Why “Man’s Search for Meaning” and Viktor Frankl

I recommend Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to a fair number of people in a wide array of contexts, and one of my students asked why I included him in a short list of books at the back of the syllabus. Though I’ve mentioned him on blog a number of times (see here for one example), I hadn’t really considered why I admire his book and so wanted to take a shot at doing so.

As Frankl says, we’re suffering from a bizarre dearth of meaning in our everyday lives. One can see this in the emptiness that a lot of people report feeling and, more seriously, in suicide rates. In material terms, people in Western societies have never been as well off as we are today—and most of Asia and Latin America, along with much of Africa, are catching up with surprising speed. Yet in “spiritual” terms (I hate that much-abused word but can think of no better one—metaphysical, perhaps?) many of us aren’t doing so well, which is odd, given the cornucopia of goods and opportunities around us. I think Frankl tries to teach us how to better actualize our lives—we truly don’t live by bread alone—and I think he has a keen sense of the malaise many of us feel. I’ve struggled with these issues too and think Frankl’s treatment of them is a good one.

One can see another version or statement of this general problem in Louis CK’s much-linked bit “Everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy.” It has 7 million views, and while YouTube views are hardly a good metric for importance or content, I think CK’s bit has gone viral because he’s touching a profound problem that many people feel, even if they don’t articulate it, or usually won’t articulate to themselves or others.

Many people also seem to feel isolated (see Putnam’s possibly flawed Bowling Alone for one account). Yet because they feel isolated, they have no one to talk to about feeling isolated! The paradox worsens isolation, and there isn’t an obvious outlet for these kinds of feelings or problems. Plus, technology seems to enable crappier and more tenuous relationships, when many of us really want the opposite. That’s partly a problem of the person using the technology—we can talk to anyone, anywhere despite many of us having nothing to say—but technology also pushes use to use it in particular ways, which is one of my points about how Facebook is bad for relationships.

And people are mostly on their own in dealing with this. Schools, as they’re widely conceived of right now, are largely seen as job-training centers, rather than as places to figure out how you should live your life. So they’re not very helpful. Religion or religious feeling is one answer for some people, but religious thinking or feeling isn’t very satisfying for me and a growing number of people.

I don’t know what is helpful—problems are often easier to see than solutions—but Frankl offers a framework for thinking about leading a meaningful existence through attempting to do the best with what you’ve got and choosing an aim for your life, however small or absurd (Hence: “Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence”).

Frankl and Louis CK are hardly the only people to notice this—All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age is a contemporary example of a book tackling similar basic concepts from a different angle. Stumbling on Happiness and The Happiness Hypothesis are others. The fact that this problem persists across decades and arguably becomes more urgent means that I don’t think these books will be the last. As Frankl says in a preface:

I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book so much an achievement and accomplishment on my part as an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under the fingernails.

The beta orbiter problem: Observations from the field

A newly-graduated friend sent me this, as part of an e-mail about the difficulty of making friends after moving to a big city:

I’m now trying to “friend-date” whenever I meet a female (or male) who seems platonically cool. I have an easier time with males, but I don’t think the single ones ever intend to be friends with me from the beginning… mostly beta orbiters I guess.

Think about it this way, from the guy’s perspective: you’re exceedingly hungry. As hungry as you’ve ever been. And you can smell a delicious curry. You can see it. You’re very hungry. You’d love to eat the curry. But you can’t eat the curry.

The metaphor isn’t perfect—women have agency and curries don’t, among other things*—but it should impart the basic urgency single guys feel and the reason why single men who don’t want to be “just friends” also don’t want to hang out with you as a friend. How badly would you want to go to a restaurant when you’re desperately hungry but can’t eat at the restaurant?

My friend also said:

I found this article recently that was telling guys why they should be friends with the women who reject them for dating, but want to be friends. 1) The guy will become more confident around the type of women he’s interested in. 2) She will introduce him to her hot friends.

While “She will introduce him to her hot friends” is true in theory, it isn’t true, or very often true, in practice (based on my experience, anyway). More often, when a girl I’m interested in declines my affections, at best she sets me up with friends who are substantially less attractive than she is, and frequently says they’re “cute” and promises that I’ll “like them for their personality.” Unfortunate euphemisms lead to hurt feelings all around. Actually, my feelings don’t get hurt, but the feelings of other women sometimes do.

The hot girl’s friends also often know the hot girl turned the guy down, and that sends a powerful negative signal. If the guy isn’t good enough for the hot girl, why should he be good enough for her friends? Again, I won’t say that no straight guy has ever gotten the female-friend hookup, but I suspect that the female-friend hookup is more mythologized than actualized.

I’m familiar with the the beat orbiter mindset because I spent a lot of high school being one—but that’s because I was an idiot who didn’t know any better. I finally stepped back from that behavior, wondered why the hell I was doing it, and stopped. Non-adaptive behaviors should be altered. Most self-respecting guys who are dumb enough to go through a beta orbiter phase leave that phase by the time they graduate from college, if not earlier. Not all do, however, and you’ll occasionally run into 35-year-old men with the emotional temperament of 15-year-old boys in the thrall of their first serious, unrequited infatuation.

I’ve also had girls be the female equivalent of beta orbiters. I say “girls” here because, like men, adult single women usually grow out of this behavior, and if they’re attracted to a guy, they either make their move and see where it goes or they find a guy who is interested in them, instead of pointlessly pining after the unavailable. Straight American women seem to be more susceptible to acquiring beta orbiters than straight American men, while women seem to be, on average, more deluded about their “real” relationships with their supposed male “friends.”

One thought experiment might clarify your “friendships:” imagine that you’re lying in bed, wearing lingerie or nothing, and your male friend comes in. Does he leave or partake? If he leaves, you’re real friends. If he partakes, he’s probably not.

The attention of beta orbiters is kind of flattering to women, but it’s also mostly pointless; if you’re in the game, so to speak, you want to focus on the game, not the crowd. This is true of both sexes, whether gay or straight, but it seems like a lot of people have trouble admitting it.

(As a side note, literature is full of idiots pursuing pointless love for no particular reason: think of Gatsby and Daisy, or Robert Cohn and Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, or any number of 19th century novels, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, or Romeo and Juliet (which has the advantage of Mercutio, until he dies; it’s his death that’s tragic, because he’s hilarious—”I will bite thee by the ear for that jest” and “for the bawdy hand of the / dial is now upon the prick of noon”). In each case, the obvious thing for the pursuer to do is get over whoever he or she is obsessed with and find someone better / more available, which are much the same thing. That’s a problem with Gatsby and Sun in particular: both novels are constructed around idiotic, self-defeating sexual behavior that contemporary teenagers often see glorified in pop culture and eventually must learn to overcome. The writing and style in both novels are specular, but their plots leave much to be desired, since the obvious thing for Jay Gatsby and Robert Cohn to do is get over Daisy and Brett Ashley. If they do, however, one no longer has a novel. But we shouldn’t admire guys who do things that are clearly dumb and sub-optimal.)

It may also be hard for attractive women to become genuine friends with a guy who already has a girlfriend because most girlfriends won’t want a rival—especially an attractive rival, sniffing around their campfire—so to speak. The reasons should be obvious. The major exception, however, occurs when the girl herself is bi, or at least interested in some girl-on-girl experience(s), but third-wheel situations among relative strangers seldom seem to last long.

This kind of misunderstand seems to be incredibly, stupidly common; I occasionally read the reddit.com/r/relationships section, which is filled with people like “jaqueinabox” who say

I have a friend who I’ve known for about four or five years. A couple years ago, when my boyfriend at the time and I were on a break, I invited him to a social [. . .] I dropped him off at his car, but we ended up making out for a few minutes before I told him I had to stop (I never really do stuff like that and I was incredibly uncomfortable with it.) [. . .] When my boyfriend and I broke up for good, my friend started insisting we hang out more. Go to movies, go out for dinner, go to his place and watch movies, sending me texts with “xoxo” and “;)” in them, and it feels a lot like dating. [. . .] I still see movies and hang out with him because it seems rude to say no.

She’s wrong: it’s actually rude, both to herself and, to a lesser extent, the guy, to keep going out with him. In the thread, I wrote that “Directness is beautiful, both for you and these ‘guy-friends,’ who are not actually friends.” The other day a Reddit commenter wrote, accurately:

Most male friends become friends with attractive women with hopes of getting with them. Usually, when it doesn’t happen or she gets into/is in a relationship, they step back. When she gets out of a relationship, they usually try again.

The best movie scene dealing with this dynamic is the famous bit from When Harry Met Sally:

The contemporary term of art for these guys is, of course, “beta orbiter.”

I do want to clarify one point: It is possible for men and women to be authentic friends (I have a bunch of authentic female friends). It’s just much more unusual than many young straight women want to think it is. Many young straight women want to lie to themselves, or simply like deluding themselves, about male “friends.”

Authentic cross-gender friendships are great and they are no less worth cultivating than any other friendship. But don’t lie to yourself and don’t go into authentic friendships with the purpose of trying to covertly shoot for more.

* As far as I know.

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