Often in therapy you are educating the client to adopt a different perspective. One aspect to logoeducation is teaching the client to put the spotlight on meanings and values, rather than on one’s self-concerns.
Self-absorption is very much of a therapeutic issue. People who are depressed are self-absorbed. People who are paying excessive attention to themselves are incapable of getting over their stage fright. And so on.
The opposite of self-absorption is a focus on meaning. The person is told to focus on goals that are important to him or her, and this takes away the undue and unhelpful attention to self.
The paradox, says Frankl, is that when you lose yourself you find yourself. If you try to make happiness the goal, it will elude you. You need something to be happy about.
But beyond the utility of being meaning-focused, there is a truth to it. To be human is to constantly ‘be confronted’ by life. To hear the call of what life expects from you is to always, so to speak, be on call. To seek meaning is to know that every single thing you do matters and to recognize that potential values are waiting for the chance to be fulfilled by you in every situation.
Another angle on self-absorption can be found in Talmudic and Chasidic sources. The Mishnaic law of damages discusses the legal implications in a situation where someone carrying a beam of wood accidentally rams into another person carrying a barrel, causing damage to the barrel, and a person carrying a torch accidentally ignites someone’s pile of flax.
Rabbi Natan of Nemirov explains that we need to apply the rule that human beings, more than any other creature, are liable to cause damage. Therefore, it is important to be watchful not only in order not to be hurt but not to hurt others.
As we learn from the tin Woodman, “Thereafter he walked very carefully, with his eyes on the road, and when he saw a tiny ant toiling by he would step over it, so as not to harm it. The tin Woodman knew very well he had no heart, and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything. “You people with hearts,” he said, Have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful…” (The Wizard of Oz, Reilly and Lee, 1956, p. 68)
It is so easy to cause damage. All it takes is to be self-absorbed. The guy who is carrying the torch was not intentionally trying to set fire to his neighbor’s flax. He was just doing his own thing and not paying attention to the other guy. And that is the problem. .
This teaches about everything else, rabbi Natan adds. It teaches us to distance ourselves from controversy, envy and resentment, and to judge people favorably. Don’t assume they are intentionally trying to harm you. It could be that all they are really doing is thinking about themselves and doing what they think is good for them, and not thinking about you. If each person is careful not to be hurt or to hurt the other, but rather to help one another, they will achieve the purpose for which they were created.
Rabbi Natan points out a greater significance to this. We live in a world of diversity – of cold and hot, soft and hard, and law and compassion built into the very fabric of creation. So too, different people have very different perspectives.
The torch and the flax are both needed in the world. Each person with his or her unique singularity is needed in the world. Avoiding harm and bringing opposites together harmoniously creates peace. Thus, we are meant to recognize God particularly through the diversity.
Frankl speaks in the language of therapy, and Rabbi Natan speaks the language of divine law and divine creation. For both, we need to pay attention to ourselves so that we can avoid damage, and pay attention to the other so that we can be ourselves.