the “search for meaning”. Who also continually urges them on and supports them in withstanding necessary pain for the sake of the meaningful goals that they want to set for themselves, and which cannot be achieved without making sacrifices. As we already know, answers to questions of meaning are not always comfortable. They are, however, worth following, because they ultimately reduce suffering and produce joy - for people and for the world.
This covers the preventative aspect. The curative aspect requires a clinical intervention. The public health emergency that has been declared in the USA has become so critical because the taking of drugs and mood altering medications represents a massive intervention in the brain. The brain is the (unbelievably capable and precise) tool of the human spirit. Only in the present century has neurobiology advanced enough to allow us to measure how much our personal “I”, that we are, is dependent on the functionality of our brain, that we have, without being identical with it. On this topic Frankl used to say that the light that we turn on in a room is dependent on a functional lamp, without being identical with it. Just as there is no light in a room if the lamp is broken (without the light itself being broken!) spiritual phenomena cannot take place if our brain is badly damaged. This, however, is precisely the devastation that drugs leave in their wake: damaged brains. And because all questioning and searching for meaning, and all grasping and actualising of meaning are spiritual phenomena, they hardly occur at all in damaged brains. The chain reaction between the intensification of the personal search for meaning, and the joy which can be experienced can no longer be set up.
This is the reason why logotherapeutic treatment of drug addicts must follow a long period of clinical rehabilitation. Without a doubt, repairing or dealing with brain damage is one of the highest priority tasks for a modern doctor. This may be expensive, but it is thoroughly worthwhile (especially in view of our increased life expectancy). Because just as one cannot be productive in a dark room, the human spirit can do little with blunted and inadequate tools.
In the face of thousands of sick people who are too “clouded” to be able to fashion a meaningful life for themselves, the question of meaning is shifted to other addressees. Is it meaningful to build a comprehensive network of therapeutic centres in which drug addicts (and possibly also psychotic) people receive first-class treatment that sharpens the tools of their spirit and allows them to recover their spiritual freedom and their “will to meaning”? A thousand times yes! There is no meaningful alternative to this meaningful task. Are the financial means lacking? One cannot haggle with meaning, and flimsy excuses bounce off it. How much money is poured out on armaments, on political and industrial rackets? In the land of a thousand opportunities, there must be at least one opportunity to shout out the thousand yeses to this societal task, and to provide sustainable help for people who have been made ill by narcotic drugs.
But perhaps there is a more fundamental obstacle than a lack of funds? (It is about convictions, not just about actions…) Could it be a contempt for these people? Could it be the idea that junkies are responsible for their own dilemma, and do not deserve to be cured at the cost of the state? It is true that part of the blame is theirs. Admittedly no one can tell how much in individual cases, but no drug problems (or alcohol problems) start without bad decisions having been made. Once started, however, they develop a dynamic from which it is difficult for the addict to escape. It is as though they have been caught in a trap, and the more they try to escape (by means of drops and powders) from the joylessness of their lives, empty of meaning, the more firmly the trap closes on them. It is a complete misjudgement to despise them! They are just as valuable as humans as we are, and one should have the greatest compassion for them. They are (physically and psychically) amongst the poorest of the poor, they are in despair - so much so that they can no longer bear to go on feeling their existential despair, and they get stoned…until the despair is finally silenced because their damaged brain no longer communicates the spiritual signals from the inner core of their personhood.
As regards their own measure of blame, I ask: “Who will cast the first stone?” Who has never made any bad decisions? Certainly not the average American citizen, any more than the President. So who should presume to leave sick people in the lurch just because they once made a mistake? “No one has the right to do this,” whispers the voice of meaning, if we listen to the deepest promptings of our soul.
We should listen to it. The public health emergency in the USA is only one facet of a tragic development that takes place whenever too little attention is collectively paid to the question of meaning. In an age overwhelmed by digital information, what Viktor E. Frankl prophesied long ago will sooner or later become clear, namely that only one source of information has the precedence and superiority to drive our human evolution forward (contrary to the fears of many of our contemporaries) and that is the information whispered to us by our “meaning-organ”, our conscience.
It would be better if this became clear sooner rather than later.