It’s not about building something from nothing.
Not really. Not here. And not most anywhere.
We almost always start with a something. Start with an impulse. Start with an inkling. Start with an inspiration. Or simply start with our current circumstances.
But what something? From where? Which one? In a world of countless somethings, how do you come by the something that will yield another something? How does that situation go?
I.) Which matters more: the “something” we make or the actual “making” of it?
a.) Anything will do (“it’s the effort, not the end, that matters”)
There are people who wake each morning readied for any task in front of them. They roll up their sleeves, make your problem their problem, and treat everything with a sincere, straightforward attention. They are characterized by their work ethic – the fortunate and admirable ability to throw themselves at most any task in front of them. They’re the farmers and ranch hands; the handy-men; the personal assistants; the quick-thinking nannies; the EMTs; the “honest” horses. The do’ers.
For them, the best use of one’s energy is an honest exertion each day, and the working itself is more important than the thing against/with/to which it is done. They tell themselves and would tell others: make work your favorite. That’s your favorite, okay? Work is your new favorite.
Pick any something. Choose one. Pick any thing. Doesn’t matter.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, a king of Ephyra, was punished for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever. And maybe we can uproot the tale, reject the implications, and imagine unto Sisyphus an optimistic ending: one in which he finds a sense of purpose in this endless, otherwise meaningless pursuit.
For some: the meaning is in the exertion. And the boulder itself – or the discernment between one boulder over another – matters less.
b.) Only a certain thing will suffice (“the end must warrant the effort”)
There are other people who spend their lives looking; searching; scrutinizing. They exert their energy strategizing; plotting; discerning between one thing and the next. These are the thinkers, the restless, the revolutionaries. For them, the ends – not the means – matters more, and if it’s not the right thing, they won’t throw themselves against it. The meaning comes from the context.
These people are just as willing to roll a boulder up a hill – to endure hardship and exert energy against something – but, for them, only a discrete expected direction will warrant the work.
II.) How important is the “something” from which that “something else” is made? (The importance of intent, deliberateness, and purpose)
To what extent should we survey the boulder landscape, make decisions by weighing thorough investigation, through searching, through exhausting all avenue and potential avenues, and considering the universe of alternative outcomes?
a.) Accept something.
There is no other opportunity available (or you choose not to pursue it.) Energy expended is not in maximizing the circumstances. You accept that you are pushing a boulder – this boulder – up a hill. You take little time to survey whether this is necessary, whether there are alternatives, or whether or not you will exert any real effort. Your focus is merely on hunkering down and “dealing with it.” This is passive.
b.) Choose something.
Something perhaps in between the “anything” and the “only a certain” thing — you survey the boulders available to you, and commit yourself to one. Maybe you put your hand against each one, and maybe you pick the one among these that feels “the best.” Or maybe you don’t. You certainly don’t have to – because it doesn’t have to be the perfect one; the point is that you pick one and push.
c.) Find something.
Search for and put your hand against as many rocks as possible. Look for the one that feels right. If none of them feel right at first, keep looking.
This is an act of a.) love and an act of b.) will. It takes both. With will comes the strength to heave yourself against a goal; with love comes the motivation to do it in a way that is good; that does no harm unto others. And here, in the combination, comes passion.
The cycle of climbing and trying; tripping, failing, falling. The ups and downs of one continual progress; shifting up, shifting down, clearing obstacles, enduring setbacks, moving on.
III.) The meaning of “making something from something:”
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor, best known for his best-selling book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” in which he works to address the issues of existential neurosis through “logotherapy” – “healing through meaning.”
In this work, Frankl identifies three things as being the most important for a meaningful life:
Love – “love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire… the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Attitude – “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.” // “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Purposeful Work – “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
When he was in Auschwitz, Frankl made a number of things “his thing” – from impossible living situations to manual labor to emotional turmoil. He accepted what was available to him and committed himself to survival.
Frankl believed that people are primarily driven by a “striving to find meaning in one’s life,” and that it is this sense of meaning that enables people to overcome painful experiences – that even in the most absurd, painful, and dehumanized situation, life has potential meaning and that, therefore, even suffering is meaningful. He is quoted as saying, “What is to give light must endure burning,” and this conclusion served as a strong basis for his work and theory of logotherapy and existential analysis, which argues that striving to find a meaning in one’s life – not power, not pleasure – is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.
a.) Accept that which we cannot change.
If we cannot change a situation, then we must change our attitude.
While Buddhism focuses on the liberation and alleviation of suffering by overcoming ignorance and attachment, Frankl instead argues that the end goal is to find meaning within it – that suffering can actually be embraced as a means of uprooting meaning, and that “to suffer” is not synonymous with “despair” – that “despair is suffering without meaning; as long as we choose to ascribe meaning to a moment, we can rise above despair.” That life has meaning in all conditions. And with meaning, tragedies can be molded into personal triumphs.
“I would not share the opinion of Sartre, who said that we have to accept and shoulder – courageously; heroically – the absolute meaninglessness of our lives. But rather what I think we have to accept is the incapacity to recognize the ultimate meaning in intellectual terms.” – Frankl
But the important distinction here is that Frankl only chose to “endure suffering” in the concentration camp because his suffering was unavoidable. His purpose was not to endure it, but rather to survive it, and even among limited options, he was constantly looking for more purposeful work – positioning himself as therapist, doctor, and aid while in Auschwitz.
And once freed, he did not prod through life merely accepting and acquiescing to whatever was set in front of him. On the contrary, he deliberately pursued work that promised to be even more purposeful: neurologist, psychiatrist, author. He dedicated his life thereafter to existential analysis and therapy.
The point here is that “to suffer” is not the end goal. The point is to focus on meaning beyond the suffering; it presumes that the suffering will pass.
b.) Change what we can, when we can, when the opportunity becomes available:
While Frankl appreciates that our freedom is a finite freedom – that we are never fully free from restrictions or constraints; that sometimes our circumstances are set (at least for the time being) – he also advocates neither searching nor settling for hardship or suffering, if the situation can be avoided. Neither endeavor makes someone a hero. Endure your suffering with a sense of purpose, if it cannot be avoided. But end the suffering if and when you can.
There is a difference between people who are able to pick themselves up and get over life’s problems and those who are not. The decisive factor is decision – the freedom of choice; the freedom to come up with a decision. It is deciding for oneself “I would like to become this way or another in spite of conditions that should only seem to fully determine my behavior. I should act freely as a responsible being.”
It’s “not just a question of deciding to survive, but a ‘why’ of survival – a reason, a passionate end – that motivates that.”
c.) Prioritize the pursuit of a purpose.
“Any human being is concerned with something out there in the world. Is concerned with a work to do; a job to complete; a task; a meaning, a mission in life waiting for him; for him exclusively; to be materialized, to be actualized by him and by no other person. Right now. Who else, if not he.” – Frankl
Not for himself but for a cause to serve – something or someone. This is an act of tremendous love – love, most likely, for another person. Short of that, however, love for a cause; love for something; love for life’s work.
d.) It’s not just about meaning, but the search for it.
A person has to decide what he or she will be in the next moment. A human being is the father of his future. It is our power and responsibility to chart our own course; map our own way; pursue our own purpose. To move not in any direction, but in the right direction.
IV.) So. About them boulders…
Let’s take “the boulder” to represent absolutely anything that might consume our mental and physical energy — “work,” good or bad.
Worst case scenario: we’ve got no boulder at all. Or reject those available to us.
We have neither productive work nor suffering — nothing consuming our energy, welcomed or otherwise.
Ideally (and realistically), this situation is short-lived — even in the absence of deliberate pursuit, we will most likely encounter something which warrants our attention or energy, even if it brings hardship. Which is good, because with no boulder whatsoever, our existence becomes a vacuum, and we are stripped – cheated – of any opportunity for purpose; our life is rendered meaningless.
And “if there is no meaning in his visual field, then man takes his own life.”
Next scenario: we have only one boulder available to us, and that boulder brings only hardship; suffering to be endured
There are two opportunities for our boulder to offer the opportunity for meaning or purpose: a.) as suffering (the obvious, #Sisyphys) and b.) as deliberate, chosen work. In the event that we find ourselves in the former – being asked to suffer – our focus becomes survival, with the motivation and the reason being: something “on the other side.” (See last scenario.)
Next scenario: we have chosen any boulder from the few that were readily available, and do so because it’s just as good as any to roll up a hill.
If this is enough – if we find purpose in the pushing of a boulder alone – then that’s fine. But this is only really satisfying if our purpose in life is rolling boulders up hills, when the act of doing so will always bring more meaning than any boulder in particular.
If, on the other hand, we have a hunger for more purpose, and if we’re exerting the energy anyway, rolling this boulder up this hill, then we might as well throw ourselves at something that brings us satisfaction. Otherwise we risk never have anything more to show for that effort than the pushing of a nameless boulder up one nameless hill.
Last scenario: we search for the one boulder that means everything
When we pick the right boulder, the act of throwing ourselves behind it becomes a labor of love; the strain and hardship incidental.
“If there is a meaning to fulfill – if man becomes cognizant of such a meaning – then he’s ready to suffer, he’s ready to offer sacrifices; he’s ready to undergo tension, stress and so forth without any harm being done to his health.” – Frankl
Meaning armors us against hardship. And meaning makes our pursuits – and our life – worthwhile.