Like lots of other deconstructionists, I often wonder, “What do I believe now? What does life look like now? What choices do I make now?”
For so long, an external entity — God, the Bible, the Church, the middle-aged white pastor with a nice car — governed my life. It told me what to believe, what’s my purpose, and how to live.
While the idea of freedom is liberating and exciting, it is also terrifying and difficult.
After decades of being told what to do, telling yourself what to do is a new concept; it’s like our decision-making skills atrophied in the wheelchair of evangelicalism. And, beginning to walk, beginning to choose for ourselves, it is natural to lose our footing and smash into some clunky piece of furniture.
If you’re like me — which I hope you’re not; it’s exhausting — a decision is never just a decision. It needs to be imbedded in some larger framework; I have to make everything existential.
Going on a date is not just a date; it’s connected to the prospect that none of us are guaranteed a partner and we could die alone. Spending money no longer is just spending money; it’s about provision and if there is a God/energy/universe that will help me pay my bills and not starve. Picking a job/career is not just picking a job/career; it becomes an impending and looming decision integrated into the meaning and purpose.
Yes, I’m seeing a therapist.
What’s our compass or formula to mark our own heading instead of the heading given to us by the old white guy preaching behind the pulpit, demanding more money and attention?
But any answer won’t do. Because I’m so existential, my answer has to be able to apply to everyone. I’m not able to just say, “This sounds good to me. La la la,” skipping into the sunset. It has to be global and transcendent. So the questions come…
What could someone with money and someone without money both do?
What could a European and Indonesian both do?
What could a healthy person and a terminally ill person both do?
Naturally, I turned to the Holocaust for answers. (When in doubt, hyperbole it out.)
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl asks these questions in the midst of genocide, of all places.
While his friends and family are murdered and he’s worked to death in the cold and fellow prisoners leap at the opportunity to persecute their peers if it means another slice of bread, he asks, “Why get up? Why care? Why be kind in the midst of cruelty? Should I be kind in the midst of cruelty? What’s the point?”
For the majority of my life, I’ve considered myself a utilitarian. Which, to my readers who don’t geek out and fixate on existential nonsense, utilitarianism means you believe something is morally good if it produces the most amount of good for the most amount of people. To help illustrate, queue overly used ethical dilemma.
In a situation where a trolley car is racing down the tracks, unable to stop, a utilitarian would choose a route that kills only one person rather than killing five, and it is your moral responsibility to do so because it produces the most amount of good for the most amount of people. That, in short, is utilitarianism.
But where’s the good one can choose in a death camp?
One example of this could be where a SS agent hands you a gun and says, “Shoot this man or we will shoot you then shoot him.”
A utilitarian should honestly choose to shoot their fellow prisoner.
It’s simple math: One dead person is less bad than two dead people.
But we all squirm at that. Why?
Maybe utility is not the solution. Maybe there’s a better way for us to make decisions, both in horrifying situations and “normal” situations, and I think we find a solution at the beginning of Frankl’s book.
In the preface, Frankl shares a story that adds a whole new color to atrocities that follow.
When Nazi Germany occupied Austria and rumors of what they did to Jews spread, Frankl was awarded an immigration visa to the States. He and his wife were going to be able to escape! However, before he left, he decided to see his parents one last time.
During the visit, he was wrestling with what choice to make: escape to the United States or stay with his family. To a true utilitarian, the answer is obvious — leave. Again, math. Two less Jews would be murdered if he immigrated.
But upon leaving, he saw something…
It was then that I noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at home. When I asked my father about it, he explained that he had found it on the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. He had taken the piece home because it was a part of the tables on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. One gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the piece; my father explained that this letter stood for one of the Commandments. Eagerly I asked, “Which one is it?” He answered, “Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land.” At that moment I decided to stay with my father and my mother upon the land, and to let the American visa lapse.Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p.xv–xvi
I’m not sure utility is the best solution for our decision making. It forces an unyielding pressure to offer as much as we can to the world before our fragile life burns out. It stresses us to quickly determine, “What will produce the most good for the most amount of people?” in situation after situation after situation till death do us part. And even without the pressure and stress, often, we’re wrong or we have no clue or the decision is morally net neutral.
I think there’s a better question. It’s the question Frankl answered in this terrifying time: Who do I want to be?
And for Frankl, the answer was a loving and faithful son. Of course he had to stay. Of course he needed to abandon his logotherapy dissertation in hopes to protect his family.
Were his efforts successful? No. Not only did his parents die, but his wife and brother died too.
So was it a waste? By utility, yes. But who he was and who he wanted to be remained intact.
“Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one’s own way.”Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p.66
Life and humans and powers that be can steal your utility. You may become an invalid, unable to move much beyond your head. You might be fired and become homeless and destitute. You could be conquered by an invading force, subjugated to labor and cruelty. All those things may be stolen.
But no one can rob you of you… except you.
Who do you want to be? Someone strong? Someone faithful? Someone kind?
As we begin to answer this question, actions follow…
Do I want to be strong? Yes. I will not yield to my unfair employer.
Do I want to be faithful? Yes. I will stay in this marriage.
Do I want to be kind? Yes. I won’t berate the bigot standing on the street corner.
Do I want to be all those things and more? Yes. I will refuse to shoot my fellow prisoner because even though my oppressors can take my life, they can’t take who I am. I alone hold that, and I refuse to surrender who I am.
Image by Karsten Winegeart via Unsplash