How can we access, mobilize, activate and develop our powers of the human spirit?
In the words of Jonathan Saks in his book Celebrating Life we need to “see things differently, to alter perspective, sometimes even to turn the mental picture upside down.”That, classically, was one of the great gifts of the religious vision. It does not show you something new. It shows you the things you have seen all along but never noticed.” (p. 3)
This ability to change our orientation and see what we never noticed is a pervasive theme of logotherapy. “Do not ask what you expect of life; ask what life expects of you” said Frankl in response to a concentration camp inmate who was struggling to survive. Upon hearing this conversation we might recoil, thinking “Let the man demand from life. Life has been cruel to him. What do you want from the poor guy?!” Particularly in this way, Frankl infused life into people. Demanding from life does not empower. On the other hand if life expects something from me, if there is a task for me to do, an achievement, someone to love, something to cherish in this world, then my life has meaning.
Come the cognitive therapists and the whole slew of self-help literature and we have the magic word: “Reframing”
Reframing is not always helpful. It can mean trying to convince yourself by repeating words in your head and rewiring your brain. Repeat affirmations often enough, we are assured, and they will become your new “tape…” It’s a difficult path, a constant struggle with the mind’s gatekeeper that is busy fighting off the new information, and if you don’t believe what you’re saying to yourself it won’t work.
Reframing is also not helpful when it means assigning some kind of arbitrary meaning to the situation. Meaning has to be discovered, not fabricated. It has to ring true.
Often the concept of reframing draws on the existentialist fallacy that life is really meaningless and we have to make up some kind of meaning that isn’t there in order to survive. We can’t be fooled. We want to know: Is it meaningful or isn’t it?
No. The meaning is there. The flowers are in bloom. You just have to notice them.
So instead of calling it “reframing” I prefer calling it re-frame of reference-ing. Meanings are specific to the situation, moment by moment. In order to find the meaning, our frame of reference has to be the frame of meaning.
I will explain the “meaning” frame of reference from a religious perspective. There is a blessing we say, in the Jewish faith, upon hearing that a close relative has died. “Blessed is the judge of truth.” During the process of codification of the law, a Talmudic discussion pondered the question as to what was meant by the statement “Just as we bless over good things we should bless over bad things.” They wondered whether this meant that the blessing we recite in tragic situations should consist of the same wording as the blessing we say over good tidings. Should we always say, in every circumstance: “God is good and makes good”?
The conclusion is no, we live in this world. We see from a human perspective. Our expression has to come from an honest perspective, from where we are.
In that case we still need to find an answer to the original question: What did the earlier rabbis mean when they said: “”Just as we bless over good things we should bless over bad things”?
They meant that we should maintain our relationship with God, and recognize that our life is in God’s hands throughout all of the life’s circumstances. We should not decide to have a relationship when things are nice and going our way, and cut off the relationship when we’re in pain. Otherwise, what kind of relationship is it that is cut off when the going gets rough?
Thus there is recognition in Jewish law that things can seem bad to us and this is what we need to be expressing, yet we express our connection in our relationship to God and to life in this situation as well.
This leads me to wonder about something else. Is the religiously motivated assertion that “everything is for the best” a helpful way of dealing with life? Perhaps for some. But from the above discussion it doesn’t seem to be. While cognitive thinkers suppose we can invent some kind of meaning that doesn’t exist in truth, religious thinkers suppose we can impose a perspective we cannot possibly have – because we’re not God. Either way, our “reframing” is not going to be helpful.
Another Talmudic statement can help elucidate the concept of “re-frame of reference-ing.” It goes something like this: “God does not send a person any test that he does not have the strength to stand up to, because God is not interested in tripping people up” This to me, is more comforting and more effective than saying “everything is for the best.”
Knowing that God is not interested in tripping me up tells me that as painful as it is, what is happening to me is not arbitrary. I am not reframing the incident as good instead of bad. I am seeing it from a perspective of meaning, the ultimate meaning being that this is not happening in order to knock me down, as if to say that my life is meaningless, and God created me as a whim, a play toy to kick around as if my concept of God is a cruel tyrant in the sky having a little fun. If this is our frame of reference, how can we trust in life?
From the frame of reference that my life has unconditional meaning, my inner response will be that I don’t understand the reason why but I know that there must be a reason. The world is all under control. It was created for a purpose and is moving towards a good end.
From this frame of reference all that is left for me to do is hear how I am called through it to participate in the grand scheme of things in bringing creation to a good place.
What can I do with this? What meaning can possibly be made out of this that I can find here? Could it be that maybe I can see something no one else can see or see something I did not notice before?
This entails a process. The beginning of the process has to be acceptance and surrender to what is not in my control. Once I’ve successfully crossed that line in the road, the frame of reference called “trust in life” will open my eyes to see worlds of meaning.
Adopting this frame of reference is a skill that can be practiced all the time by deciding not to take anything for granted, to celebrate in the midst of uncertainty and to notice all the good things in life, and in short, to always be looking for meaning.
I think I wrote once about the time after the horrific murders of the two teens Yosef Ishran and Koby Mandell by Arab terrorists in Israel who pummeled them to death with rocks, that I went home to my children and hugged and kissed them like I never did before and told them I love them .
There is no artificial self-convincing in looking for meaning. There is only noticing what we’ve known all along. That’s why it’s a skill that activates the powers of the human spirit.