Chapter 1: Faith and Happiness

Success and happiness must happen, and the less one cares for them, the more they can.

                                                                        (Viktor Frankl, The Will to Meaning )

Everyone seeks happiness. So fundamental is this fact of existence that America 's founding fathers not only accepted this classical principle as "self-evident," but even held "the pursuit of happiness" to be a basic human right. The idea that humans by nature seek happiness is at least as ancient as the philosopher Socrates who insisted that no one acts in any fashion unless he or she believes, rightly or wrongly, that what one does will bring happiness.

Often, of course, people have mistaken notions about what is good for them or will make them happy. Mere physical pleasure is often wrongly equated with happiness. But, as Aristotle pointed out, pleasure really is nothing but an indicator of what should be, but is not always, a source of happiness for us. As we soon discover, immediate pleasure can very often end up being a false indicator, or even a trap that destroys the really valuable things in life. Just as the attractions of certain foods and beverages, for example, can end up causing us to destroy the health that food and drink are meant to preserve, so too we also know that many really worthwhile goals in life can be reached only through the pain of great effort or through the cost of long periods of sometimes boring preparation.

So when we speak about human happiness we are not talking about the immediate gratification of our cravings for pleasure, or even about the avoidance of unnecessary pain. Many of our pains are, to be sure, unnecessary. But many of our postponed pleasures and for the immature, such postponement is often only seen as pain) as well as our hardships are for the sake of a much greater and more lasting happiness — something that we nowadays are apt to call "fulfillment."

But the meaning of "fulfillment" is not self-evident either. For some, fulfillment means cramming in all the pleasures and experiences one possibly can into a lifetime-and as quickly as possible, just in case one doesn't live very long. For others, fulfillment seems to take the shape of living as long as possible, even if one deprives oneself of the possibility of accomplishing anything else in life.

Still, as we are all too well aware, life is limited. As the psalmist reminds us "our years are seventy, or if we are strong, eighty" (Ps 90). Today, now that this biblical lifespan has almost become a fact, not just for the lucky few who once made it to adulthood but for whole populations of modern industrialized nations, people have become more and more concerned not just about mere survival on the one hand, or immediate pleasure on the other. Today more and more people think of their long-term happiness. Such happiness is seen increasingly as the fulfillment of our own individual potentialities, or in becoming precisely that unique person that God and nature have destined us to be. As a result, the search for fulfillment has become a major industry of the modern world.

Now you may ask: What does all this have to do with faith? Quite a lot, actually —and in more than just one way.

For one, faith, in the broad sense of believing that something is possible, has everything to do with it. We would hardly even begin to seek happiness or fulfillment if we didn't think it is possible to find it. In a way, it is something like starting up a business, or even like betting on the lottery — unless you believe success is possible, you will not even bother to try. And without some trying (despite books titled ". . . without even trying") it is very unlikely you'll succeed.

For another, when it comes to seeking long-term happiness or fulfillment, faith, in the religious sense of the word, has always had everything to do with people's hopes of a happiness or fulfillment that somehow escapes death. Generally, such hope has been expressed in terms of faith in there being some kind of heaven, be it in terms of a happy-hunting ground, a Valhalla of the heroes, a paradise of the saved, "the bosom of Abraham," or even the state of "nirvana." And while some religions have been rather vague about what happens after death, most religions have had a great deal to say as to how to cope with death — even if by trying to ignore it.

Yet here we run into a great paradox or contradiction. Most of the great or "higher" religions, when it comes to facing this bottom line, are unanimous in preaching one conclusion: that however you think of an afterlife — if you think of one at all-the true key to achieving happiness or fulfillment is to be found in self-transcendence, or the forgetting of self.

This is not an easy truth to accept. It comes down to saying that if you want to be happy, then you must forget about being happy. If you are seeking fulfillment, then the quickest way to achieve it is to forget about it. Of course, we cannot just come out and say that and expect to be believed. And if people took this paradox at face value, the whole self-improvement industry would collapse overnight. And, no doubt, most of the churches would lose a lot of their followers as well.

Nevertheless, when all is said and done, we will find that this paradox is the core truth of all genuine religion, that "he who would save his life will lose it: but he who loses his life...shall save it" (Luke 9:24). I could cite many similar passages from he Bible, from the other sacred scriptures of the world, the writings of mystics and saints, and even of the philosophers, all of which come down to saying the same thing.

The problem is that so many if not all of these sayings seem to come from another time, another place — from another world from that of modern persons. Despite what Socrates, Buddha, or even Jesus and the great saints had to say, we are still apt to write them off all the more because they appear to be exceptional, almost as if they were not men and women like ourselves, struggling to find their own happiness or fulfillment in life.

Part of our problem is that although we are perhaps willing to admit the ultimate truth of this paradox, we are not really sure why this is true. Nor are we really convinced that it has any practical application in our ordinary lives, so we are all too apt to fail to see how it most of all applies in the life of faith. To try to remedy this situation, I turn first of all to the life-work and teaching of the internationally known and acclaimed psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl.

Faith and the Search for Meaning

As a Jew, born and raised in Vienna, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, Frankl suffered personally through a life crisis which not only confirms our thesis but throws great light on what it means to be a person of faith.

Frankl's insight is as simple as it is devastating. It is basically that human happiness or fulfillment cannot be successfully pursued; it can only "ensue" — which is to say that it can only come to us as a by-product of meaning.

By "meaning," Frankl meant whatever reason or purpose that each of us has for living. But this reason or purpose must be present in our minds. For while we may vaguely believe or somehow take it for granted that there is an overall purpose for the scheme of things in this universe, unless this purpose translates itself into a conscious meaning for my own life, right here and now, that overall purpose does me no good — it cannot make me feel happy or fulfilled unless I know about it and deliberately relate myself to it.

But how are we to come to a knowledge of such a purpose or higher meaning in our lives? For those who give thought to such matters, this purpose or meaning presents itself as a problem, but to an even greater extent it remains a mystery. Problems can be, to some extent solved, but mysteries have to be lived. The purpose of life, for each of us, can be such a problem, but the overall meaning of life, as well as our place in it, remains such a mystery. And as such, it reveals itself through life itself, and this experience turns out to be the experience of faith.

Too often we find this same lesson, again and again, suppressed, forgotten, or otherwise consigned into oblivion in the midst of the distractions of ordinary life and the ritualizing of beliefs. Like us, Frankl suspected this truth and even planned to write a major book on the subject. But as it turned out, he first had to live out this truth in its fullest dimension in the midst of the excruciating trials of the concentration camp. His lived experience of this ancient mystery can be a new revelation of this truth for us all.

Perhaps many are already familiar with his story as told in his autobiographical sketch and introduction to his thought, Man's Search for Meaning. Yet the directly religious implications of this extraordinary story are often overlooked. Readers easily grasp his primary point: only meaning gives purpose to life, and to be happy, one must seek that meaning in something, some cause, or some purpose greater than one's own selfish desire to be happy. What they so often fail to see, however, is that in the end only one purpose or one center of meaning proves capable of fulfilling this need in any permanent way.

We need only recall the succession of purposes or meanings for which Frankl was determined to survive in order to quickly grasp this point. At first he naively thought he would have much time in prison for writing, so he sewed his manuscript for his book into the lining of his overcoat, only to have it confiscated almost immediately. Next, he resolved to survive to be reunited with his wife, only to soon realize that she, also a prisoner, was not robust enough to survive. Soon after, he dedicated himself to helping keep prisoners alive; if you could work, the SS wouldn't execute you outright-at least not till the end. But then, as the Nazis began to panic at the advance of the Allied forces, they began to compound their horrendous crime by executing, right and left, every prisoner that they thought they could dispose of. At this point, a series of circumstances offered the opportunity for what Frankl hoped might turn out to be at least a slim chance of escape. But instead he hesitated, electing to stay with his fellow prisoners. It turned out that those who accepted the offer to be trucked away to a "rest camp" to await liberation were really being taken out for their execution. Frankl survived when his camp was overrun by the liberating forces before the SS could dispose of the rest of them. Ironically, Frankl lived because he was willing to die with the rest.

Why did Frankl decide to stay? Of course, he suspected a ruse in the offer to leave. But at least it offered a possible avenue of escape, whereas to stay in the camp seemed to offer only certain death. Frankl said that he estimated his chances of survival at that point as less than one in twenty. Yet, stay he did. Why? Frankl put it in these terms: he had already reached a point where he began to see a meaning in what was the apparent certainty of his own death. When he had accepted the offer to work in the prison camp hospital, despite others warning him that this might only hasten his death, he decided that it was better to die in the effort to keep others alive than to die simply as a victim of a passively accepted fate.

Although Frankl did not claim to have been a particularly religious man at this point in his life, his story reveals him as a man of deep faith and that he was even able to convey this faith to others. In reading his account of these last days of his ordeal, it is almost as if he was subconsciously drawing on the biblical tradition of the mysterious "suffering servant" in the later chapters of the book of Isaiah, whose ordeal and death proves redemptive not only for his own people, but also for the whole world (see Is 52:13-53:12). And although Frankl preferred not to advertise what his own beliefs might be, it is evident from his own story as well as in his later writings, that religion — or, more exactly, faith centered around religious hopes — provides the final and ultimately unassailable guarantee of meaning.

How essential to human life, then, is faith in some transcendental purpose? Frankl relates how some of his fellow prisoners managed to survive by living for less ultimate, even though worthy, goals. One, for example, lived to be reunited with his family, but only to return to his town to be told that they had all perished in the war; he killed himself. Others survived for other reasons, some of them undoubtedly lesser ones. But the point is that only a reason or a meaning that will survive all eventualities, even one's own death, is fully adequate. The other purposes, no matter how effective they may be under limited conditions, are not enough in the face of death.

But is it necessary to believe explicitly in "life everlasting" to face death with composure? Perhaps not. For some, it is enough to have "lived well," whatever that may mean. But whatever that great beyond may be — joy, fulfillment or even punishment, or simply nothingness or oblivion — somehow our purpose or reason for existence has to measure up to the demand for meaning. That this meaning remains somewhat ambiguous or enshrouded in mystery is what touches on the essence of faith. For the minute that I set out to know, beyond all doubt, the happiness or security of being absolutely sure, for myself, of this meaning or purpose of my life, it is most apt to escape me.

Thus, again, the paradox, but in another way — the knowledge or consciousness of this meaning or purpose cannot be generally proved or demonstrated logically beyond all doubt. Indeed, in his new preface to his earliest book, Frankl defines religion as "man's search for ultimate meaning" and "belief and faith as trust in ultimate meaning." There can be no question, then, that for Frankl the search for happiness or meaning is ultimately the quest of faith (The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology, page 13). To live without meaning, as Frankl contends in his many books, is to court the danger of being in the grip of an "existential neurosis," to exist under a pervasive cloud of purposelessness that reveals itself in frenzied activity, superficial living, inane pursuits, and, not infrequently, phobias of one sort or another.

Yet we must ask ourselves what kind of meaning suffices. Must it always be an "ultimate meaning"? No doubt, as Frankl admitted, under the normal conditions of life, purposes or goals that in some way supply a meaning are often found in forms that fall far short of religious convictions or profound philosophies of life. Many, if not almost all, people invest meaning in having raised a family or in having a circle of friends. Many others concentrate on their business or profession. Some simply claim nothing more but to live for the sake of living, while others deepen the richness of life through love of nature, music, literature, or other cultural expressions. But on the other hand, some even seem to find their life's meaning in merely collecting things, be it old magazines, postage stamps, rocks, beer cans, matchbooks, or just plain junk. So the test of meaning is whether such purposes or goals truly contribute to the quality or depth of life. While the best of them may seem like worthy goals, too often some of these become mere diversions that prevent us from really having lived. We may get our names in The Guiness Book of Records and even take a certain satisfaction in that. But to the degree that these goals or purposes fail to pass the test of ultimacy they are bound to disappoint. Yet the prevalence of these "existential neuroses", particularly in affluent societies, indicates that there a crisis of meaning in modern life. The question arises: How has this come about?

The Quest for Self-Fulfillment

Frankl's ideas, with their appeal to lived experience, definitely imply a particular philosophical view of human existence. Much of modern thought on the subject of happiness is a popularization of the thought of two of Frankl's forerunners in Vienna, Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. If Freud and Adler eventually agreed to disagree, hence founding two differing schools of psychiatry, then we can say that Frankl's approach differed in a way that is unique in modern philosophy. We should make no bones about it: these differing approaches to psychiatry and psychology are in the end, radically different philosophies of life.

The weakness in Freud's system, according to Frankl, is that it is focused primarily on the "pleasure principle" as the central motive of human conduct. In this line of thinking, human happiness consists in a balance between felt needs and their fulfillment as measured in terms of pleasurable satisfaction in our lives. For Freud the will-to-pleasure constitutes the primary life-force, and the satisfaction of our pleasure needs, symbolized primarily in sexual terms, is the major motivation of life.

Adler, on the other hand, focused not so much on pleasurable motivations and results as on the development of the human potential understood as a drive for self-determination. Instead of pleasurable satisfaction of biological needs, for Adler the expression of human will or the will-to-power is much more important. Adler's views, much more than Freud's, have led to the present-day concentration on the subject of "self-actualization" and the great profusion of books and techniques promising "self-fulfillment."

In Frankl's estimation, neither Freud nor Adler is entirely wrong. But people who gear their lives to the pursuit of pleasure make a big mistake, according to Frankl, not just because they've really fallen into a hedonistic, and often, selfish, form of life, but even more, if one chooses to remain selfish, it just doesn't work — or if it seems to at first, it doesn't last for long. Such concern for our own pleasure or satisfaction, instead of fulfilling us, ends by driving us back on our own limitations, like a child who gets sick on too much ice cream or sweets, or an adult who pursues his or her own satisfactions to the point that they no longer entertain but become boring instead. The Freudian dynamic is flawed by underrating the deeper potentialities of human existence.

Does Adler's approach do any better? To some extent, in Frankl's estimation, it is more on the right track. It is not so much happiness or fulfillment that can be measured in pleasure that people really crave, but much more the satisfaction of living their own lives to the fullest, even when this may involve quite a lot of pain. This fulfillment of the human urge to exist, to be, and to have their existence make a difference is a much more serious business than any pursuit of pleasure. As the Adlerian school sees it, there can be no lasting satisfaction or pleasure at the expense of denying one's "real self," the self that one is capable of being.

The problem with the Alderian school of thought is however, that as necessary a goal as self-actualization may be, it is still concerned primarily with one's own self. Even if the midst of what may seem to be heroic self-denial of the lesser pleasures in life — and sometimes of the greater ones as well — it is still, at the root, a selfish or egocentric approach. It is still primarily a quest for self-satisfaction or self-fulfillment, however disguised in a search for a more worthy and more lasting goal.

So in the end, Adler's approach only differs from the Freudian view in one important way and that is in the emphasis that it places on what is more directly the means or instrument used (the executive self) for finding fulfillment instead of the satisfaction or other pleasurable pay-offs that generally accompany it. Put in terms of corporate success, Adler's approach would have us concentrate on the power and prestige, instead of the size of the salary or other "perks" that go along with the position. Thus both the Freudian and the Adlerian approaches are not only tailor-made for the "me generation," they may have been, to a large degree, responsible for it.

To illustrate how Frankl's view, with its insistence on self-transcendence, diametrically opposes those of Freud and Adler when it comes to this basic issue, I will borrow from some illustrations in another book of Frankl's, The Will to Meaning. In his diagrams, which I have combined and added to, we have the basic directions of his thought:


At the lower left-hand of the illustration, I have added the "self" as a help toward understanding where we ourselves fit into the picture. Notice the solid line arrows give the basic direction of Frankl's thought, while the broken line arrows indicate the faulty paths. The pursuit of happiness, understood particularly in terms of Freud's pleasure-principle, fails to lead to any lasting fulfillment. The arrow of Adler's "Will-to-Power" starts off in the right direction but falls back on the self — particularly in the more recent interpretations of this term.

As I have indicated by the direction of the arrows in the diagram, the flow of energy must be consistently clockwise. If we make the mistake of trying to move around the diagram counter-clockwise we shall not only miss the central point of our whole discussion of Frankl and his thought, but we shall find ourselves also misunderstanding and, what is worse, misleading ourselves on what we imagine is the path of faith.

Meaning and Transcendence

In his introduction to one of his earlier books, Frankl wrote:

Man lives in three dimensions: the somatic, the mental, and the spiritual.
The spiritual dimension cannot be ignored, for it is what makes us human.
( The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy).

As we shall see, there is really nothing new in this statement. True meaning or purpose, if it is to be worthy of our capacity for full human existence, has to be found in a form that surpasses whatever level of existence that we now enjoy or suffer. Frankl used the word Logos (the ancient Greek term for the guiding reason or intelligence that directs the universe) for this meaning or purpose in life. It is this something that is greater than ourselves which alone can fully call forth our capacity to become fully what we are capable of.

If Freud's approach to happiness or self-fulfillment is flawed, it is not just because it is defective psychologically speaking; it is even more lacking as a philosophy of life. It simply underestimates human capacity and needs. At its root the Freudian philosophy of life is primarily concerned with what the ancient philosophers called the somatic or bodily level of existence, reducing the meaning of human existence to the satisfaction of needs which, although they have their psychological aspects, are, at root, physical in nature.

Adler's approach is, as we said, more on target, being concerned with the human need to be a self-determined person in one's own right. Adler's "will-to-power," translated as "self-actualization" by his American disciple, Carl R. Rogers (see On Becoming a Person), points to the human need to become more rather than simply to have or enjoy more. But it too falls short. It focuses on what is more properly psychological or the "mental" dimension in human nature, but is this enough? For Frankl, obviously not.

Here Frankl, again adapting the language of the ancient philosophers, saw something more to human nature than simply the body (soma) and soul or mind (psyche or nous) . We also possess the pneuma or "spirit." And it is this spiritual dimension that alone makes us fully human.

But here we must interject a crucial theological point. Basing himself on the ancient Hebrew concept that it is God's spirit or breath (the Ruah Yahweh) that alone brings things to life, St. Paul tells us that it is our pneuma, the human "spirit", that reaches out to God's Pneuma, the Holy Spirit, and which alone can bring us to our full destiny as "children of God" (see Rom. 8:16). In other words, the three levels or dimensions of human existence are not by any means complete. On the spiritual level, in particular, we are not whole or complete persons. Our "spirit" by itself exists more as a capacity or potentiality than as an actuality or finished product.

Or if we were to rephrase St. Paul in modern scientific terms, we might say that while the evolution of life has brought us beyond the merely biological stage of existence to the psychological level, we remain unsatisfied and we, whether as individuals or as a species, not only are still in the process of trying to become merely more human, but even, to some extent, depending on how you look at it, superhuman. In any case, we are trying to evolve beyond what we presently are. Culture, religion, science, technology, and even the current craze for self-fulfillment all point in this direction.

The implications of this point of view are tremendous. Whether viewed in theological, philosophical, or even simply psychological terms, it means that the purpose or meaning of human existence must point to something beyond ourselves. This self-surpassing quality or effort is what generally we call self-transcendence. By it we mean the challenge to reach beyond ourselves, to desire more than we have, and in the process to become more than what we are.

But how can we surpass ourselves? At the same time that we sense this longing for transcendence, we fear that not only does our biological death seem to spell our individual psychological death as individuals, but on top of that most indications are that all human life, along with our planet, the solar system, and even the universe, will eventually come to a dead end. Does this spell the end of human evolution or of existence itself? Thus in terms of the human desire for self-transcendence the question is: Is there anything, or anyone beside ourselves, on which we can place our hopes? Or to put it another way: How can there be self-transcendence without there being a transcendent meaning beyond that which we make up in our own minds?

This is the issue that ultimately confronts all questions about meaning and our hopes for fulfillment. Is there an "ultimate" or lasting meaning to our existence — or to all existence? The only answer to that question, according to Frankl, is to be found in "faith" which is "trust in ultimate meaning" — which I take to be another way of saying that God exists.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. Think of an example where "faith" of some sort made all the difference in achieving some goal. Can you recount something similar that has happened in your own life or in the life of someone you know?

2. What do you think of Frankl's criticism of the search for happiness? Can you think of examples where "the pursuit of happiness" didn't work, especially from your own life?

3. What would be your idea of "meaning" in your own life? How would this fulfillment differ from mere "pleasure"? Would fulfillment be the same as "self-actualization" — yes or no? If not, how?

4. In what way are faith and "ultimate meaning" bound up with each other? Need such a faith be "religious"?

Proceed to Chapter Two

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