Is Light hurt by Darkness? ~ searching for meaning in life

Is Light hurt by Darkness? ~ searching for meaning in life

I’ve been haunted lately by images and semi-visions of shadows, dreams of living darkness that consumes everything in its path. I had a vivid nightmare some weeks back where patches of shadow were sentient and hungry, and swallowed up both light and life. Darker than darkness, voids that reflect no light and absorb everything.

Last night I finally read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I’d hesitated first about buying it, then about reading it, simply because of associations with a person no longer part of my life, but realised that was idiotic. A book that has had a hundred or more printings and sold over nine million copies cannot really be tainted by one person’s opinion of it. So I read it and am still thinking about it. I suspect I will read it again many times before finally writing about the book itself; I am writing here about some thoughts that have been sparked by it.

One of the central premises of Frankl’s book and indeed of the psychotherapy Frankl founded, Logotherapy, is that to live, people need to find meaning in their lives.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logotherapy

Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

“We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” and that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”.

Now, Frankl survived concentration camps and therefore has in my opinion the crown when it comes to suffering and finding meaning in suffering. Anything I have experienced is nothing to what he survived. However, my old friend the Mad Priest has said on a number of occasions that comparing one person’s sufferings with that of another is both ludicrous and insulting: suffering is suffering.

This is what dear old Wiki says about Frankl’s views on depression:

Depression

Viktor Frankl believed depression occurred at the psychological, physiological, and spiritual levels. At the psychological level, he believed that feelings of inadequacy stem from undertaking tasks beyond our abilities. At the physiological level, he recognized a “vital low”, which he defined as a “diminishment of physical energy” Finally, Frankl believed that at the spiritual level, the depressed man faces tension between who he actually is in relation to what he should be. Frankl refers to this as the gaping abyss (Frankl; page 202). Finally Frankl suggests that if goals seem unreachable, an individual loses a sense of future and thus meaning resulting in depression. Thus logotherapy aims “to change the patient’s attitude toward her disease as well as toward her life as a task” (Frankl, page 200)

Reading this, I had a strong sense of this chiming with my own experiences and beliefs. I am not what I should be. But what should I be?

Lying in the bath this morning, I let my mind wander off by itself. It never goes very far but this time it came back with a few curious thoughts. I mused on my own name. I have two Christian names that both derive from Latin, and translated mean Living Light. It set me wondering whether light is harmed by darkness. The nightmares about the consuming shadows have shaken me rather a lot, and while I know that Light is merely a form of energy if you use purely physics, I started to wonder if in some sense darkness is something more sentient, more aggressive, an entity rather than simply the absence of light. Scientists among you might be tutting at this point. But metaphysicians and mystics have asked this question for millennia, about this apparent war between light and darkness.

Then I started musing about the word Logos. In Greek it means a number of things, and while it is often translated as WORD, it can also be translated as MEANING, hence Dr Frankl using the term logotherapy (literally, healing through meaning). In John’s Gospel, the term Logos is used as Word and refers to Jesus (probably):

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

So we are back to the struggle between light and dark, between life and death and between meaning and void.

My initial question, (Is light hurt by darkness) takes on a more personal meaning when aligned with this struggle. Are my efforts to exist in a meaningful way damaged by the rising tide of darkness that emerges both from within my own psyche and from the world beyond me? Can I integrate, indeed, should I integrate, my own darkness? Is life about keeping the dark at bay or is it about understanding that darkness is not evil but rather a different state of being essential to survival? Is not only my life but life on earth meaningless or meaningful?

In some of the most harrowing parts of the book, Frankl wrote of those who gave up their hold on life, those whose struggle to find meaning in their sufferings proved too much for them, and who lay down and became unresponsive to stimuli and died, even when their health was not as compromised as many. Often they would smoke a cigarette long hoarded as collateral for barter, clearly accepting that they might as well just enjoy that one simple pleasure and let go of their grip on life. I cannot help wondering now whether our collective consumerism and cultural hedonism is not somehow akin to this.

My own search for meaning in my life is a struggle right now. I had for a while thought that my writing, (which I pretentiously call My Work) might be a strong contender, but since I’ve hardly written anything worthwhile(fiction anyway) in over a year, I am not convinced this hits the spot. Perhaps my meaning still awaits my discovery of it. I can only hope so.  

The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.

 

The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.

I’ve had a couple of busy weeks at work, both jobs, and I’ve enjoyed it mostly, even though some of it was stressful. But waking up this morning I felt the full weight of the default depression land on me like a big slobbery dog who’s pleased you’re back. All the petty concerns I’d put on hold while I was rushed off my feet came back and had a pity party in my head. My teaching job is currently in some jeopardy as they are moving premises and it’s going to be a lot harder to get to work; I’ve resolved that the first near miss as a car clips my bicycle signals me quitting. I love teaching, I really do; it’s one of my talents and in many ways, I am wasted where I work. If you’ve seen Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, it’ll give you a clue about my style of teaching; but it also means that even had I the correct bits of paper, I’d be sacked in a week in a state school. So I am on the sharp look out for a new job, one that is year round, and which doesn’t have the substantial drawbacks of my current one (of which I will not speak here)

But my return to sullen misery has woken me up to something that slumbers much of the time. That’s the realisation that even changing jobs, changing homes or whatever significant life change I might sometimes crave is only a distraction from my real work in this world. Six months into a new job, or a new location, and the same old issues come creeping back, like rats who realise the ship was not sinking after all.

That’s a bit of a scary realisation. It means that anything I pursue, success, fame, wealth, whatever holds no power to change anything internally. If I become a NYT’s bestseller, nothing changes. If I get the job that seems to fit every talent or skill, nothing changes. Oh for sure my mood might alter and improve, I might even be happy for a while. But nothing deeper changes.

You see, any real change has to come from within, not from anything external to me. I’ve never been someone who found retail therapy anything other than a disappointment, and while I have certainly chased success as willingly as any writer, I’ve started to grasp the fact that such success does not and cannot make me anything other than momentarily happy. I can see now that my lifelong pro-wrestling match with the Black Dog has saved me some expensive mistakes.

Chasing things because you believe that they may make you happy is a futile exercise, and one that frankly underpins the whole economy of the prosperous West. It is endless and caustic to the human soul, because it is tantalising and drives you on to seek more and more and more to less and less satisfaction, and eventual bitterness.

What then can bring peace to the troubled soul? What can tame the Black Dog and make it an ally and not an enemy?

Well, my current theory is that it is meaning that brings peace. It’s certainly how people survive the kind of catastrophic experiences that send many over the edge and down into insanity.

It’s only a theory but is one borne out by such luminaries as Viktor Frankl, and also by personal experience. I can accept and even value my own sufferings when I realise that they have shaped me to be the person I am now, and the riches of compassion and empathy that have been uncovered within me. They’ve made me a far less selfish person than I would otherwise have been.

Native Americans have a saying, something they speak as a prayer when they enter the sacred space of a sweat lodge. They say, “For all my relations,” as they enter, and by that they do not mean their mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters and so on. They mean every one of us humans, and all the animals and trees and plants, right down to the Stone People, the rocks we kick aside and split asunder.

So my prayer today, in honour of all that I have endured as a human and all that I will endure, is that it is done in honour and support of all life, all creation, and that I will find meaning in all.

For all my relations.”

Amen.