Each one of us is born with a primal instinct to survive. Throughout the ages, from the beginning of time – this has been clearly evidenced by human evolution. Of course, we know instinctually that survival is vital to the propagation of life, any form of life on earth, therefore it must perpetuate itself, even and inevitably, in the face of incredible adversities. Beyond that of natural disasters of weather and volcanos, earthquakes, floods and famine – there are the sufferings that humans perpetrate on eachother that are adversities, many untellable, that are of interest to this thesis from the perspective of instinct and the primary motivation in life.
At some level we can see that the greater the adversity the greater evolutionary stride forward has been taken. Humans have, of course advanced in all dimensions of knowledge, capacity and capabilities. What is in question here is how the capacity for all manner of violence has not only grown but been perpetrated by human being to human being. On the one hand humans have advanced exponentially, in scientific knowledge. However, on the other hand it seems that we have taken and used this knowledge to inflict suffering and tragedy, upon eachother. Winston (1996) has stated, quite aptly that as technology advances so has our ability to refine and conduct large-scale organized violence. He further states that, “modern technology and organization coupled with our ancient human instincts are now allowing mankind to become ever more violent. The State of Nature, in comparison, might well have been an idyll.” (pg. 309)
The world we now live in, of unimaginable technological advances, intellectual knowledge of more individuals today, than ever before and the immense collective knowledge in the world’s societies, and considering the depth of our human knowledge, regarding what it is that makes us complex, dynamic, unique and human, I am staggered to also be conscious of and witness (as each one of us does at various levels) the inhumanities of our human species!
Winston (1996) reminds us to consider what Einstein stated at the beginning of the twentieth century, of his findings when he said that he did not know what weapons World War Three will be fought with, but that World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones, meaning that humans will destroy themselves completely only to begin again on the same trajectory of violence and aggression toward one another! (Pg. 309)
Therefore, when I ponder Frankl’s statement about meaning it repeatedly dawns on me that making sense of our existence, that is to say, to seek and find meaning in our life experiences, our identity and our existence, is the vital core of survival. Frankl (2004) stated, “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning” (pg. 105), which has made me ponder upon the question of the human (primal) instinct to survive and the search for meaning as the primary human motivation in life. I inquire then, how does one realise his or her meaning – purpose in that survival – especially when I think about my work with people who are survivors of great adversities and human atrocities, but also of those (almost all of us) who have been vicariously, adversely impacted or influenced by any kind of abuse, neglect and rejection. All you have to think of is the media, the news and how many people it reaches worldwide through television, radio, internet, news papers and other forms of media. How many times is a disaster aired and discussed? – almost twenty-four hours a day! That’s a lot of heard and seen experiences, negative and traumatic - entering our brains and our minds and psychological sphere.
If to survive is instinctual, in order that our species or life on earth needs to be propagated would that not mean that we instinctually have a purpose – a larger purpose of all of humanity - that survival is necessary to continue our species on earth, which subsequently means that the human race is innately responsible to continue its journey. The ‘prime directive’ of that journey seems to be learning how to relate to one another which could consequently lead toward a world where all societies can begin to live together as unique and worthy – an ideal?
I would argue that instinct has a purpose and purpose thrives on meaning, therefore human instinct and the human search for meaning are intrinsically tied together and purposeful! For example, to survive to continue the human race we instinctually know to find food and water (or our bodies die), to have sex, because humans are equipped with what they need, to procreate the next generation, and to do whatever it takes to survive (fight, flee or freeze), until the next generation takes over – this is the base purpose of survival, of coming into existence, but a purpose no doubt. What separates us from the lower animal is our innate need to seek out nurturing, connectedness and the dynamics of relationship, to fulfil the psychological and spiritual quality of life – in other words to find meaning in our existence.
As a therapist and especially a logotherapist, this is a message that has vital implications to our lives, our attitudes and our human (and humane) development. It is increasingly remarkable how many people suffer, as victims of severe and unimaginable trauma at the hands of fellow humans. From what we can see of what is occurring in our world today, it is not just because cases are being reported more often and easily, now than in the past, it is, clearly, because there is an increase in atrocities, overflowing into what we may have once thought of as safe places in our life environments.
It has also compelled me to take a closer look at my own life’s journey with some trepidation and realise that I too am a survivor. Examining this dimension of my life has provided me with an opportunity to look at my own experiences more closely. In doing so I have developed a deeper understanding about how I even began on this journey to seek and find meaning, and be able to move in a forward direction, in many meaningful, yet painful, ways. Others, countless others, have not, yet begun to see through the misery of their incredible abuse and suffering. Instinct brings them to a brink, fighting, fleeing or freezing - they survive. How do they find the strength of will to begin their search? Countless such battered, neglected, abandoned and traumatized individuals move in an unending circle of sad and sometimes tragic, meaningless suffering – mainly because they do not even believe that their survival has a purpose – this is a consequence of abuse and violence, which has conditioned them to believe, instead that they are worthless and that their survival has no purpose and, therefore no meaning.
What does this mean? When a person suffering a multitude of problems, such as post-traumatic stress caused by, anywhere from sexual abuse and violence of all kinds, to tortures of war, how does he or she, so impacted, find meaning within their survival? How does this individual know that this is or should be their primary motivation?
After having survived a tragedy of abuse of all and any kind, such as sexual and other physical abuses and violence, neglect, rejection and prejudices, degradation, at the hands of his own human neighbour – be it at the hands of a friend or close family member, or others in the community or society – how does one reach the point of knowing that there is within him or her, the ‘defiant power of their human spirit’ when it feels non-existent or futile?
Logotherapy aids in supporting the individual to know that our instinct to survive has a built in purpose giving him or her a sense of worthiness. A sense of worthiness awakens the defiant human spirit and the need to recover that primary motivation, which is to seek meaning in one’s existence and therefore purpose for survival.
Frankl (2004) talks about a Tragic Optimism, which mainly suggests that “one is, and remains, optimistic in spite of the “tragic triad,” as it is called in logotherapy, a triad which consists of those aspects of human experience which may be circumscribed by: (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death.” In other words, it advocates a certain way of living and suggests that life involves three inevitable kinds of tragedy, pain and suffering, guilt (because we are free to make choices and are responsible for the impact and consequences of those choices), and death (a knowing that our life is transient). He acknowledges that it is hard to find meaning in the face of such tragedy. However, if we do not, then our sense of meaninglessness manifests in our experiences of depression, aggression and addiction. (pg. 139 – 141)
It has been discussed at many of my logotherapy workshops that individuals experiencing meaninglessness, and there are more than we know, experience this as the darkest and most troubling times. It is almost impossible to give words to these feelings and so there are kept private, until there are betrayed by behaviour that is, inevitably, meaningless. It seems as if speaking about meaning and the experiences of meaninglessness is often a topic that people tend to steer clear of. It is worse for those who frequent the mental health system where the topic is often poorly acknowledged or inadequately addressed. It is suggested that perhaps this is so because it requires an intuitive and nurturing response, which is not in the professionals’ repertoire of training. Therefore, how then do we support individuals who need to work through their experiences of trauma and tragedies in order to make sense of their existence and suffering and move beyond it meaningfully? If meaning is our primary motivation how do we find it, understand it and most important to our profession as logotherapists – guide our clients toward it?
This is what I would like to explore with you from a logotherapeutic perspective. Viktor Frankl, cultivated the theory of logos (a Greek word that means “meaning”) not only in our own lives, but in our practice as therapists and other helpers of people, and was miles ahead in his thinking. We will examine how logotherapy plays a part in explaining how meaning is a primary motivation and why it is vital to our lives. We will call on Freud, Darwin, Winston, Levine, Kalsched, Shore, Bowlby, and some others as we go. I admire these scholars for their work in human instinct and human behaviour from the perspective of loss, grief, evolution (biological and psychological), and the instinct of survival, its sustenance and its meaning - towards a formulation of a model of logotherapeutic treatment, particularly for those experiencing histories of trauma.
I believe that instinct is developed tri-dimensionally, modeled after human existence itself in its tri-dimensional state of body, mind and spirit - and rests on my theory that human instincts have a purpose beyond the base animal purpose, because of the mere fact that we innately seek out survival, sustenance, nurturing, connectedness and relationships with others. When we begin to understand that purpose is an innate part of survival, we can begin to uncover that primary motivation to seek out meaning. In order for us to understand how to get to this point in our own lives, but also to support our clients to get to this point, we need to understand the dimensions of instinct.
The common denominator, as you will see is “spirit” – noos – of Frankl’s philosophy.