Politics & Policy

Seeking Meaning in Aurora

We might enlist the help of the great Viennese psychologist Viktor Frankl.

Maybe I am mistaken, but my sense is that the massacre in Aurora has stimulated fewer “big think” articles than did earlier mass killings at Columbine and elsewhere. One reason perhaps is that those tempted to make the massacre a justification of their partisan loyalties or political projects were warned off doing so by the crass error of ABC News in jumping to the guesswork that the Tea Party may have been involved. It flagged the indecency of that kind of “news analysis.” Another possible explanation is that most journalistic “big thinkers” — I have to include myself as an occasional practitioner — have nothing fresh or insightful to add to our earlier reflections on these horrible outbursts.

The existence of “radical evil,” or the willing embrace of evil for its own sake, is one plausible interpretation of such events. But it is a cul-de-sac of an argument. It lends itself to example and illustration but not to development. And, besides, it can be brought into play only when the many kinds of insanity have been examined and discarded as explanations. That brings me to the third reason: We are learning about the mind of James Holmes only very slowly. Some things that we have learned point to the crime; others magnify the mystery. Until we know more, we are sensible to remain silent.

Writing on the Conservative Home website, however, the British journalist Bruce Anderson examines one aspect of the murders that, while unknowable, is actually of practical use. He looks at the theodicy of Aurora: How can we reconcile God’s goodness with such a terrible crime?

A brief word about Anderson (who is an old friend) may be in order: He is an agonized agnostic who wishes he could believe in Christianity but (so far at least) cannot do so. In his article he briefly summarizes the traditional Christian view: “If we take the first few chapters of Genesis as an allegory, humanity rejected pet-hood and innocence in favour of knowledge and travail. Beyond Eden, there was a world which had been admirably designed as a moral playing field for an endless fixture. The game would throw up heroes and Hitlers; saintliness and savagery; beauty beyond words: bestiality equally beyond words. . . . This moral assault course could only work if man possessed free will. If the Almighty were always on the touch-line as a celestial G4S or St John’s Ambulance Brigade, the game would lose its drama.”

As Anderson concedes, however, these are not truths that even the most compassionate and skilled pastor would find it easy to preach to the bereaved in Aurora. Almost all of them are likely to be believing and practicing Christians. Their faith is being harshly tested. Anderson tells the moving story of a priest friend who, early in his vocation, had to deal with a tragic but not uncommon family case: “A delightful young mother who had been suffering from aches and pains went to the doctor in expectation of a few pills. Instead, she was rapidly referred to a solemn specialist who broke the terrible news. Cancer, inoperable, nothing could be done. She had two months to live. ‘How could God allow this?’ she railed. ‘I have three small children and a distraught husband who is barely able to boil an egg. What will become of them? I don’t claim to be especially holy, but I have tried to be a loyal and obedient Christian. Is this my reward? How can I still believe in a God of love?’

“The priest . . . told the mother that she and her family were very popular in the parish — which was true — and that everyone would rally round to provide practical help, as well as endless hugs. He also said that when she arrived in Heaven, she was perfectly entitled to be angry with God. She should march straight up to Him and ask what He meant by it. He would reply: ‘But my daughter, I have all eternity to make it up to you.’”

Bruce concludes: “The idea of being angry with God tickled her fancy. She regained her courage and retained her faith. She did not quite die laughing at the thought of giving her Creator a good ticking-off, but it helped to ease her passing.”

Unsurprisingly, Bruce Anderson’s article — read the whole thing here — has elicited a good many comments, some grateful, some critical, some contemptuous. As regards the latter, they have accused him of rank sentimentality, retreat into illusion, attempting to imitate Patience Strong, and so on. Well, Bruce’s shoulders are wide, as is the rest of him — if he ever does become a Christian, that would inter alia complete his resemblance to G. K. Chesterton. But it is hard to see how he is retreating into illusion since he is describing how Christians might comfort one another but doing so from outside Christian belief as an agnostic. Where he differs from his critics is that he does not treat other people’s beliefs as despicable delusions but as sources of moral truth and psychological comfort. In doing so, he is being perfectly realistic.

But some of his more reasonable critics wonder what comfort can be found for the nonbeliever on the morrow of these crimes. That question was at least partly answered 60 years ago by the great Viennese psychologist Viktor Frankl (a cousin, for those interested in coincidences, of Hayek). Frankl had been a conventional Freudian before the Second World War. In the death camp, however, he kept himself alive by fixing the image of his greatly loved wife always in the forefront of his mind. He came to realize, as a result, that the Freudian idea of love as merely sublimated sex was an absurdity.

Frankl never saw his wife again; she died in another camp. But after the war he developed a new theory of psychology — namely, logotherapy — rooted initially in his insight into love and ultimately in the idea that man has a hunger for meaning quite as real as his hunger for food, shelter, and sex. He developed this theory in a book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which under several titles has remained a bestseller ever since. Many of you reading this have probably read it.

Frankl argued that a sense of meaninglessness — a meaningless world, a meaningless life — was the great source of unhappiness, neurosis, suicide, and the other psychic ills of a world now quite prosperous and largely at peace. He thought that the three most potent sources of meaning in life were, in the following order, belief in God, love, and work. Frankl was himself a believer, I am told, but he thought that his theory could be usefully applied to the psychological pains of nonbelievers. The way to do that was to identify some element in the patient’s life that gave some kind of meaning to the pain.

He gives an example. One day a patient came to see him for help in overcoming the strong temptations to suicide that he felt. His wife of many years had died not long before, and he felt that life was no longer worth living. Frankl asked him if he had loved his wife. He said they had been extremely close and loving. Frankl then said that it was a pity his patient had not died first, since he would then have been saved the agony of separation. This reply greatly distressed him. He rejected this “comfort” indignantly on the grounds that his wife would have been as wretched as he was at their separation by death. Frankl then pointed out that his patient’s pain was the price of sparing his wife the same or worse pain. The patient stood up and shook Frankl’s hand gratefully. His pain had not gone. But it was no longer meaningless and could therefore be endured. (I quote this example from memory; I cannot lay my hands on the book.)

Three families in Aurora can take particular comfort from the manner of death of their sons. They are the families of the three young men who died in attempting to save their girlfriends. There is no greater meaning in death, whether from a religious or a secular standpoint, than in laying down one’s life to save one’s friends. It is the ultimate expression of love. More broadly, the comfort available to Christian and other religious families in Aurora is rooted in what Frankl believed was the primary source of meaning, namely belief in a God who promises ultimate justice. And if there are any agnostics in Aurora (apart from James Holmes himself, who described himself as one on a dating website), we would need to know more about them (and their families) in order to suggest the kind of comfort rooted in meaning that Frankl prescribes. That cannot be done at long distance.

We cannot eliminate meaninglessness from the world, alas. In addition to the deaths caused by war criminals and terrorists, there will always be victims of natural avalanches and accidental car wrecks like the one that killed 14 people late last night in Texas. The best we can do is to make the world a less meaningless place — that is, a more just and more loving place. That may lead to political programs — for instance, changes in the treatment of the mentally ill — but it is not in itself a political program. It is a movement of mass humane moral self-improvement. Celebrating the lives of those murdered in Aurora and comforting their families may kick-start such a movement. Whether it is sustained is a matter for the rest of us.

John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.

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