Woman’s search for meaning during her 10-year high school reunion

This week I started reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. I also attended my 10-year high school reunion. Initially these two events appeared to have nothing in common. Frankl survived internment at multiple concentration camps, including Auschwitz, during World War II, whereas I spent my tenth grade year at an alternative high school that tutored children in self-expression, basket weaving, and pot smoking. Whereas Frankl had to endure starvation, the threat of gas chambers, and a constant assault on his human dignity, we students had to free-write in our journals for 15 minutes a day, hold yoga poses, and drive to Taco Bell for lunch.

But the more I thought about it, the more I could apply Frankl’s wisdom to my own experience of high school, and to that of reuniting with high school friends ten years after graduation.

Man’s Search for Meaning stresses the psychological freedom of the individual. We possess the unique ability to choose how we interpret our lives and our environment. We can find meaning in the most painful of circumstances, and that meaning can sustain us. Frankl tells a story of walking to a work site at the concentration camp, focusing his attention on his hunger, his foot sores, his brutal foreman, the freezing wind. Suddenly he becomes aware of how “trivial” these thoughts are.

I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject. Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a. . . lecture room. . . .I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past. Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself. What does Spinoza say in his Ethics?. . . .”Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”

The message is that we can transcend our daily troubles, even if those troubles are the incomparable atrocities of a concentration camp. We are blessed with the resources to rise above our own lives. The book’s thesis reminded me of a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon in 2005.

. . .learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

Wallace uses the example of concluding a long day at work by first getting stuck in traffic, then getting trapped in a long line at the grocery store, then being treated like a nonentity by the check-out girl, and essentially being annoyed with the world and everyone in it. But he challenges this interpretation of reality:

It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

[Read the whole piece, by the way. It’s not Jon Stewart’s 2004 commencement address to William & Mary, but it might change your life.]

So last night I sat at the bar with all these high school kids who are now bona fide grown-ups, but we’re still talking about mostly the same stuff, and we’re still smoking the same brands of cigarettes, and we still look basically the same as we did ten years ago even though there’s a pregnancy or some swelling here and there, and I thought, “I am happy.” And that’s the last thing I would have thought when hanging out with the same people in high school. Not because there was anything wrong with them, but because I was so self-conscious and pitiful due to my own myopic interpretation of life.

And maybe it’s because I now have a novel and a nice boyfriend, and maybe it’s because I’m heavily medicated, and maybe it’s because I’d been drinking the whole day of the reunion, but I also submit that life gets better, even if it doesn’t actually get better. The same exact life can feel good, whereas once it felt bad. So remember that, you down-and-out high school graduates with your unmarketable basket weaving skills. One day ten years will have gone by, but they won’t actually have gone by.

3 Thoughts on “Woman’s search for meaning during her 10-year high school reunion

  1. Alice on June 2, 2008 at 7:56 am said:

    my reunion is next weekend. my philosophy is “embrace the awkward” even though i am afraid:

    a) they will all be better than me
    b) they’ll think i’m making up my cool boyfriend
    c) i’ll trip on the shoelaces of my own contempt and fall on my knees of unnecessary humiliation in the mud of self-criticism at the feet of the cool kid of my comparisons to others, who will be wearing the sports jersey of perceived success.

    oh i just remembered last night’s dream that i was going to a third-rate graduate school and not doing very well in my classes.

  2. Have you thought about seeing a therapist? Or a witch doctor? Maybe there will be high school counselors on hand at the reunion to help you deal with these issues.

    I agree that your boyfriend is too good to be true. All the other girls and dudes will be jealous of your awesome life, even if you are failing dream classes.

  3. I submit that life actually *is* better for most of us after high school. Choice is important to happiness, and just by the nature of, like, being a minor (or just barely an adult), you really actually do have less choice.

    That is, if you’re being a total dweeb and following the rules and junk. Like I was.

    You’re braver than I. I *live* in the town where I went to High School, and I still skipped my 10 year. Wasn’t so much scared of the judging as I was the fake fun I’d need to be having.

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