“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” wrote an Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” And if anyone else said this, even if they were cridentialized by impressive degrees or substantial psychological studies, it might’ve sounded presumptuous and even righteous. But Frankl, a psychologist by training, makes a very compelling argument based on very real and very extreme evidence. And encouragingly convincing. I highly recommend his book.
In its first part, Frankl gives account of his experiences in a few concentration camps including Auschwitz. He does it with no drama, blame or vengeance. He describes events and examines human character, including his own. Some of his mates gave up; they threw themselves against the electric barb-wire in suicide; or refused to get out of bed and go to work, and got executed. Others managed to endure extreme circumstances, some found ways to console others and decipher moments of beauty. I learned that apart from luck what separated survivors from others is the ability to find meaning in life at all times, even in a concentration camp. “Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately, there is no meaning to survival.”
In the second part of the book, Frankl presents logotherapy (from “logos” – meaning), a therapeutic doctrine he developed based on the foundation that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life.” He survived Auschwitz by reexamining and creating meaning of his life moment to moment. It is the quest for meaning that empowers human existence. It surely empowers mine and most likely yours. In fact, the angst of life that most of us experience (see The privilege of being Unhappy), Frankl explains like this: “Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.” This gives me hope that I’m not completely mad.
Frankl’s life is a very profound example of searching and actualizing one’s meaning and potential. “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”What does life expect from you?
Today I woke up feeling unhappy. I identified at least three reasons that would explain this phenomenon: I had a difficult week at work; I wasn’t anywhere close to where I wanted to be in respect to the $1,000,000 fundraising goal for Worldwide Orphans; I haven’t written a blog posting in four weeks.
In my introspection it became clear that there was no one else to blame for any of these things. I am the one chasing career aspirations that come with their setbacks and rewards; I am the one who came up with the $1,000,000 goal; I am the one who had started the blog and created the expectation to write weekly or at most with a two-week interval.
Like many of you, I see my life in the context of the “pursuit of happiness” (“I was looking for happiness with persistent aggressiveness”), a right specifically mentioned in the United States’ Declaration of Independence. But apparently the things that I am doing in the pursuit of my happiness were not making me happy. At least not this morning. Which started all this inner deliberation.
What is that we pursue? What we want and what we think is possible for us to have – but most importantly we pursue what we don’t have. In other words, pursuit of happiness can’t exist without the underlying idea that happiness is not already here and has to be found. Does it imply that we are innately “un-happy”? Does it mean that unhappiness was inadvertently written down into the Declaration of Independence? Is this pursuit a trap?
Let’s note here that not everyone has an equal access to this pursuit. If you don’t have enough food to feed yourself and your family; if bombs and gunshots ravage your neighborhood; if you are being persecuted for your beliefs or being who you are – survival supersedes any considerations for happiness. And unhappiness for that matter.
Those of us who have a choice for pursuit of happiness, often take it for granted. And in reality, something that was declared as a right by the New World is more of a privilege. And in the way the back of your hand is inseparable from your palm, your privilege to pursue happiness comes with the privilege of being unhappy. Let’s embrace both.
“A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish – but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.”
― V. Nabokov, “Laughter in the Dark”
Family stories hold keys to past in special ways. They make history into more than just textbooks, but vivid alive experiences passed through the words of people we know and love. They allow us to honor the past in a way that forwards the future…
Dora Shapiro, 1930ies
…After my album release party in February, Elena, my doctor since the day I landed in the US, approached me with an idea: to host a private performance and a fundraiser for Worldwide Orphans for her friends at her home. Two months have passed and now Elena’s living room is tightly packed with guests. Before the performance, Elena approaches me: “I will need a few minutes. I want to share something, something very important.” And now that everyone quiets down, Elena stands fragile and beautiful in front of the guests, her husband and daughter. “I would like to dedicate this evening to my mom and my aunt Dora,” her voice cracks.
Back in 1920 when they were 1 and 7, their family decided to venture on a long and dangerous journey. They left their hometownGenichesk in Ukraine, where food and jobs were sparse and many were starving to death, for St. Petersburg in search of a better life. During the grueling move their parents died from typhoid and the sisters ended up in an orphanage in Sumi, Ukraine.
Incidentally the orphanage was built and supported by an American Jewish organization and it became home for Elena’s mom and aunt for years to come. It provided food and shelter and made them into generous and ‘full-lifed’ humans. Aunt Dora became a teacher. During the World War II Leningrad blockade, when the German troops surrounded Leningrad taking away all access for food and supplies for 872 days, she was a director of an orphanage. She starved herself, but she made sure whatever little food they had went to kids. She saved many lives…
Sonya Shapiro, 1930ies
As Elena continues with her speech, I get a vivid glimpse into the universal flow of kindness – American philanthropists a century ago, women at the Ukrainian orphanage, lives of kids who survived the Leningrad blockade, my free visits to Elena in her Brooklyn office when I had neither an insurance nor money, another doctor Jane Aronson who founded Worldwide Orphans and works tirelessly to improve lives of orphans, abandoned kids in Haiti whose eyes are still following me and these people in front of whom I am about to perform…
We honored Elena’s family and raised $2,145 for Worldwide Orphans. The universal flow of kindness is continuing, touching more people and creating stories that will turn into history.
4. You don’t care. You treat people as temporary supporting characters in a movie where you are a protagonist. You are not interested in them as fellow humans. What really makes their heart beat? Or ache? You ask “how are you”, but it is not your intention to know how they are. It is this surface of politeness that makes your experience at work lack humanity. And how can one be in love with that?
5. You think your job owes you something. It should pay you more, give you satisfaction and provide you with work-life balance. You really think that it owes you that. You even have a list and you are waiting. Some of you might’ve not even bothered to ask for what you want. Or you asked, and now pissed that it’s not there. You cannot be entitled and resentful, and be in love with your job at the same time.
6. You are ok with mediocrity. You made compromises; each of them at the moment could seem convenient or necessary, but together they don’t leave you much breathing room. You indefinitely put off the dreams you had. You give a few bucks for a disaster relief, but for the most part the world’s problems are not your problems; they are too big and too removed. Thus you don’t see your job, your skills and your network as an opportunity to do something big, outrageous and difference making. You cannot be in love with your job if it is just means to an end.
7. You gave up. You gave up on the idea that you can be in love with your job. You tried changing companies, and maybe not once. You might’ve even tried changing your career all together. But you are in the same place. You have a good explanation of carefully choreographed reasons that make it logical and convincing. Is it the children? The mortgage? If only you knew that one thing you are destined to do. Or had more money. Or if only you were a genius like that writer, composer or businessperson. It is impossible to be in love with something you have given up on.
This is a place to start an inquiry. The journey begins with saying the truth.
Since you are reading this, I am assuming that at a minimum, some place, even a tiny bit, you are not in love with your job. You might keep it as a big secret from everyone. And maybe even from yourself. Or your friends might’ve developed calluses in their ears listening to your complaints. Or you just turned off that part of self all together, disconnected from it, shut it down – because what’s the point.
Whatever the story is, you will most likely discover that one or more of the following applies to you:
1. You are afraid. And you might not be aware that you are afraid. The shivers on your back when you get an unanticipated call from your boss. The increased heart rate when threatened by a customer complaint. You are scared of your coworkers and even people that report to you. You are terrified of being fired, or that you will not get a raise or a promotion. The fear that your life will be like this all the time. Fear is your driving force. It runs in your veins. All the time. You cannot be in love with your job if fear runs your life.
2. You hide. Meaning that you show only a partial self at work. You developed a “work personality” that cuts out the other aspects of you that you find inconvenient or not professional or not relevant. You don’t talk about what’s important in your life. You share your gripes, but not your passions. While you think that you have “good” reasons to live a double life, it is impossible to be in love with your job, not being able to express a full self.
3. You don’t think it matters. You believe that this particular moment of your life doesn’t really carry that much importance. But some time not now it will all work out – when you find your “dream job” or you retire or win a lottery, then you will be the person you want to be and live the life that you want to live. But for now, it’s just a job, a means to an end. You cannot be in love with your job, if you think that right now doesn’t matter.
This is enough for now. Mull it over… To be continued in part 2.
What if you really against gay marriage? – Could it be because of your religious views – after all, the Bible says what it says. Or you might have some other socio-economico-political reasoning of why gay marriage is not a right thing for the society.
I don’t have any intentions to change your mind.
All the arguments have already been made and I don’t think anyone can change one’s mind here. What most people are missing is that gay marriage is really not a mind’s matter at all – that’s why arguments don’t work. It is the matter of the heart, and your heart is either in it or not. And if it is not – you better don’t go against it or you will have heartache. By the way, all these politicians that are coming out in the support of gay marriage, really had a change of heart first, and then they found logical arguments for the public explanations. Otherwise they would look silly, and politicians don’t like that.
Next I would like to discuss freedom. You see, freedom can be tricky. If you were a non-smoker earlier in the days, your freedom to be in a smoke-free environment didn’t even exist as a concept. But once non-smoking laws in public spaces took effect, smokers experienced their freedoms taken away. Literally, one day they could smoke in a place and next day it was illegal. In the matters of freedom, often laws and social policy are like a dial that takes away freedom from one group and gives it to the other. Hopefully for the better of the society. Or at least of a majority.
Issues like gay marriage are fundamentally different because, by their nature, they don’t take away anyone’s rights. In spite of all the drama, next morning after the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA, you might wake up cranky, but your life will be very much the same as it was a day before – you can ask gay marriage opponents in Ohio and Massachusetts. You will go about your business not supporting gay marriage as before, with the same right to be vocal about it, not entering into a gay marriage yourself and teaching your kids not to.
Now, it does suck to lose. But once the dust settles and you lick your wounds, you will see that you are fine. And then consider this – the energy of your activism, your ideas and your financial resources are very much needed to address many local and global issues. Like for instance there are 132 million orphans in the world (per UNICEF). And then maybe we can combine our forces and do some great things together. www.AREWEREADY.org
My birthday is coming up. Some of you might be wondering what I want for my birthday. A good friend that I am, I will make it easy for you and tell you exactly what it is:
to raise $1,000,000 for Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO)
through the sales of my album ARE WE READY and donations.
I feel your kindness every moment: with your sweet words about my music, videos and blog posts, yourread more