I’m reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and there is a superb section on the ‘existential vacuum’ and it resonates quite deeply with my experience.
Frankl is the father of logotheraphy, more literally translated meaning therapy. Unlike other forms of psychoanalysis, Frankl’s logotheraphy sees the locus of human problems as the lack of meaning in life, especially in suffering and death. Logotheraphy seeks to address the basic human need for meaning; humans posses a will to meaning, the desire to make sense of the world and their experiences within it. The therapist who practises logotheraphy encourages the individual to face their unique and irreplaceable position in life.
Frankl speaks of the existential vacuum that he sees present in many of the patients he has worked with. The existential vacuum is simply defined as “the feeling of the total and ultimate meaningless of their lives.” (110) People who live with this existential crisis “lack the awareness of a meaning worth living for. They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves; they are caught in that situation which I have called the ‘existential vacuum.'” (110-111)
What are the characteristics of the ‘existential vacuum’?
First, Frankl comments that the existential vacuum is made possible by two factors: (1) our growth as a human race from mere animals with the “security” of instinct; (2) the gradual deconstruction of traditions that gave meaning to the individual life from the outside.
Frankl states that in the twentieth century “No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do.” (111) This is the crisis of the modern being. The human race, which progressively developed and differentiated itself from other animals, gained rational faculties. (The origin of these faculties, God or biological evolution, isn’t of relevance right now.) What is important is the recognition that human beings can think, reason, reflect, speak, converse, and subsequently, we can ask questions about our meaning and purpose here on earth. Animals, as far as we can tell, don’t wonder what their calling is. The giraffe does not feel that it is engaging in a meaningless occupation when it munches on the leaves in the trees. The lion doesn’t experience a loss of purpose or question the morality of its hunting, killing, and eating of other animals. While we do maintain some level of instinct, the human being can go beyond instinct. But that also means the human becomes all the more responsible for its existence. The human has the ability to make choices and to reflect upon those choices and determine whether or not they are advancing in a positive or negative direction.
The deterioration of social norms and traditions has also made the human individual ripe for experiencing the ‘existential vacuum.’ In earlier societies, the collective group often determined the meaning and significance of life. Individuals may have had their own unique occupations or vocations, but the their raison d’être was defined, or at the very least informed, by the collective. I think one could still see the influence of tradition in the development of human meaning in contemporary society both in fringe groups (radical collectivist societies which demand allegiance in return for goods like safety and security, but also existential goods, such as a reason for existing). But I would agree with Frankl that traditions that once influenced the meaning of one’s individual life are “rapidly diminishing.” (111)
The ‘existential vacuum’ is primarily exhibited in the boredom of modern man. Technology and our movement away from self-subsistence has made for more time on our hands (though I don’t think many of us feel like we have more time on our hands). Either a machine or someone else does many of the things we would have once done for ourselves. Computers can provide access to materials that makes learning (if one can actually call it that) quicker and easier (so we think). Information that would have once required us to walk to the local library is now at our finger tips. Communication between ourselves and others, which once would have required us to painstakingly write by hand, is now bite-sized in Tweets a status updates. All of this is in the name of convenience and ease of use and access. Supposedly it is meant to make our life far more bearable. Keeping up with friends’ lives is no longer a “chore.” Finding bits of information is no longer an experience of thumbing through books.
The irony, of course, is that I am writing this on technology.
But what about non-technological examples? Very few people grow their own food anymore. How many people know how to build their own house? I will be the first to admit that my fix-it skills would fail quickly in the face of some dishwasher disaster (that is what landlords are for, right?). Granted, we cannot learn everything and do everything. Even in pre-capitalist and pre-technological societies like our own, there were still set trades and services were provided for people who did not know how to or did not have the time to do something. But when I speak to relatives who lived on farms in North Dakota during the Dust Bowl, I realize just how inept I am at my abilities. I’d much rather call someone else to do something for me so I don’t have to.
But the more time I have, the less I know what to actually do with it. “The pity of it is that many of these [average workers who have more leisure time because of machines] will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time.” (112)
Boredom is fertilizer which nurtures the ‘existential vacuum.’ Schopenhauer, says Frankl, predicted that “mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom.” (111)
The ‘Sunday neurosis,’ Frankl says, is a perfect example of the ‘existential vacuum’ nourished by boredom. ‘Sunday neurosis’ is “that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.” (112) When we slow down, we begin to face the abyss of meaninglessness in our lives. Once we put up our feet up in the evening after a long day at work, we begin to ponder questions like “What is the point of my work?” or “Why should I even bother getting up in the morning?” We are faced with the absurdity of our life; the daily routine that we think is meaningful is not really meaningful anymore. When we slow down, when the silence sounds, we begin to question everything.
Humans like to hide their ‘existential vacuum’ under facades, presumably so that we don’t have to confront ourselves with the abyss that is actually present. Often, we substitute our will to meaning, Frankl says, with things like a will to money or will to power or the will to pleasure. Not surprisingly, sexual pleasure becomes a “compensation” for our ‘existential vacuum.’ (112)
Logotheraphy becomes an essential process for anyone facing an existential abyss to undertake. Psychoanalysis and other therapies may help with the symptoms. But if the underlying ‘vacuum’ is not addressed and filled with meaning, then relapse is inevitable. (112)