What do a book by a Holocaust survivor and a Disney movie have in common?
I know the title might sound provocative, or even slightly offensive for someone, but I recently watched the animated movie “Soul”¹ with my kids, at about the same time when I was reading Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s search for meaning”² and I was struck by some common themes coming out from two so different sources.
In the Disney movie, Joe Gardner, a music teacher, is obsessed with his dream of becoming a jazz pianist, so hang up on his “spark” as to become frustrated, not being able to notice the little everyday joys he could have at hand and the meaningful connections and friendships he could build, being too inwardly focused on the pursuit of his dream.
As the sage and hippy character Moonwind puts it: “When joy becomes an obsession, one becomes disconnected from life”. Joe comes to realize this truth when he finally gets the chance to play in an important concert with a legendary saxophonist, realizing afterward that the realization of his dream left him feeling emptier than before.
In his book (which I absolutely recommend), Viktor Frankl shares his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, and how he was able to survive the brutality and violence happening to him and around him, thanks to a deeper connection to his own sense of meaning.
The core of Frankl's philosophy is that a man's deepest desire is to find meaning in his life, and when finding that meaning, he can survive anything.
While reading Frankl’s story, I came to the realization that, while on the surface we might think that our meaning is similar to the “spark” that the Disney character was looking for, it might in reality be something deeper.
Deeper than our passions and dreams, our meaning is something that is inherently tied to ourselves, something that stays within ourselves no matter how incredibly harsh the circumstances might be, and that allows us to endure whatever might happen.
As Frankl very effectively describes (I still have shivers in writing it down): “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you”. This can happen when we are able to see our true meaning within, connect to it, thus finding our deepest Why.
As philosopher F. Nietzsche wrote: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How”.
The question thus for us is how to go about finding this deeper meaning.
I have absolutely no ambition to give an answer to a question that philosophy, research and religion have been trying to address for centuries.
What I know for myself is that pausing, disconnecting the auto-pilot, and paying attention to the little, seemingly trivial things of our everyday life may actually help us to connect more deeply with ourselves.
How many times do we feel that we are “elsewhere” with our mind, chasing for something distant in time and space?
How many times do we feel that we live for what comes tomorrow or for what was yesterday instead of being in the here and now?
How often does it happen that, when that big dream comes true, as for Joe Gardner getting on stage for his special concert, we feel disappointment for the moment not feeling so special, and we start chasing for the next challenge?
Joe’s at the end comes to realize that he might be more connected to his deeper meaning when he is able to live in the present, notice and cherish the little moments of every day, sharing a pizza with a friend, watching autumn leaves falling, having a true conversation with his mother.
And this is true also in much less happy circumstances, even in tragic ones as described by Frankl, where even the exchange of a smile, the possibility to talk to a companion or to think about his beloved were for him anchors on which he clung not to drift away in total despair.
What are your personal anchors that allow you to stay in the present, stay connected to yourself and to your deeper meaning? Why not giving yourself the gift of some time and space to reflect on it?
¹ Soul. Directed by Pete Docter, Disney Pixar, 2020
² Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s search for meaning, Beacon Press, Boston, 1992