For a day or so, I reacted to my discovery of a tattered copy of Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning--and especially to the startling coincidences surrounding that discovery-- as if I had just won the lottery and an all-expenses-paid trip to Tahiti in the same day.
Working through it slowly, I affixed bits of sticky note to pages in Part I, "Experiences in a Concentration Camp," that contained words that shone like lights in the darkness: surprise; kindness; art; poems; humor; beloved; luminous; truth; wisdom; salvation; love.
Nearing the end of the book, I started wondering if a somber reaction was more appropriate. Was I led to this book because I needed a personal warning about what the future might bring, or possibly even a direct personal rebuke?
Then, I reached the page where Frankl recounts, in his words, "the deepest experience I had in the concentration camps." You'll have to read the book yourself to learn the details of that remarkable event--but I will give away what his reaction to it was at the time:
"How should I have interpreted such a 'coincidence' other than a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them down on paper."
Anyone who has received instruction in the art of writing knows the adage to "write what you know." Reading Frankl has added a spiritual dimension to that advice: write what you know; know what you write. Write what you live, live what you write.
Along those lines, here is advice from Viktor Frankl as he was nearing the end of his life, in his preface to the 1992 edition:
Viktor Frankl wrote this, however, back in the days when a publishing house, impressed with a writer's work, would take him and his manuscript under its wings: editing, illustrating, and marketing, giving cash advances so he could continue writing more. The author would probably be required to go on book tours, but there was none of the pressure which a contemporary author has to make himself known via working the SEO angles, gathering followers on FaceBook, Twitter, and all the other social media outlets, and encouraging those followers to write"Don't aim at success -- the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect to a cause which is greater than oneself or a byproduct of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run -- in the long run, I say! -- success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it."
Can a writer today really expect that "success will follow [him] precisely because [he] had forgotten to think of it?" It isn't a moot point for me, even though I don't yet have anything other than my blog to promote. If the effort of writing and attracting attention to a public blog--even one written as a hobby--isn't met with the success of having a respectable readership, what is the point of doing it at all? And here, I stop and remember one of the great themes in Man's Search for Meaning. Don't ask, "what is the meaning of life." Let life ask you what is the meaning of what are you doing now, at this very moment. Answer life responsibly, with kindness and fairness. In Frankl's words, "Listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge."
Conscience? In today's information-saturated environment, any opinion one has, be it about politics or religion or any other aspect of living, can always be countered by someone calling it heretical, or a slightly milder variant of that epithet, "worse than useless." How can I be sure that I am being true to my conscience, that the idea I am sending out into the world via a blog, comment, or social media post, is worth reading about?
No matter how much I learn -- and I reckon I should read orders of magnitude in quantity more than I write -- more than facts are required to form convictions. The best way I know, and would recommend, to listen to the conscience is to learn to meditate. Take twenty minutes a day to fill my mind with "mantra," written works that have accumulated grace by lighting the paths of truth-seekers for centuries: the Shema Yisrael, the Lord's Prayer, the Beatitudes--and it even works for atheists--great mathematical and physical truths that speak to the underlying beauty and order of the Universe.
Expect coincidences to follow.
I don't have the whole truth, but I might get the attention of someone who is just as far as, or even further away from the whole truth than I am, and encourage him: to dig deeper; to take comfort in the fact that he is not the only one perplexed and looking for answers; to laugh a little, for even Viktor Frankl in the concentration camps did that.
(PS I might be flattering myself by thinking anyone would want to copy this stuff, but just in case: please don't. Brief quotes referencing back to this page are fine though, even if you want to say it's crappy. Sometimes, I copyright my writing the old-fashioned way: print a copy, bring it to the post-office, get the date stamped on the sealed envelope.)