The skill of conscience

This past week I attended a marriage enrichment conference. The overwhelmingly strong message was: People want to learn skills. It gave me something to think about in reflecting on logotherapy’s emphasis on meaning as opposed to skills and techniques. And then I realized that there are many skills in logotherapy that we don’t necessarily talk about.

In addition to dereflection, paradoxical intention and Socratic dialogue, we can develop a greater ability to exercise choice, to have a basic trust in life, to be in the habit of asking ourselves questions and to listen more keenly to another person.

One of the skills that we can easily overlook and fail to recognize as a skill is the ability to think for ourselves. Since skills are something we are taught and practice we mistakenly think that “thinking” is not something we have to learn how to do. But it is.

A few days later in the ongoing partnership of learning/growing together with my study partner and in the ongoing synchronicity of my life, we got to the crux of the meaning of da’at (intimate, intuitive knowledge – including the ability to make distinctions regarding the meaning of a situation) just after I had been comparing the perspectives of Carl Rogers and Viktor Frankl on the value of thinking for ourselves. Rogers wrote about the damaging process by which we learn to forget to listen to the value-laden knowledge within us. Frankl wrote about the values that are fulfilled by doing meaningful tasks in life.

All of this is the background to what I have to say today. Here I was with my friend, in our weekly study meeting, with these thoughts about Rogers and Frankl in my mind. The chapter in Alei Shur began: “How can you learn to become a ‘master-knower?’ Whenever you have a doubt about anything or don’t understand something or want to give someone good advice: Think about it, clarify all the aspects of the issue, weigh the sides seriously and then decide.”

Many are the thoughts in the heart of a person and the advice of God will stand. (Proverbs 19:21) Truth is not something floating in the atmosphere and it is not arrived at in an arbitrary way but rather it is a reality in the heart of a person, and just as we are bidden to distinguish between the pure and impure where the distinctions are (subtle) as a hairsbreadth, similarly we are to practice distinguishing amongst our numerous thoughts to find God’s advice that is within us…”

“There is a broad area of practice to do. Whenever we have doubts, problems or advice to give…we mustn’t run to others to ask but instead to put out effort to come to clarity of the matter and only later ask another opinion to see if we are thinking straight…”

This explanation of da’at seemed to me to be the definitive Jewish text that reveals Frankl’s concept of conscience. It spoke of “a reality in the heart of a person…God’s advice that is within us…”

Rabbi Wolbe (in Alei Shur) calls da’at a skill that can be learned. Although he says it is difficult to acquire da’at he adds that we are not exempt from putting serious effort into it.

This statement led my friend and I to ask ourselves: Why is it so difficult to acquire the ability to look within and find God’s advice in our hearts?

She said that there are two reasons: For one our cravings shout loudly. In the language of logotherapy, we are pushed by our drives but pulled by our values. True, our drives and cravings and instincts can make suggestions but we can still say “no.” It is up to us to decide.

Yet have a hard time recognizing and distinguishing between a craving or impulse and a true “Want” with a capital “W.” Is that piece of cake good advice? There’s a reason why I think something I want is what I should not want. We need to allow that place inside us that doesn’t really want it and that knows what’s best for us to win.

The second reason for the difficulty listening to God’s advice within us is because part of our socialization is to listen to others. As Rogers says, there is good reason why we have forgotten what we want, in contrast to the infant that knows what it wants. We have spent too many years hearing other people telling us what we should want. The subliminal message of advertising is that we should listen to other people, to the voice of super-ego.

It’s no wonder that we get caught between the question “Do I unthinkingly listen to my impulses or do I listen to other people?” – forgetting that there is a third option – to listen to my wiser self. This process is neglected. The awareness that you’ve got it in you to know what’s right and decide atrophies. It needs to be encouraged and developed and nurtured just as much as any other aspect of education, particularly religious education.

We have to know that we are capable of gaining control of what we will decide to think about. We can decide to give space to the other to express him or herself. We can learn to recognize which situations tend to trip us up, requiring heightened alertness at those times to listen to our inner voice and for which situations we can be more relaxed and go with the flow.

We also have to know that the control of following our impulses is an illusory control that makes us feel defeated in contrast to the true control we have when the divine soul is in charge. The submission to what we know to be good is a completely different kind of submission. It brings a synergistic sense of wholeness and commitment and inner peace.

Getting back to Rogers and Frankl, I would say that Rogers is correct in saying we are socialized to ignore what we know inside. However, left to his own devices the infant will not grow to know what it wants. Alongside wanting to eat when it’s hungry the person also thinks he wants things that he doesn’t want deep down. That’s why reflecting the person’s thoughts and feelings back to him is not enough to allow him to access his conscience.

So yes, Rogers is right that we have to relearn to listen to what we want. We just have to make sure it’s what we “Want” with a capital “W” and not what we think we want but would not want upon more careful consideration.

Frankl said we are pulled by our values. There is something beyond “just me,” which makes me aware of the voice of the divine within me. I fulfill these values in response to the call coming from beyond myself. That is why logotherapy directs the person’s attention to potential value-fulfillment in the environment in addition to looking within.

One more word about conscience. The world hears the word conscience and thinks of super-ego. Frankl uses it to refer to the ability to discern meaning in a situation and how one should respond to it.

Sometimes a word in English is hijacked from its original meaning. This is annoying. For example I used to like to use the word “enable” until someone told me now that’s only used to mean “encouraging another person’s addictive behavior.” In the case of the word conscience I can’t complain about. Frankl is the one who changed the meaning of the word from the way the rest of the world uses it. This is not too helpful if we wish to communicate with the rest of the world.

However since it is part of the vocabulary of logotherapy, and since its linguistic closeness to the consciousness makes Frankl’s usage more on the mark than how the world uses it, I’m not sure what to do about this, but I suppose I will use my da’at/conscience to think about it.

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