Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Victor Frankl, God and Terry Blankenship

by Terry Blankenship

I struggled much of my life prior to my conversion to Christianity with a profound lack of purpose. I would ask myself over and over a question that couldn’t be answered ... ‘why are we alive?’ There would never be a good answer to it from anyone. I got so depressed over this question that I began going to a psychologist at age eighteen and, in the course of my treatment, began posing the question to him.

“So ... why ARE we alive?” I nervously asked him as I sat in his office.

He coughed, nervously ran a finger around the front collar of his shirt like it had suddenly become incredibly warm in his office, and replied, “Well, I think that, given another 6 months of talking this through, we might start to make some progress with that question.”

BINGO ... it was just like he had opened his wallet and showed me all the money inside and ... it was empty ... he didn’t have a clue either. It was just not professionally savvy for him to admit to me that he had no answer to my most earnest of questions.

He did however manage to label me.

“You have existential despair,” he weakly said as his eyes averted mine.

So I continued my search.

I had a very esteemed Vanderbilt philosophy professor that I felt I might as well pose the question to in class during one of his existentialism lectures ... why not? I would at least be interrupting the right topic.

“Yes, Terry, what is your question” he asked as he motioned in my direction. The cavernous hall seemed to grow ominously quiet as my fellow students leaned in to listen as a respite from their growing boredom.

“Uh ... what is the purpose of life ... you know, the meaning?”

He paused for a second. He looked perplexed. But hey, this was exactly the question that has been asked throughout the ages that gave rise to the very topic on which he was lecturing ... right? Going like a deer in headlights at this moment wouldn’t have been very fulfilling to his daily resume he strove to build with his students, would it?

“The meaning of life is ... is that you are alive. That is the meaning of life,” he stated confidently.

At that moment, in my eyes, he slid into the very same category as my psychologist ... he did not have a clue. He didn’t even have a good attempt at an answer. As a matter of fact, I determined as soon as he answered not to ask a follow-up question due to the fact that he too had just open up his wallet of wisdom and showed me his embarrassing lack of money inside.

The meaning of life is like a gothic hummingbird that flits around us all. Some of us apprehend it and are happy as a clam the rest of our lives while others are never quite able to coax it into the cage that they have built for it and therefore, are doomed to lead lives of .... well ... existential despair.

Not very happy.

Not very motivated.

As a matter of fact, just downright miserable usually.

It was Victor Frankl who stated that if one has enough of a ‘why’, one can always figure out the ‘how’. A strong enough ‘why’ can even lead one to successfully endure a Nazi concentration camp, as Frankl did.

A lack of purpose in life is endemic in our generation. There is not a strong sense of purpose among our young people, those in middle age or .... senior citizens. This elusive hummingbird knows no generational bounds. We cannot hang this one on young folks when every generation has a bad case of the ‘meaningless’ fever.

When one meets Christ, the entire purpose of life question is supposed to be settled and, in my experience, it was profoundly resolved for me in a flash. Soaked in existential despair, I went in to a house one night to hear someone speak of Christ and left with a new, durable meaning for my life. Went in sad and came out happy.

I wish I could put this in more sophisticated terms but that is exactly what occurred to me.

However ....

it is also my experience that this original purpose that infused us often tends to be diluted down by the cares of the world as we accumulate years. And then we are deposited back on the doorstep of existential despair, yet once again.

Not very happy.

Not very motivated.

As a matter of fact, just downright miserable.

First, if you are reading this and are a Christian and your ‘candle of existential purpose’ has dimmed, I challenge you to do three things:

be candid with God about this - yep, I suspect that he’s big enough to take it if you can just get around to telling him the truth about the state of your heart,

Get around Christians who are motivated with a strong purpose of life ... yes, simply get in their presence and stay connected to them if you can find them ... and they are around, trust me,

Start acting on what your gut is telling you to do ... trust your instincts, in other words ... this is not an end-run around God’s will rather this is often a run straight into God’s will ... for example, if you feel that God uses you to listen to folks who have crushing burdens, then seek someone you know is burdened and listen to them ... God does not want his hands (i.e., you and me) to be hands of remarkably good intentions but remarkably little action.

I want to stay on point number three for a bit. There is something about life on the planet earth that strips us of our trust in ourselves. Now, many would say this is a good thing, but I do not think it is a good thing. Rather, I think it is a tragedy because God has gifted us with wonderful minds, spirits and the like and he surely want us to learn to use these in our journeys, always in concert with his Spirit. Do not let this occur to you ... Renew your faith in your own instincts because, hey, God is in there (remember the Holy Spirit?).

These three things are not a guarantee for a persistent and strong ‘why’ in your life but if your candle is somewhat dim, doing these three things will help ensure that the dim will almost assuredly become brighter.


electric buckwheat said...

Your comments about the search for the meaning of life ring true. I certainly experienced the same emptiness until filling that emptiness with the fullness of Christ. It is incomprehensible to me how anyone can be fulfilled until answering this question.

Once Bakunin

Davis C said...

Excellent excellent comments....

George said...

Thanks for sharing with such candor & honesty. Keep writing. Others need to hear what you're saying. (2 Timothy)

gunnarisblog said...

Thank you so much for posting this. In my research of Viktor Frankl I stumbled upon this. It's been a long time since I heard a voice that speaks so closely to my heart. Don't stop writing, I need people like you in my walk of faith with Jesus Christ.

Beverly Summers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beverly Summers said...

I am going to say some things that are a little atypical, but I feel better for sharing them.

I think it is a blessing to see a Christian find wisdom in a Jew's perspective.

Frankl is one of those individuals, who according to CS Lewis, have found God and the truth and the way via another religion.

Jesus is certainly the easier path to enlightenment. All it takes is acceptance of God's love to be happy. We don't all need to have our spirits broken and renewed under the circumstances that Frankl went through.

But the truth is there. It is immutable, no matter how the message is sent. If only we could understand it as perfectly as God does.

Anyway, that's what I thought when I read your blog. You are a thinking Christian. Your Vanderbilt professor could have used a little Sartre on you, that the absurdity of existence forces us to think and make our own meanings.

But I think you can see the pitfall in this thinking- the emptiness of existentialism and nihilism.

Thanks for posting and I appreciate your message.


Jerry said...

Thanks, Terry. Always like to read whatever you write.

Mike Allison said...

The Bible says trust in the Lord with all your heart and he will make your paths straight not trust in your instincts. In addition, scripture also calls us to renew our minds which wouldn't make much sense if all we needed to do is trust in ourselves.

Trusting in yourself and your own capabilities is really just pride. God wants us to rely on him that is what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 Where Paul states that all the hardships he endured were so that he would "not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead"

Trusting yourself glorifies yourself. Trusting and relying on God glorifies God.

Stephen said...

"The way in which a man accepts his fate, and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity--even under the most difficult circumstances-to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forego the opportunity of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him." V. Frankl (I found this quote on two sources, yet would he mention the cross? Is that really his quote?