Over the past week I attended an interview for a new post in my field of work. It is one I had thought long and hard about, in terms of the direction it offered. On the day itself, which I had put great time and effort into preparing for, it became starkly apparent that this was not the post for me – both through my own eyes and through the eyes of my potential employer. I did not get the post nor did I want it. A friend of mine put it more bluntly, "you've dodged a bullet their mate..." and with that, wholeheartedly congratulated me!
But it left me rocked, challenging the perspective – or better put, the predicted narrative – I had built up over the past few months. This in turn has left me this weekend having moments of questioning,
Where am I going?
How could I have got this attempted move so badly mistaken?
What is it I am really being called to do next in my life?
In turn, I have found myself returning to a few cornered pages from Viktor Frankl’s seminal ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ which looks at The Holocaust from a psycho-spiritual perspective. Writing about his experiences in the concentration camps, and his observation of others, Viktor Frankl notes:
“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that 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 fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.”
Later in the book, Viktor Frankl writes, in answer to the question of the meaning of life:
"I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms. For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?" There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one's opponent.
The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.
As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
This emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in the categorical imperative of logotherapy, which is: "Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!" It seems to me that there is nothing which would stimulate a man's sense of responsibleness more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed and amended. Such a precept confronts him with life's finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of both his life and himself.
Logotherapy tries to make the patient fully aware of his own responsibleness; therefore, it must leave to him the option for what, to what, or to whom he understands himself to be responsible.
…It is, therefore, up to the patient to decide whether he should interpret his life task as being responsible to society or to his own conscience. There are people, however, who do not interpret their own lives merely in terms of a task assigned to them but also in terms of the taskmaster who has assigned it to them."
I think in this we see the continuous tensions of being someone of more liberal Christian faith;
We have given up looking to priests and scholars for black and white, yes and no answers. We recognise through our capacity to reason and the still small voice of our conscience that we have been endowed with a power and responsibility to work at least some of it out for ourselves, and certainly from fellowships such as the Quakers, a responsibility to not just think and say but to act.
Yet we also have a immovable, residual sense of a greater scheme of things – what Frankl terms as ‘super meaning’ – with roots in the religion traditions through which we were raised and through traditions which we have actively come to embrace in adult life.
Therefore we have not reduced things so much to the mechanical, meat and bones view of life taken by Richard Dawkins or to the totally present-focused view of philosophical traditions such as Buddhism. And for this reason we continue to engage in prayer, reflection and worship alongside our fellow travellers, believing that we are opening up ourselves to guidance from a greater source that both permeates and transcends ourselves.
It is a sometimes tiring tension but a creative tension also. I personally take great comfort and inspiration from the mantra;
Life is not here to give you meaning, packaged and easy; ultimately you are to give life meaning, in all your messiness and struggle.
Rather than you asking for life to give you, what is life asking of you to give it?
And in answering, seek to answer with works rather than words.
And so back to the interview, that hugely deflating experience I now travel onwards from. I would not change the event, I am thankful for it has asked a vital question of me - it has the potential to inflate. And the answer, at least the first part, will come ultimately in discerning the steps I am now to take – and more so, in the taking of them.