This Unbearable Boredom of Being

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This book is a precious gift to the reader. The author guides the reader in a truly universalist spirit that allows us, in his company, to view the present state of our culture both in depth as well as in a critical manner. I myself, as a European, could of course learn a lot, gaining new information and correcting many previous misinterpretations. Small wonder: the author is a well-recognized scientist who migrated from one world and landed in another one. Hence he could accumulate a wealth of experience, and present it in the light of his personal wisdom.

From Viktor Frankl’s Foreword

 

The late Dr. Viktor Frankl, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century and the author of the internationally bestselling book, Man's Search for Meaning, wrote over 50 years ago: "Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for."

 This societal sickness, rooted in the lack of meaning in one's existence, which now has engulfed the whole world. The sickness is nearly universal: As the post-industrial revolution spreads worldwide, it infects affluent societies, welfare states, and even the poorest countries.

Why is this happening? In his book, The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology, Frankl writes:

Unlike an animal, man is no longer told by drives and instincts what he must do. And in contrast to man in former times, he is no longer told by traditions and values what he should do. Now, knowing neither what he must do nor what he should do, he sometimes does not even know what he basically wishes to do. Instead, he wishes to do what other people do... or he does what other people wish him to do.

The quintessence of this devastating crisis has been expressed in a statement by International Network on Personal Meaning:

In modern society, several forces and trends are converging in creating a crying need for meaning and spirituality. Prosperity without a purpose leads to disillusion and emptiness. Progress without a spiritual direction results in confusion and uncertainty. A winner-take-all economy contributes to conflict and injustice. Violence, conflict, addiction, depression, and suicide reflect an existential crisis. The paradox of prosperity without happiness reflects an unfulfilled spiritual hunger. The intense competition of the new economy results in an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

In this situation when people "lose ground" the old liberal social philosophies fail. The bitter truth, says Frankl, is that (The Unheard Cry for Meaning; italics by Frankl):

For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for [italics by Frankl].

Frankl calls the state of frustration of the will to meaning the existential vacuum. In his words, this vacuum, though too often latent, does open up and becomes manifest in the state of boredom.

In the author’s view, this is the situation in America today: Catastrophically, in large segments of American society, people have lost the meaning in their lives. The gist of this book, is that the most burning problems of today's America: crime, drugs, greed, ugly gender polarization, disintegration of family, decay in morals, racism, and so on, are the direct consequences of the crisis of meaning that has engulfed America.

The symptoms of the crisis are easy to identify just by observing how deeply boredom, in its many forms and manifestations, affects people’s lives. When it takes over and becomes unbearable its companions – addiction, depression, and aggression – become the threats not only to the individual but also to society as a whole.

Just a glimpse of the state of boredom among a significant segment of American society leaves no doubt that the crisis of meaning has, in fact, overwhelmed this great nation, and that the most serious problems that haunt this nation are direct consequences of that boredom triad described above.

• Addiction to illicit drugs is one of the most pressing problems in America today.  President George H. W. Bush, in 1989, called drugs “the gravest domestic threat facing our nation.”  Later, President Bill Clinton described drugs as America’s “constant curse.”  According to Office of National Drug Control (2001), the street-cocaine market in the United States has been stable for years and totals over $35 billion a year, followed by heroin’s $10 billion market, methamphetamine’s $5.4 billion, marijuana’s $11 billion, and other substances’ $2.4 billion.  Approximately 1.5 to 2 million people are regular cocaine or crack cocaine users.  Although, in percentages, the numbers of minority drug users are higher than those of whites, the market itself—and that is what is important even if one only wants to stop the spread of drugs—is sustained mainly by middle- and upper-middle class whites: the inner-city slums do not have those billions.  As for marijuana, the scope of its spread among all the social strata in America cannot even be estimated.

America has spent and continues to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to stop the supply of illicit drugs.  But it is the demand for drugs that makes the problem so serious.  Nave attempts to curb drug demand, like the Just Say No to Drugs! campaign launched in 1986 by the First Lady Nancy Reagan, have miserably failed.  And America’s current scare is the growing production and spread of domestic amphetamine, having nothing to do with Colombian drug cartel.

Other forms of addiction are pandemic: video and computer games (especially among children), and the Internet itself are powerful sources of addiction. But the most addictive is gambling, spreading in America like mushrooms after rain through numerous state-supported lotteries and legal and semi-legal casinos.  Millions of Americans spend their hard-earned dollars gambling.  America was shocked when the unbelievable greed of executives of Enron, WorldCom, and dozens of other big and small companies was disclosed.  Has it always been that way?  Why has money become the most important stimulus of American life?  Few people recall that Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) did answer this question:

Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money.

• Depression has reached the proportion of an epidemic in America.  Some 20 million people suffer from depression here.  It has been accepted as unfortunate but “natural.”  One in five children meets the government criteria for needing mental health-care, and (Harvard University study, 2002) childhood depression grows at an astonishing rate of 23% per year!

In 2001, three million American teenagers thought about committing suicide, and one million actually attempted it.  Among the young people ages 15-24, suicide is the third leading cause of death and, according to medical authorities, in most cases the leading cause of suicide is depression.

The use of psychotropic drugs is skyrocketing.  The pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly makes huge profit on Prozac.  And no voices are heard even hinting at the possible existential causes of this epidemic.

• As for Aggression, it finds its realization in the proliferation of violence both in the media and real life.  The victims of domestic violence are in millions, constantly portrayed on the TV news.  It is a general belief that violence in our society is provoked by indiscriminate media coverage and sensational Hollywood films, but the supply of such images is directly related to the demand for them.

Why do people want to watch violent movies and TV programs?  The same question can be asked about the Roman mobs that packed Coliseums where gladiator slaves killed each other, or were thrown to wild animals, two thousand years ago.  The answer was, and is boredom.

Another powerful factor that feeds aggression and violence in America is the proliferation of firearms.  It is now threatening normal life in our cities, towns and even schools.  In our view, the desire to “bear arms” is not so much a result of Americans’ deep-rooted mistrust of government as a potentially oppressive institution, but a response to high levels of aggression permeating America – a vicious circle.

The book identifies one powerful factor that plays an enormous and decisive role in exacerbating our crisis and virtually all our problems: the degradation of our educational system. 

Although education in its true sense is an aspect of human civilization that is fundamentally individual, an effort by the whole society is necessary for its success.  True education is also fundamentally existential because it is the opening of a window on the world.  It brings one to maturity, building the mind and the soul and filling them with meaning, giving purpose to one’s life (see the essay Training or Education? America’s Cultural and Existential Dilemma).

The book also discusses the roots of the degradation of American educational system, and a future, true educational reform.  However, what is suggested is almost diametrically opposed to the measures that are being widely discussed (and implemented) today.

Viktor Frankl’s books have been translated into many languages.  Unfortunately, his ideas, in spite of the fact that his books were widely sold in this country, have been virtually forgotten.  When discussing the most acute problems of today’s America – crime, drugs, greed, gender polarization, racism, teenage sex, family disintegration, moral decay – nobody mentions their possible existential cause. 

In author’s view, the time has come for Americans to look into the face of reality and honestly focus on what politicians fail to see in their rhetoric: the existential character of our most severe problems.  The healing process, which will eventually make our society healthy and ready for the challenges of the new millennium, will be possible and can begin only if our public understands the true causes of our problems, and politicians openly and honestly address the issues responsible for our ills.

The book is an eye opener. It is also a source of optimism. In author’s view

If we find the moral strength to rebuild our education, then at the same time, we will have built the foundation of a New America, healthy and flourishing, the light unto the nations, a country eliciting deep respect and emulation.