We continue with my written notes for the logotalk podcast.
M: You’ve talked to me before about two directions of seeking the will to meaning and of hearing the call to meaning. Can you say more about that?
B: I was thinking one day about two arrows pointing in opposite directions. In one direction I drew an arrow going out from the individual towards meaning. This was the will to meaning in a person, wanting his life to be meaningful and significant. In the other direction I drew an arrow from the outside going in. This was the call to meaning in the form of reality confronting the person. There are two sides to life: searching for and being invited to meaning.
Then it suddenly occurred to me that these two directions are not independent of each other. They make up the movement of the dance or symphony if you will of divine providence in our lives. We pick up on the hints to meaning that come to us from beyond, precisely because this is the meaning that we seek! It is a yearning we were gifted with from birth. This dance is an ongoing dynamic of being called and responding and seeking and being called again.
When we discern meaning we are discerning more than the physical cause-and-effect reality in front of us. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are in the midst of a human-divine encounter.
Rabbi Akiva, the predominant figure of Jewish Oral Law experienced such an encounter. He started studying Torah, the revelation of God’s will, at the age of 40. As the story goes one day he was standing next to a well and he noticed that it had a smooth hole chiseled out after many years of water running over it. He wondered: Who chiseled this stone? The other shepherds standing nearby said Akiva, don’t you know about the verse “Water wears away stone” (Job 14:19)? He realized this reality was saying something to him. If something hard like stone can be penetrated by something soft like water, then my heart which is soft can certainly be penetrated by Torah, even though I am feeling it as hard! He went and studied with the children in first grade until he became a spiritual giant and leader of the Jewish people.
The image of water running over the stone evoked a longing deep within him. It gave him the awareness that he was capable of change.
In the life of every individual we can always ask these same two questions:
a) What is the person’s will to meaning?
b) How is the reality that is confronting this person provoking his or her will to meaning?
The dance goes something like this: We’re inspired or moved, or we get a kick in the pants.
Whether we feel the reality as positive or negative, we respond with an action or attitude or way of being. Simultaneously, with or without the confrontation we experience longings, hopes and dreams. Sometimes we are frustrated. Sometimes we overcome obstacles. Sometimes we fall and get up again. Whether our action comes in response to reality’s call or comes from our own initiative, our way of being in the world provokes a new reality and this new reality calls and provokes us yet again, in an unending cycle of growth.
My father, may he rest in peace, knew this well. He had the rare quality of being totally relaxed and totally energized at one and the same time. This sounds impossible but I saw it. He was relaxed because he was completely accepting of whatever reality came his way. If something needed to be done, it was done yesterday! He wasn’t rushed or nervous. He just did things right away. His attitude was: If it has to be done, why wait?
He worked as a lawyer for small businesses. One time his client was not a business but a fellow from South Korea whose family had immigrated to the United States and he wanted to join them there. The U.S. embassy wouldn’t allow him entry. My father went to the embassy early in the morning, every day for I don’t remember how long (but it was many months) to speak to them gently and softly to try to persuade them to help this man reunite with his wife and kids. My father explained to the embassy that this man from South Korea was a good man, who will work and will be a good citizen and he wants to be with his family. After awhile the resistance of the American embassy workers started wearing down. My father continued to patiently come day after day, always thanking them and returning the next day to try again. Eventually he succeeded and the man was able to immigrate and reunite with his family.
The reason my father was able to do what he did is because
a) he accepted reality as it was and knew the results were not up to him.
b) At the same time he knew that he had work to do in this world. Here he was, in a position where he could help someone, and he felt it was his responsibility to do so.
He was happy with all of the tools he had both in material and spiritual things and he was energized to use his tools and act to help people in whatever way he could. And because of this he was a happy person. His longing to be of service to a fellow human being and the opportunity life brought him to do so made up the two arrows of seeking and being invited to meaning.
The choices we make in life, particularly when we’re in doubt as to what God wants from us, are the most important part of our relationship with God. (Hayei Moharan 197 par. 2) As Frankl says we are half-sure but whole-hearted. If we had certainty there would be no work to do to expand our awareness.
Rabbi Natan of Nemirov, prime student of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov explains: A test is only called a test because we are not sure what we should do. God calls Abraham and says “Go to the land that I will show you.” God didn’t reveal the destination to him because only by Abraham not knowing could this serve as a test. If he had known exactly what he had to do, it would not have been a test. But God wants him to be unsure of himself because this lack of surety will force him to “search and seek out what is God’s will.” It’s only by the process of searching that God’s will was eventually revealed to him.
Rabbi Natan continues and says that every person has tests in life and God doesn’t tell you what to do, and this is so that you’ll have doubts and won’t be totally at peace with yourself. As a result, you’ll keep on searching, and eventually find your way. The word for test is nisayon from the word nes (banner) because a person is uplifted as a result of this process of searching.
The most essential part is the work of standing up to life’s tests because for that we have to search and we have to summon the wise man or woman within us – because we are not sure of what God wants from us. By accessing our conscience we get in touch with our human-ness in the deepest way and become transformed in the process to become that wise person in actuality, not just in potential
Therefore I would describe logotherapy as the applied psychology of providential divine guidance in a person’s life, because even though we can become more conscious of divine guidance in our lives, belief in divine providence will not change the way I live unless I believe it in the concrete nitty-gritty details of my life. Logotherapy takes me through those concrete details of my relationship with God – that is, how reality is confronting me and how I am to respond – in the most personal way.
Logotherapy is not an ethereal mountain-top psychology, although I know Frankl was fond of mountain climbing. Both logotherapy and Judaism each in their own respective disciplines provide a grounded relationship with God.