Do you feel that even though your life is good and you have nothing to complain about, something is terribly missing? Do you think, ‘Was I born just to die at the end? What is my life about?’
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl referred to this malaise as existential frustration. He observed an interesting fact. When we ‘say yes to life’ and accept whatever comes our way, we are also responsive to life. We discover that the combination of our unique talents and unique circumstances gives us something uniquely meaningful to offer.
One aspect of responsiveness to life is responsiveness to the changing seasons. On the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashana the whole world undergoes a process of renewal. Every individual human being is part of the renewal of creation. Knowing this fact leads to questions like: ‘Does the way I am living my life make it worth having a world, for my sake?’ ‘Is it worth having a world, because I am in it?’
How does psychotherapy address these questions? (Or does it address these questions?)
For the most part, it does not. The goal and focus of therapy is to solve problems. The goal and focus of logotherapy, on the other hand, is to discover meaning. On the way to this discovery, problems serve a positive function. They create restlessness, and this reminds us to keep asking and keep searching until we find answers.
Thus, frustration and restlessness are vital signs of life. The heart remains restless, Frankl said, until we find meaning. If we pay attention to the stirrings in our hearts we find that what we want most of all is to truly and authentically be ourselves.
Bad habits, mistakes and oversights don’t allow us to be ourselves. We literally say “I wasn’t being myself.’ But admitting imperfection does not show lack of self-esteem. It means knowing we are a work in process. To be alive is to always be reaching and never quite getting there.
This type of self-dissatisfaction points to the deeper origins of our restlessness. As Frankl says, our essence is spirit. So while traditional psychotherapy concentrates on solving problems, there is a need for a different kind of approach that is not psychotherapy and not coaching. Instead, it is an approach that evokes our human essence.
This is the purpose of midot groups. The goal is not problem-solving but personal development. Midot (Hebrew for ‘measure’) are ways-of-being that reflect our spiritual essence, or what Viktor Frankl calls ‘powers of the human spirit.’ Some examples are kindness, humility, joy, gratitude, discipline, humor and self-worth.
Life challenges evoke these powers. But we don’t have to wait for a crisis to release our inner spiritual potential. We can integrate these ways of being as a practice at any time. In midot groups we focus on one of the powers of the human spirit and contemplate its meaning. We examine how it manifests in the world and in us. We notice what blocks it and what frees its expression. By strengthening these powers we learn to consciously summon them at will. And when our will is free, we are free.