Friday, February 9, 2007

The Unexamined Life

I make it a point to re-read Man's Search for Meaning by Dr. Viktor Frankl every five years or so. The late Dr. Frankl had an extraordinary gift for observation combined with a talent for communicating clearly and persuasively.

His recollections of life in a concentration camp reveal humanity at its best and at its most vile. In 1965 they had a profound impact on a skinny high school freshman who was just beginning to experience life outside of his small circle of friends and family.

Like Socrates, Santayana and Bishop Sheen, Dr. Frankl believed that the greatest dangers facing contemporary society were isolation and the inevitable loss of purpose that isolation brings. Even while he was confined in the most horrendous conditions, the Nazis could not strip him of his dignity because throughout his ordeal he retained his sense of purpose.

His mission: To help his camp mates get through their ordeal while retaining at least a small shred of humanity; to heal their bodies and help sustain their spirits.

He examined his purpose every day and reminded himself every moment that his life had meaning in spite of all the efforts to strip it away.

His was a life worth living.

Socrates didn't say that the unexamined life was "not so good" or "less satisfying."

No. To Socrates a life without daily reflection on the purpose and meaning of what it takes to be human was "not worth living."

In today's world we face the same dangers that Socrates warned of more than two millennia ago. What pretends to be serious discussion is just argument. Blind anger passes for passion. Indifference is justified as realism. And feeble attempts at humor mask shallow thinking and, many times, inner rage. As David Ivor St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap once said:

"There's a fine line between clever and stupid."

Socrates himself recognized this. He warned that dialecticism must not degenerate into mere contradiction, because mere contradiction inevitably leads to cynicism, sophistry and nihilism. Augustine saw this phenomenon in his students and at one point suggested that dialecticism be abandoned. The risks, for him, were just too great.

Periodically, I find myself agreeing with Augustine. Since modern man is shallow beyond all reclamation, the risks of dialecticism are just too great. Worse, I sometimes even begin to think that Freud was right, and that "the moment one inquires about the sense or value of life, one is sick."

Then something happens that jolts me out my cynicism or I meet someone who reaffirms my faith. It doesn't take much.

About five years ago I was riding on the "F" train reading Man's Search for Meaning. A young woman was sitting across from me and I committed the cardinal sin of New York Subway riders: I made eye contact. She smiled. I smiled back, wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into.

And then she said: "It's a wonderful book, isn't it?"

Every day millions ride in that same subway system.

Every day millions look straight ahead never making eye contact.

Yet, last month while standing on the subway platform with his daughters, holding their hands tightly, a courageous man let go of his daughters' hands and jumped down onto the subway tracks to save the life of a young man he had never met.

Yes, there is hope.

And that dusty old paperback left over from high school is calling to me once again.


R. Reynolds said...

Nicely turned piece Joey.

Anonymous said...

I partially agree with you regarding the heroism the man displayed jumping to the tracks in front of the oncoming train to save the epileptic. But when does selflessness become selfish recklessness? The man had two small children, not home cozy in their beds, but with him in the subway station. Fighting off the natural desire to help by considering the hard facts of math (putting 3 lives in jeopardy to possibly save one) could be considered a form of bravery as well. There's a fine line between heroics and indulgence.

Anonymous said...

★Joseph Big Big news for you!