They say one of the more unexpected perils of being buried in an avalanche is that when you find yourself entirely encased in snow (having been tumbled repeatedly), you simply cannot sense which direction is up. If you were able to get your limbs free and start digging yourself out, the chances are high that you’d start digging the wrong direction; maybe even further down.
There’s a trick though. You spit. You dig out a little cavity around your face and spit. Depending on which direction your spit goes, you can orient yourself—you can determine which end is up!
Have you ever found yourself upended? I’m not necessarily talking about catastrophic circumstances, though they may lead to the upendedness I have in mind. But have you ever found yourself not knowing which end is up? Not knowing whom to trust (even one’s own thoughts), not knowing how to make sense of things, afraid you may be digging yourself further in?
How do you spit?
“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Frankl’s psychiatric philosophies were born out of his harrowing experiences in Auschwitz; from taking his clinical background and seeking to understand what was going on in the lives of his fellow prisoners. Why could some survive, while others succumbed to despair? (An avalanche indeed.)
His answer? A sense of purpose; meaning!
Now as a psychiatrist, his own professional pursuits tended toward more pragmatic clinical outcomes, viz. helping people find a sense of well-being and stability in their lives. For him, any compelling purpose (in his case, his writing) could suffice to excite one’s energies for resilliance. He’s probably right on that.
But look at how he frames the human task: “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us… Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems…”
He is referring to our sense of the meta; what is the nature of the story in which we find ourselves, and what is our role?
Later he observes, “The meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected.”
I would argue that every one of us has a story opperating at our core. This story informs everything; it is the source of our hopes, fears, joys, sorrows. It is our meta narrative. Most of us just don’t quite know what it is.
We may not know it exists.
But advertisers do. So do politicians. Artists and entertainers and pornographers alike all know they must invite themselves into our story. Most times we unwittingly let them, or the criteria for entry is all but obscured to us.
We know how do formulate the most ridiculous searches on google in search of the arcane. But we don’t know how to spit. And we suspect we are in an avalanche.
As a Christian, I admire how Jesus insisted on presenting such assignments. Upon seeing two curious would-be followers trailing behind him, he turned and asked,
“What do you seek?” (John 1:38)
What do you seek? Do you know what end is up? Have you accepted the sacred responsibility to resolve your human assignment, and to live out it’s implications? Or have you outsourced it to your society?
I know there must have been many things in Frankl’s day that upheaved his sense of what could be taken for granted. But he accepted his trying days as just that, a trial.
I must confess that I myself have felt upended quite a lot lately. Sometimes it seems like I’m spitting until I’m out of saliva! My nation seems at present to be a place I scarcely understand, filled with people who are motivated in ways I struggle to fathom. Not only that, but even relationships with others can seem impossibly fraught.
Maybe I’m just acknowledging that the meta narrative is more dynamic than static, especially as it informs our living realities. Jesus did, after all, not give his two groupies a catachism but an invitation to come spend some time together.
Though I’m not entirely certain how it fits into this post, I want to leave you with this quote by theologian Walter Breggemann:
“The crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settlign for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”