Archives for posts with tag: viktor frankl

While maybe not surprising to long-term readers who have been following since I wrote an article defending communism, I am now writing an article about how maybe we could all use a little less freedom. George W. Bush was right: we hate your freedoms, and we’re coming to take them away. Sorry America, but the terrorists just had the better argument. Blame the free market of ideas, and then marvel at the irony.

The thing is, freedom is actually a paradoxical ideology. Universal freedom is necessarily contradictory. The current “debate” about masking during a pandemic is case-in-point. If you are free to disregard masks and parade around mouth-breathing your aerosol droplets all over me, my freedom to avoid getting sick from Covid is reduced. There are millions of examples you can come up with: my freedom to be verbally abusive limits your freedom from verbal abuse. If you are free to make puns, it renders my freedom to live in a world without puns sadly utopian. If you believe yourself free to cheat on your monogamous partner and your excuse is, “I thought this was America!”, you will quickly discover that people aren’t super thrilled when your alleged freedom impinges on their own.

Kill me.

Am I entitled to mature and well-developed humour? Maybe not. Am I entitled to health? This point becomes harder to argue against. Am I entitled to health that is not being actively damaged by the choices of others? It would probably be a good idea to have a society that adopts that mentality, yeah. The issue is that the debate never focuses on the issues impacted by the free actions of others, and the freedoms they might be reducing in turn. It typically focuses on ‘freedom’ as an abstract, unexamined concept that just has that certain je-ne-sais-quoi that most people find appealing. Even those denouncing the demands of those freedom-loving anti-maskers won’t condemn the concept of freedom itself, but you heard it here first: freedom the way most people imagine it is a masturbatory fantasy.

Freedom advocates would argue that freedom should not exist completely deregulated, but that the only reasonable regulations are negative ones: you can’t murder, for example, but you shouldn’t be compelled to act in any particular way. Hence, you can’t make me put on a mask, you commie! However, the limits on negative regulation are arbitrary. Being forbidden from making puns is a negative regulation, but I have yet to come across a libertarian seriously making this argument despite its expansive merit. The distinction between negative and positive impositions on freedom is completely meaningless, and doesn’t address my original point that all the actions we take are going to be affecting those around us in ways that may well reduce their freedom. While this is a small case of conjecture, I can speculate that the ‘true believers’ would say that those who are negatively impacted by their free actions should just suck it up; they should content themselves with having less freedom than others. Sounds completely reasonable and not at all systemically oppressive.

Those kids should be free to do whatever they want, and if she doesn’t like it, she has the freedom to start her *own* school!

Freedom is a pretty great idea. I like being able to do things, but I also recognize that I am one individual among many with equal entitlement to the things that I ought to be entitled to. I want to be healthy, but I have to recognize that everyone else wants to be healthy too. I want to live in a world without puns, but I have to recognize that other people have the wrong sense of humour, and I just have to live with their wrongness. If I begin to act in a way that limits the puns of others using my own freedom to coerce their behaviour, I am limiting their freedom to make awful “jokes.” I would appreciate the same consideration when I make delightful and well-timed fart jokes from the plebeians that simply don’t understand the nuance!

When we recognize the needs of others as equally requiring consideration, we recognize that we must be responsible to those needs and our freedom must be curtailed. If we disregard the needs of others, we are not actually advocating for universal freedom, we are demanding selfish preference. Freedom is not generalizable, but the great thing about responsibility is that it is! Everyone is capable of shouldering equal amounts of responsibility to their neighbour. An argument could be made that some parties may be more responsible than others (more polluting nations are more responsible for reining in their carbon emissions to address climate change, for example), but aspirational responsibility is not as contradictory as aspirational freedom.

I may have lived long enough to see myself become the villain, here

Viktor Frankl is quoted as saying that America needs a Statue of Responsibility to temper its Statue of Liberty, and his worries are coming to deadly fruition today. Politicians and pundits that espouse and proselytize freedom can only be pandering to the selfish ego of their followers, by the very nature of the ideology they are spouting. The purposeful disregard and neglect of one’s neighbour is the disregard and neglect of their freedom. I guess the point is you’re not supposed to give a shit about your neighbour because your freedom is the only freedom that matters.

Let’s instead work toward a universal responsibility. It’s not particularly difficult because it’s something that can be adopted in every action. We can be responsible to others as individuals; it can be foisted upon our politicians and other macro-level actors sure, and adopted by corporations and those on the mezzo level too. Everyone can be responsible. The less we focus on a pointless concept like freedom, the more we can focus on taking care of one another. I think the world would be much better off, and we’d probably have fewer Covid cases too.

Everyone wants to be happy. Being happy is so critically important that the pursuit of it is literally a right guaranteed by the American Declaration of Independence. Thousands of books have been written about that pursuit, and given their continued publication one can only assume that the pursuit has yet to be concluded. Happiness is always just one more life-affirming meme away, ever out of our grasp. Perhaps this is due to the elusive definition of happiness, for what does it mean to be happy? Wikipedia defines it as “a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” So, accordingly, happiness is varying degrees of synonyms for happiness. That is super helpful.

Since I’ve already ragged on memes once, let’s see if they can redeem themselves, and we’ll try to learn what they can teach us about defining happiness since the ever-infallible Wikipedia ended up being a disaster. This website has a collection of “Happiness Is” memes that describe various instances when the word ‘happy’ seems appropriate, such as not having to set your alarm clock for the next morning, or finding an old family album. These examples give quite an accurate depiction of how many people view happiness: ephemeral events that elicit an upswell of positive emotion. Happiness can’t be defined linguistically because it exists beyond descriptive vocabulary as an almost spiritual experience, and it arrives in a way that we only recognize when we feel it.

Now when we live by the maxim that “if it’s in a meme then it is factually improbable,” as we all should, we’re forced to analyze this version of happiness more discerningly. If happiness is as laudable as the profit-driven self-help industry claims it to be, then we’re dedicating all of our life goals to a fix. We hop from island of bliss to island of bliss, desperately searching for that next dopamine rush, dreading the moments in between. That sounds a lot less like a fulfilling existence and more like Jennifer Connelly’s character at the end of Requiem for a Dream. Is most of life utterly without value? Discounting the feelings outside of happiness is the pinnacle of delusion. Creativity requires a good deal of personal suffering and frustration. Inside Out taught us that even sadness has its own virtue, and anger is often the healthiest response to unjust events. Happiness has never once moved the world forward, and if we only celebrate positive emotion then we are putting pacification above progress.If our sole focus is maintaining a happy persona, we may even disregard warning signals of an impending crisis simply because to acknowledge it would get in the way of our placid, happy thoughts.

Regardless of my argument, people will still pursue happiness. Not because they’re meme-loving sycophants abstaining from reasonable thought to endorse the epidemic cult of positivity, but because as human beings we intrinsically strive for it. Even a curmudgeon like myself still seeks to find the light in this world of darkness. The Founding Fathers were not dumb, and their inclusion of happiness was not a mistake. Even Aristotle suggested that a life of happiness ought to be a person’s ultimate goal. Aristotle, however, had a different definition of happiness from today’s life coaches peddling their snake oil. He believed that a happy life was one of virtue, and happiness was derived from adhering to the golden mean rather than embodying the hedonistic platitudes of fucking internet memes.

Of course there are plenty of faults in Aristotle’s Virtue ethics, but he began a philosophy of happiness where it wasn’t understood as an emotion, but as a way of life. Nietzsche expanded on this philosophy by saying that the happiest people were those who thrived in suffering, and could create meaning through it. Have some irony:

Wisdom without context. The highest plateau a meme can achieve.

Wisdom without context: the highest peak a meme can achieve.

Here is a happiness that could weather any negativity, for it is a way of life that thrives in any emotional state. It is a happiness that demands value and purpose to enhance our life, rather than a narcotic high to dull it. Nietzsche’s philosophical meaning is somewhat controversial, but the brilliant Viktor Frankl survived the culmination of Nietzschean values, and in doing so, created his much more widely accepted interpretation. According to Frankl, a meaningful life is found through our works, our connection to others, and/or our attitudinal outlook.

This last point may seemingly endorse a meme-spirited happiness delusion, so let’s address that nonsense before it gets out of hand. Have another meme:

This post is now officially my least favourite blog.

This post is now officially my least favourite blog.

I sincerely doubt that this meme is referring to a meaning-based form of happiness, given the message of its sister-meme here:

It's because I hate memes. That's why it's my least favourite blog. I really shouldn't have to spell this out.

It’s because I hate memes. That’s why it’s my least favourite blog. I really shouldn’t have to spell this out.

but we’ll give them an intellectual boost and just assume that some degree of intelligence went into their production, and that they are in fact referring to Frankl’s attitudinal outlook dictating happiness as the representation of purpose.

Frankl viewed the attitudinal approach to meaning as the absolute last resort. He saw it as the only option in approaching the Nazi gas chambers with either dignity or shame. This isn’t a Godwin argument; look him up. He says that if there is even a chance at overcoming a negative situation, to adopt a positive outlook in spite of it is to embrace irrational masochism. The solution is always to change the circumstances, not the attitude.

There is also an underlying tone of condescending individualism in these insipid and ridiculous memes. To say that the person who is wealthy and employed has the same choice to be happy as the broke bum who just lost their job is statistically wrong. Saying happiness is a choice is being oblivious to the countless circumstances that have a direct impact on our well-being. Oh, you lost your baby in a miscarriage after five years of trying for a child? All you need is a change of perspective, and you’ll feel better! That’s an asshole thing to say. Like the worst thing. Never say that. To reiterate: other emotions are necessary parts of our lives, to demand happiness at all times is unnatural and cruel, and to call emotions a choice is completely ignorant of our instinctual reactions. It’s wrong no matter how you define happiness.

At what level are we responsible, if at all, for the happiness of others? Meaning is entirely unique and subjective, so we can’t exactly create it for other people. However, Frankl’s second aspect of meaning is a connection to others, which does suggest that if we are open and caring then we create meaning both for ourselves and for those with whom we come into contact. That sounds like a good start.

What about collective responsibility? If we recognize happiness as meaning, and Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs puts “self-actualization” at the top of the pyramid, wouldn’t that mean that a country that promises its citizens the right to pursue happiness must accommodate all the underlying needs in order for that promise to be fulfilled? Happiness can’t even begin to be pursued until the third level of “love and belonging,” and even then there would need to be a societal agreement and plan to abolish discrimination of all kinds. The progress on that 240 year old promise is a little slow. Way to make liars out of the Founding Fathers, America.

Happiness as an emotional state is nice, I guess, but when planning out one’s life that version should only play the most minor of roles. Pursue meaning. Pursue purpose and value. Treat the happiness that we strive for as a way of being that incorporates the full spectrum of emotion. Live a fulfilling life, and allow that life to connect with others. Define happiness properly, and stop learning how to live from fucking memes!

Have some links:

Say No to Happiness – Ideas with Paul Kennedy: A CBC radio show investigating the philosophical implications of happiness and meaning, and which is more important.

Smile Or Die – Barbara Ehrenreich: The social implications of the cult of positivity.

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Interesting? – Slavoj Žižek: Žižek is a combination of popular neo-communist philosophy and that one scene from Dazed and Confused. These are his thoughts on happiness.