One of the questions we ask the students to answer in our logotherapy course is: “Is man basically good or evil?”
This is an old philosophical question but we are asking them to answer it based on their impressions after reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and based on their own life experience.
Logotherapy reaches out to find the good in man but neither does it ignore the destructive forces in man. Yes, a person is capable of sabotaging his own health and well-being. Yes, a person is capable of cruelty to others.
The approach of psychoanalysis is to ask the “why” questions. Psychoanalysis has its place, and important ideas can be learned from it. However I am wary of its emphasis on explanations and seeking of etiologies of pathology, such as saying someone who was abused as a child often abuses others.
While the etiology is true we have to take care that past experience does not become an excuse for impotence and eternal victim-hood. Instead we must ask ourselves, “How can the pain be turned around into sensitivity towards others and taking a stand towards evil?”
This is all by way of introduction to the epiphany I had in my learning yesterday with Rivkah, my dear friend and chevruta (study partner).. (I have already introduced her to you. I might as well call her by name from now on.)
There is a concept in Judaism called the yetzer hara (urge/force for bad). On the other side there is a yetzer hatov (urge/force for good). The force for bad takes many forms. It is a destructive force and it actually serves God by challenging a person to overcome its temptations and enticements. If it were not there, man’s little victories in life could not be considered achievements.
Yesterday my eyes were opened up to a whole new meaning which does not negate the first meaning but gives a very new and exciting perspective to the nature of a human being.
Introduction #2: We always have a choice in life whether we want to take an attitude of resignation or to embrace reality. For example we can be resigned to our lot in life and say “Okay, I don’t have much choice so I’ll grin and bear my situation” or we can embrace what is and say “I accept this as my lot, as the package I’ve been given in life, and whatever it is, it’s good because this is what’s been uniquely given to me.”
Similarly we can be resigned to our religious responsibilities, our work or our family obligations and we have a choice whether do them with an attitude of obedience and a feeling of being forced or we can do it out of devoted commitment.
God created a world where every individual is singular and unique, and God gave each person what he or she needs in order to become what he or she is meant to become. Additionally God created a world in which each individual has certain tasks and responsibilities to do. When we align ourselves with God’s intention in our creation we are taking an attitude of embrace. When we are not aligned we are taking an attitude of resignation.
The fact that we get off course and use God’s gifts as something to resign ourselves to is our problem. As far as God is concerned they were created as things to be embraced and as a means to embrace God through these things. In Jewish jargon they are lechatchila (a priori) and not bediavad (after the fact).
Now to get to my point: God created an urge that can bring destruction upon a person. This too can be viewed with resignation or as something to be embraced. The only reason it needs to be viewed with resignation is from a human point of view, when we are not aligned with our authentic self. Then we need to see our negativity and destructive tendencies as something to be overcome. We look at it with resignation because if there were no destructive urge we would not have to contend with it and we would prefer living life this way, without these challenges.
But from God’s point of view this urge was created not only as a challenge and test and stumbling block in the path that we have to climb over on the way to our destination. It is something to be embraced!
What is this urge as God meant it to be used? It is passion. It is the power that brings opposites together and creates joy and jubilation. This is the passion of two people in love. This is the passion of the person who studies God’s law with his or her entire being, not as an intellectual exercise but as an act of experiencing meaning and thus being present in the holy space between us and God.
The path to happiness is when we perceive and use these urges/forces/powers which, from the human perspective can be a fire that consumes, and choose to perceive and use it instead as a fire that smelts and bonds, from the intimate level of two human beings to the intimate bonding of man and God.
It is said that at the brit (ceremony initiating him into the fold of the Jewish people) of Elisha ben Abuya, the famous heretic who was nicknamed acher (the other one) all of the illustrious scholars of Jerusalem were invited. Most were singing and dancing but two of them were off in a different corner studying Torah. A fire came down from heaven and surrounded them. Abuya exclaimed “What are you doing? Do you want to burn us all up?!” They said: “These words that we are bringing to life are happy, as the day of revelation when Torah was given at Mt. Sinai.”
Abuya did not understand that the fire that surrounded them was not a fire that consumes but a fire that burns with passionate joy.
I would venture to say that perhaps this is the reason why little Elisha grew up to become a heretic. He was only able to see the passion in man as a destructive force that would keep him alienated from God and which man had to constantly struggle with.
He did not see that passion was something God put into man for very good reason, not only as a tension to be overcome but as as powerful force for bonding in relationships and making humans ecstatically happy.