Episode 88 - Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith are joined by SUU professors Dr. Daniel Hatch and Dr. Tyler Stillman to discuss the first book in the Summer Book Club: Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. They discuss their interpretations of the meaning of life, the importance of relationships with others and being honest with yourself, and speculate about Frankl's motivation in writing this book.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined in a little different part of our studio today, as I always am, by President Wyatt. Scott, how are you today?

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, thanks. We had to move out of the smaller studio so we can have six feet between four people.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: Instead of two.

Meredith: So here we are being good examples. If only this were a video podcast, you can see what good examples we are being of social distancing. Anyway, this is a fun time of year for us because we finally...we keep thinking in our daily work about all the hard things, and right now there are some very hard things in our world. But we, every summer, turn to a book club so that we can sharpen our minds and think about other things too and summer seems to be the time to do it since we're all academics. And so, this is our first book for the 2020 book club and I'm really excited. We've got two in-studio guests to talk about one of my very favorite books. Why don't you introduce our guests and the book?

Wyatt: Yeah, happy to do it. We've got two of our outstanding faculty members at Southern Utah University. Dr. Daniel Hatch and Dr. Tyler Stillman. Dr. Hatch has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in Dr. Stillman in social psychology. And with that, we're going to jump into Man's Search for Meaning. I can't think of two better individuals with better background research to talk about this book. We would have invited the author, but he was unavailable.

Meredith: Yeah. Well, and...

Wyatt: [inaudible]

Meredith: Viktor Frankl...yeah.

Daniel Hatch: I think so.

Meredith: Yeah, for a while. So, Scott and I have been talking about the fact, when we decided...I think this was the last book that we put on the list and we put it on here because not only do we both really like this book and find a lot of meaning—not to crib too much from the title—but also because this seems to show up on reading list for high school and college and even middle school. There's something about the message contained in this book that seems to be rather universal. So anyway, I didn't mean to jump in...Tyler, Daniel, we're glad you're here.

Hatch: Good to be here.

Tyler Stillman: Glad to be here. Just before we started, Danny and I were comparing notes and we both have really old, well-used editions that are at least 20 years old.

Hatch: Yeah, I think back...it probably was in college when I first read this. But, had a huge impact and it continues to have an impact in the things that I teach and the focus of the teaching that I have. Wyatt: There's some...yeah. And this is a fun book to read again and again. This is one of those books that...when I went back and went through it this week, everything just kind of jumped out at me. It was like, "Wow, this is really..." And in particular the summer. You know, it just seems like when hardships mount and difficulties arise and, in fact, some social distancing from people that we care about and spend a lot of time with, this book is such a great book to read and think about. Well, let's jump into this.

Hatch: Sounds great.

Wyatt: Who wants to start? Stillman: Well, let me make this observation, which is that the book is inspiring and there's a lot...there's a lot there to appreciate. I don't think this is a downer, but one of the things that I appreciate about this book is that it helps to reorient you as to how bad things can get. Which helps us, I think, appreciate that we are...you know, as bad as things might be, it's nothing compared to how bad things can get. Hatch: Yeah. Yeah, I would echo that. One of my clients—as a therapist, I see clients occasionally—and one of them had a statement on her wall that she would always comment on that, "It's never so bad that it couldn't get worse." I think it's reflected in that. And at first I kind of thought, "That's actually kind of terrible." But the way that she thought about it was in a manner of speaking gratitude, because she could appreciate some of the darker places she had been and that helped her appreciate where she wasn't and where she was. Wyatt: Yeah. And it's always the wrong thing to say to somebody when they lost a child, "It's a good thing you didn't lose two." But I...even today as we were having a whole lot of challenging conversations about the university, I have to pause every time and think, "Whatever our difficulties are, they are not as difficult as so many people around us." Families and small businesses and all of these people that are having greater challenges. So, there is an element of gratitude in that isn't there?

Hatch: Sure. Wyatt: Well, let's jump into the meaning of life. So, what's the meaning of life, Tyler? Stillman: Well, I think the meaning of life is...obviously there's a lot of room for individuals to construct their own ideas for how they find meaning in life, but I think generally speaking, meaning is derived from our relationships from other people. And I say that in part because that's...that was Frankl's observation. His famous observation in what I think is one of the most beautiful passages in the book where he talks about his love for his wife and the peace and joy that that brought him at such a terrible time. But it wasn't...it's not...it wasn't love as a principal so much as it was his affection for an individual, right? And I think...some of the research that I've done in meaning in life, I've done a couple of papers that I think are relevant to this. So, one that I want to mention is we asked students at Florida State when I was at Florida State, "What is it that makes your life meaningful?" And we asked them that in many different ways. Open ended, "What's the most meaningful part of your life?" We can make it multiple choice and have the, you know, the 10 most common sources of meaning where students would rank what's meaningful. And it really doesn't matter how you ask the question; the answer is almost always "family" or "family and friends." That's about 70%-75% of when people respond...it is something...it's somebody. It's not really a principal. It's a person or people. Wyatt: Yeah, is that the way we spend our lives seeking happiness all the time? If we go seeking happiness, are we seeking what's going to bring us the most meaning? It's interesting that that's what they say. Dan, you were talking about some of this positive psychology research, and...

Hatch: Yeah. So, my experience in teaching positive psychology, so the focus of that class would be to use science and the data that it brings us to tell us what is going to bring us the most happiness. And part of that process in the class that I teach is we talked a lot about what things will likely bring us happiness and what things don't seem to. And so, the very first day of class I have my students write down the things that bring them the most joy and inevitably, just like Tyler is talking about, they bring up the relationships, the most meaningful relationships that they have in their lives. And then we have, I think, an interesting discussion about the circumstantial things in life that we think are meaningful and how much time we spend doing those things. So, things that you might think about like your health or how much money you make, even going to school to some degree. And I put up a chart—they have to guess which of the factors are likely to lead to the greatest amount of happiness. And I think the interesting part about it is that the first time they do it, they're almost always wrong. They guess wrong about which thing is going to bring them the most happiness and I think in the book, Dr. Frankl talks about this idea of the "existential vacuum." And that is that we have an idea that we need to find meaning but when we don't have it, it creates a vacuum and our culture rushes in to fill that void and then we end up dedicating our lives to that little or nothing that gets filled by that void. And when we look at the statistics when it comes to things that make us happy, the circumstantial things, even like a new car or, like I said, good health or money that we make, they have an impact on our lives for about a three-month period of time and then it disappears. It's called the "hedonic treadmill." So, one of the more famous studies is when an individual wins the lottery or when an individual becomes quadriplegic or paraplegic; as you might imagine, we think it would have a huge impact on their happiness, and it does for about three to four months and then their happiness goes back to a more stable level. And it's good because it's a circumstantial thing. But about 45% or so of our happiness is accounted for by things like relationships. And the very ideas that in this book they talk about, particularly love, are the things that bring us the most lasting joy and happiness. Wyatt: Why is it that we know that relationships are the most important thing but we end up spending most of our time trying to make money or buy things?

Hatch: That's a really good question. I've got no answer. [All laugh] Well, I think there's sort of that...I think that the book illustrates that idea that we...our culture is sort of set up in a consumer society in that way. And there are a lot of advantages obviously to that kind of idea. However, I think it lends itself well to that kind of vacuum creating scenario. That then we see it because of consumerism and we think that that's what's going to lead to happiness. Things like body image, for instance, and money. On a similar list, when asked, college students rated making money in their top three as the most important outcomes from college, and it beat out things like having a family and having a long-term relationship. So, there's an interesting kind of paradox that occurs, I think, that on the one hand, intuitively we know that's the things that bring us the most happiness, but sometimes we were sort of thinking about what's our goal, sometimes it leads us down a path to circumstances that don't actually fulfill that.

Stillman: It's true that people that, you know, when they say...when they hear money doesn't bring happiness, a lot of people will respond, "Well, I would love to test that hypothesis." Right? And a lot of students when they graduate, I think that's what they do. They set to work making money and it's only once they've achieved that goal that they realize it doesn't have the enduring value that they might expect. And this is something that I've observed in the Entrepreneurship Center at Southern Utah University. We have an Entrepreneur Leadership Council that consists of very successful entrepreneurs who have made a lot of money and who spend their time volunteering on behalf of the university to help student businesses be successful. Their focus is no longer on making money, it's on helping people get...helping students get their startups off the ground, and I think part of that is that what they had initially sought did not provide the lasting value that something like helping students does provide.

Hatch: Yeah. It's interesting, we talk an awful lot about...just the very first day of that positive psychology class about making money. And like you said, it's a problem I wish I had—that I was making too much and had to struggle with that—but nonetheless, there's an interesting relationship with how much money it takes to make happiness occur. And it's interesting because what happens is, when they crunch the numbers—in the U.S. and in particular, in the Western United States—it's around $65,000 to $70,000, you can even put a dollar amount on it, that any less than that and more money would make you happier. But after that point, more money doesn't make you any more happy. So, you can kind of...when you ask the question, "Does money buy happiness?" In a way, it does up to a point. If you think about countries where they don't have potable water and they're thinking about where they're going to get their food for the next day, for sure money would make them a little bit more happy. But again, it just has diminishing returns and at some point, it no longer does. And I think the beauty of this book is in part that it reminds you of how immaterial and ephemeral money actually is and how fast it can be stripped away. That these men and women one day were physicians, in Viktor Frankl's case, and the next day were a number and that in the blink of an eye that way, that stuff became meaningless. So, it kind of re-centers on the things that actually matter most.

Wyatt: I love this quote from Dr. Frankl. And this is going back to the question about the meaning of life. "What's the point?" And I guess you would ask yourself that question a lot while you were in a concentration camp as a Jew in Germany or Austria or Poland or somewhere, "It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual." I love that idea about stopping asking what life has for us or what the meaning of it is and just start asking, "What does life expect out of me right now?"

Stillman: To me, that quote made me think of what it's like to face a blank page. To me, a blank page...when you set out to write something, to me, the most difficult sentence to write is the first one. I find a blank page really intimidating, in part because it can become anything and a little bit, that's the difficulty of a blank page and that's the difficulty of deciding what meaning life has. The options are sort of endless.

Hatch: Yeah, when I think about that, the task that life puts in front of you, it makes me think a lot...I've done some work with clients who have had traumatic histories and it's a tough question to ask them. You know, "What's the meaning of something as traumatic as, let's say sexual abuse?" And they're forced to confront that question on a regular basis. And the book kind of helps you see, of course they've got to find some kind of meaning in that. And that's a pretty hard sell to help somebody consider or try to find the meaning that might be found in sexual abuse history. And there's a part in the book that I really love that I think really helps capture this idea of once meaning is found, then the suffering is definitely bearable. And he quotes a doctor, he says, "Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, "What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?" "Oh," he said, "for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!" Whereupon I replied, "You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her." And I think, again, it's, "How would he answer that question?" And in that case, as soon as he turned it around and said, "You're saving her that kind of suffering because you're sort of taking on that burden now" it changed it, it made it meaningful. It made it a definition of his love of his wife that he could do on a daily basis. So, that meaning must be found, and I think that's in part what he might mean by "the tasks that are put in front of you on a daily basis." And I think about one of my clients in particular, she was struggling with this idea and what she eventually came to was that...we do this thing called a genogram and you kind of map out your family tree, and we could see this cycle of sexual abuse that went back at least three generations, and I would suspect more than that even, and what she said is, "It stops with me. That now, that kind of history was nothing that my kids will have to deal with." And she said these words, "I'm cleansing the family tree of that particular problem." And that was all the meaning that she needed. So, suddenly those 18 years were worth it in a way for her and the suffering that she experienced because she could "cleanse the family tree." So, I think when Tyler says it's unique individually, it must be, of course it has to be, because every person has their own set of tasks that life puts in front of them and that's how they must find the meaning of that, or alternately, get sucked into that existential vacuum and look for something that can't possibly provide the meaning.

Wyatt: So, we move a little bit away from the philosophical answer from the wise guy sitting on top of the mountain and just move into the present and say, "What is there that my meaning has right now for somebody?" I think that's what you're saying?

Hatch: I think these kinds of moments in time, they force us to consider those things that matter most to us. There's a theory in psychology we call "terror management theory," in a sense, where you're reminded of your mortality. It forces you to consider the things that matter most, values in a sense, and in a way, that might be one of the best things...I mean, when I think about how much more time I've spent playing board games with my kids and watching Lord of the Rings, as it turns out, I've done that more, we've had more family dinners in the last month and a half than we ever...than we've had in a long time. And so, while there's this massive amounts of pain and trauma that are occurring in the world, it's helped me at least re-evaluate what matters most to me and turn to those relationships like Tyler was talking about earlier.

Wyatt: So, Dan and Tyler, I've got a question that has been on my mind since reading this book and thinking it through again: was Viktor Frankl a happier person because of his time in a concentration camp? Did he come out of that a better person? Or a worse person? Or the same? And that answer, how does that fit into our own lives?

Stillman: My initial response would be that I doubt he was happier having experienced firsthand how cruel people can be, but I think certainly more meaningful and more focused as to what he sought out of his life. The way I've been thinking about this book the past couple of days is that what Frankl did was to...I think that maybe the way to say it is the normative way to handle malice is to respond with malice. When somebody does something unkind, the natural response, of course, is to be unkind. And you see this in sports, an elbow begets an elbow. You see it on Twitter, an insult begets an insult. And somehow, there's a capacity that humans have to, instead of reflecting malice, to receive it, to be the recipient of something horrible, and somehow transform it into something positive, something that has love and gentleness and generosity. That...what he did was sort of miraculous. And then, having done that, he then set out to systematize it and to make it so that other people could go...could instead of reflective malice for malice, take something that...what is the trifecta that he mentions? It's pain, death and guilt. Those are the three things that sort of plague humanity. That those things can be turned into something positive, that's really...I like the word miraculous to describe that.

Hatch: Yeah, I love that. I remember a part in the book where he said the best of us didn't make it out of the concentration camps, and I think...that's interesting to hear given just how amazing the book is and the insights that it delivers, to consider some of those lost lives as well. So, when you ask that question, "Is he a better person for it?" That to me seems like the right way to frame it. Certainly, he's a better person. I like how you mention I don't know that he's happier...that kind of trauma has an impact and in that sense is going to change him forever, but his ability to find the meaning in it I think makes him a better person and has taught him the kind of coping mechanism and depth of understanding that couldn't be acquired in any other way. And so, broadly speaking, because it's the kind of question that you have to...when a client is sitting in front of you asking about something traumatic that's happened to them, I've worked with several combat veterans as well, and it's hard to say to them, "Yeah, you needed to have that particular experience happen." But what you can say is, "What did you gain from that experience?" And I think that's probably the right way to frame it.

Stillman: One way maybe to think about it is if you were to ask Frankl, "You could be the person you were before you went into the concentration camp or you could be the person that you are after—which would you choose, everything else held the same?" And my sense is he would take the person that he became.

Wyatt: Because there was much more meaning in his life because he's made such a positive influence on so many people.

Stillman: Yes.

Wyatt: Which is, in some respects, our definition of happy, right?

Stillman: That's right.

Wyatt: And in a prior life of mine which goes back quite a long time, I was a felony prosecutor and prosecuted child sex abuse cases and homicide and I'm thinking about that in this discussion with some of the people you're counseling with, Dan, and it does seem to me that everybody emerges from significant negative events better or worse.

Hatch: Yeah.

Wyatt: And it's their call, and I think it's part of what Viktor Frankl is saying is, "Even in a concentration camp, you still have freedom to make choices."

Hatch: Yeah, you can become a creature of circumstance or a creator of circumstance based on that attitude that you take towards that kind of challenge. You know, I think about the tasks that are placed in front of us that we must deal with, and I think a lot about how he makes mention of this that if it's avoidable then you should for sure avoid it, but it's...that there is this inherent and unavoidable sense that we are going to experience suffering. And one interesting thing I think that happens...I do a group therapy class, and the first day, everyone in that room kind of looks at each other and says, "Yeah, you guys all look really well put-together. You don't look like you have any problems." And I think there's a tremendous pressure when we have that perception, "Nobody else has any problems" because we all know we do have serious problems, some of us, and for sure we will have some kind of serious problem at some point in our lives, and then we look at everyone else and think, "Well, they don't have any problems whatsoever." And it's this lightbulb moment in that particular class because they start to hear the stories of every person in the class and they realize that everyone is going through something very, very challenging and suddenly, they're not alone and isolated because, while it might not be the same exact pain, it's pain that they can understand and relate to because they're going through something very similar. And so, I guess there is no chance that you'll get through life without that kind of suffering one way or another, so, we're all going to have to figure out how to find meaning in suffering that way.

Stillman: Well said. I think, too, President when you mentioned that...when you said that suffering makes people better or worse, Frankl several times, he refers to saints and swine. Those are not average people and I think that saints and swine is a function of people being pulled either to be better or to be worse.

Wyatt: So, let me take a side step for a quick second. The second book that Steve and I have for this summer is called The Pacific Alone. And Viktor Frankl talks about, "Don't go seeking serious trauma in your life, or stress, whatever, but if you get it then try to make the best out of it." But next month's book is about a guy that intentionally imposed the most extreme amount of stress, anxiety, which lead to I think post-traumatic stress disorder and everything else, by launching off of the coast of California in a 20-foot canoe and spending the next, what is it, 64 days?

Meredith: Mhmm.

Wyatt: 64 days to get to Hawaii. It's an unbelievable story, but it's interesting how some people today will in fact try to find a way to impose the maximum amount of crisis in their lives for the purpose of capturing something beautiful out of it. And how does that fit in with the person who doesn't go seeking that experience but has the functional equivalent of that experience? Does the same beauty and character development and everything come out of it? It's an interesting question for me and I've always wondered about that.

Hatch: I think life has a funny way of turning experiences into meaningful experiences, potentially. So, I wouldn't want to make assumptions about that individual, but I guess I could guess and say in some ways that he sought it and regardless of that choice of seeking it, life, I'm sure, taught him some profound things that maybe he wanted and plenty probably that he did not want to have happen, but because they occurred, made him a better person. So, maybe sometimes it's if we can help it not making those choices, but regardless of the choices that we do make inherently in the things that we do, there's going to be that kind of suffering and it is required of us, I think, in those moments to try to figure out what the meaning that could be had from it.

Wyatt: Yeah, Ed writes that he...or Ed reported that he felt like he was imprisoned, that he wasn't going to get away, that he was probably going to die, he writes a will on the kayak knowing that the kayak will survive and be found, and so he wrote his will on it. It's a very, very small slice of what Viktor Frankl lived through. Very small and different, self-imposed, but I think that both of them felt the same way at times that they're not getting out.

Stillman: On a yet even smaller scale, the institutions in our society that we value as transformative are ones that people opt into knowing that it is going to be very difficult. Two that come to mind are, I would say the military; you know that you're going to have somebody screaming in your face, you're going to be running laps or...this is all I've seen in movies so...[All laugh]

Wyatt: Yeah, but I think that's right.

Stillman: Or if you're getting...if you're becoming a medical doctor, your residency...whatever it is that you go through, these very difficult things that people do opt into knowing that those will be transformative.

Wyatt: It's hard to compare a concentration camp with medical school or a kayak adventure, but there is a small element that is comparable when seeking stress and crisis.

Hatch: I think it's interesting. Our culture in some ways, I think, has moved away from this idea, but we have that kind of thing where we have these rites of passage that we go through and the military would be a form of a rite of passage.

Meredith: Mhmm.

Hatch: I think Utah culture has a rite of passage when young men and young women go on missions, for instance, but they are opportunities, because of their adversity, for that individual to learn and grow in profound ways and they're designed, I think, for that very reason. To help the individual find meaning in their life. And it's one part, again, if I could read just a section that I love, he says, "The existential vacuum manifests itself in the state of boredom." And then he goes on to say that, "Mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom." And in actual fact, boredom is now causing and certainly bringing to psychiatrists more problems to solve than distress. And that's a social commentary that I think we see a bit in front of us as young men and, I think in some ways to a lesser extent, young women, struggle to figure out what they're going to do with their lives. For some reason, I think there's a bit more direction that women seem to have and that manifests in the percentages of young women and young men who are going to college, for instance, now as that kind of diverges a bit. But I feel like that I've had enough young men in my classes really struggling to figure what they're going to do and I feel like it's that boredom component that for some reason, it may be a gender-specific kind of thing, that they're sort of really drawn to the video games and to the technology kinds of things that inevitably I don't think are fulfilling for them and they get sort of stuck in that eddy. They get stuck in that particular pattern for some time. It's something I've thought a lot about.

Wyatt: Let me read another quote from Frankl. I think this is fun, talking about happiness and all that, "...A human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in the given situation." So, we find happiness not by pursuing happiness itself but by pursuing something that gives us a reason to be happy. The object of our search is different. So, I find a person that I want to make happy and that makes me happy. I think that's how you started this out, Tyler.

Stillman: Right. And I think, too, he captures that in his ideas about hyper intention. That when...if what you're focused on is laughing, it's going to be hard to laugh. That focusing too much on an outcome is really...it becomes an obstacle to that outcome and that it's really by embracing something larger than the self that you can, as a byproduct, experience meaning and happiness.

Hatch: Yeah, that idea of the paradoxical intervention, right? That you try to stay awake...if you have a hard time falling asleep that you try to make sure that you stay awake and as you try to stay awake, you'll find that you can't and fall asleep. And when you said that I thought a lot about processes versus outcomes that we get stuck a lot of times in the outcomes. We want a particular outcome and as we focus so much on the outcome, we sort of miss the process. For instance, if you're skiing, the goal is to get to the lodge maybe at the bottom of the hill, but if you got swept up by a helicopter and got dropped off and didn't get to ski down the hill, it wouldn't be worth skiing, right? I mean, the whole point is to enjoy the process, in a way, the journey, and I think he makes that very clear in his book that it's the process that we use to achieve the outcome that actually is where a lot of the meaning is had.

Wyatt: Steve, we've just kind of left you over in the corner here.

Meredith: That's where I'm at my best. [All laugh] No, honestly...

Wyatt: At your six foot distance.

Meredith: Yeah, I have just really actually been enjoying and soaking up this discussion. I've been actually thinking about a number of relatives from the generation and a half maybe prior to mine that served in World War II and it seemed to me always that the ones that saw more action had less to say about it. That those who were stateside or they were in the...some sort of non-combat role were fine to talk about it and the ones that had served in planes or had served on ships or had seen combat were less likely to talk about it and seemingly, again to me, more driven to make sure that their children never experienced anything like that. That they were...it was clear they were seared by whatever it was. They didn't really want to talk about it, and that was probably a function of male roles and thoughts about psychotherapy and other things that were less than enlightened at the time, but as I've thought about that, I think that there were a few that really personalized that experience and could not...it drove them so hard that it kind of broke them. And there were others that took that and did exactly what we've been discussing here, which is to say, "I do want to provide for my children and I want to make sure that we...that they don't have the kind of hardships that we had to face, but I do also want to teach them the value of work and I want to teach them the value of difficulty." And it's amazing to me how easy it is to see the difference between children who have been taught that, the value of work and to not automatically fear something, versus people who have not had that. Who have been...we have a phrase in higher ed called, "helicopter parenting," right? That they've been just sort of bubbled. And although this is just sort of tangentially related to our discussion, I've been...there is no way in the world that you can say that what we've been through has been even remotely related to WWII or the Holocaust or anything like that in terms of difficulty or even the flu of 1918 that we're going to have a book about, but this has been one of those moments societally and around the world that has caused this kind of stress, although not, again, not as impactful. I don't want to...I'm not trying to draw inferences that this is as hard as any of the things we've been discussing, but what do you think will be the societal result of this based on what we've been talking about? Do you think people will derive meaning from this and propel forward? Or are we going to become scared as a people and pull in and the next time it snows hard, we're going to want to cancel class or whatever? I'm curious, since we're talking about this, what your thoughts are?

Hatch: Just as you were talking about comparison of pain and kind of in a way, struggling, how do we compare the kinds of pain that we're experiencing, that is another common experience in that group class that I teach is, "Is my pain as bad as your pain is?"

Meredith: Yep.

Hatch: And this metaphor that one of the students came up with I thought was amazing, he said, "Whether I'm drowning in 10 feet of water or 100 feet of water, the depth doesn't matter. I'm still drowning." And maybe that's a way to make the comparisons that we maybe sometimes need to make about pain. While it isn't certainly the hundred or thousand feet of water that a Holocaust or a WWII might be, pain is pain and if you're drowning, the depth isn't really as important. But...

Meredith: And there are a number of families right now that are going through, again, I don't pretend to know as much about psychology as either of you gentlemen, but when people list the most stressful things that can happen to a person in their lifetime, divorce, losing a job, all of those...and we're seeing spikes, of course, in all of that right now.

Hatch: Yeah. Tyler and I were talking before we got started today that I've had more clients coming in lately and I would say it's related to COVID-19, although that's not what they're talking about, because I think they're feeling the stress overall in their environment and that stress is manifesting itself in the very individual ways that they have and that's making them seek out services and help. So, I think in a lot of ways...sometimes we try to talk broadly about the stress of COVID, but it's probably, at least in my experience, a more individualized whatever your current stressors are, this thing just makes those things worse. But, to answer your question, man, I wish I could predict that. In the same way that Viktor Frankl maybe had a hard time predicting who was going to respond to their environment and find meaning or who was going to respond by becoming the saint or the swine, so to speak...man, I wish we had that kind of ability to make those kinds of predictions. And in a small way, it's this kind of thing I think that reminds us of the possibilities that could happen if we take advantage of this in the right kind of way. Whether something crushes us or something that hardens us in a very positive way I think remains to be seen as a culture.

Meredith: One of the things...and President, and I say this not at all to be seen as an employee who is seeking to curry favor, but one of my favorite things when working with you is that you are relentlessly optimistic. And as we are going through a budget thing this summer, and I think everybody is aware that higher ed has not been immune to the problems that have affected the rest of the American economy, it's...is it safe to say, President, in your thinking, that there are various levels of optimism versus pessimism among the members of the Cabinet about where we will likely see ourselves?

Wyatt: Yeah, for sure.

Meredith: And it's interesting to me that you always seem to end every conversation with, "We will get through this and we will be stronger at the end." So, to me, very much a Frankl sort of view of the world. Is that...and I think you really believe that.

Wyatt: Well, I do. And part of it, I think, goes back to the beginning of my professional life when I  was prosecuting capital murder cases and spent an enormous amount of time with victims, mothers of children who had been murdered and feeling with them and helping them go through their own sense of hell, and ever since then, it's like, "Well, what's the worst problem I'm going to face? It's not that bad." I mean, I think in a very real sense for me, a lot of my optimism has come from working through extremely challenging experiences. Very stressful. When you're doing a capital murder case, you're going up against the very best lawyers in the state. They don't let anybody else take those cases. So, it's professionally stressful, emotionally it's stressful and you worry that if you don't win, that somebody is going to get free and it'll happen again. So, I think that's what it is a lot for me. Every time we have a very, very—and for me, it's a little bit vicarious, it was half vicarious, half stress for me—but I think every time we go through some crisis and come out on the other end seeing the good that then the next crisis is a little bit easier to handle. The worst child abuse case that I helped out with, I had  what I would describe as hardened, calloused, cynical big city reporters calling to say, "If you don't...if you can't find someone to take care of this little girl, please let me know because I would love to be her foster mother." And I would think, "Wow, that's amazing that..." And people would come into the office and bring gifts and quilts that they had put together themselves, and I thought, "In the darkest moments of life witnessing humanities most ugly side, I get to see the brightest side." And ugly and dark always makes bright, positive more clear. So, I think that's part of where my approach comes from.

Hatch: Nine or ten years ago there was an experience I was peripheral to; it was a tragedy and it wasn't primarily my loss. And the people who really did lose in this experience were very religious, and the way they talked about it was in very religious language, and my response at the time was to see that as an error. That they were finding meaning where there was none. And I was just convinced that they were finding meaning where there wasn't any. That there was no meaning to be derived from this tragedy. And in a sense, I was both right and wrong. For me personally, having found no meaning in that, there was no growth for me. But I think for the family that did lean on their faith, I think that act of embracing that and finding meaning in that actually did...it did make it more tolerable and they came through that experience better people. I went through that same experience, found no meaning in it, and experienced no growth. And I think that's a little bit what we'll see here; some people will find no meaning in it, and hopefully, others of us will attempt to heed the call that Frankl makes on our behalf and respond.

Stillman: You know, just to piggyback on that a little bit, I think so plug really what is occurring I think right now, the discussion that we have and the ideas that we share are ways that we can make meaning. They build relationships, they build connections. And I think just to make a plug for getting help, one of my favorite researchers, James Pennebaker has a paradigm, a research paradigm where he has students write down the worst thing that's ever happened to them. That's literally what the instructions say. They have to spend 40 minutes every day for five days in a row writing the worst things that have ever happened. Then he had all kinds of outcome measures that he attached to it, and what he found was that they did not like doing it, unequivocally, but 100% of the time afterwards, they benefited greatly because they were able to find meaning in it. That the dialogue itself helped them create meaning. And one of the questions they asked in the instructions was, "How did what happened to you impact who you are, who you were, and who you want to be?" And I think the dialogues that we have like this one and the dialogues that could happen in the context of a therapy environment or with a close friend, for that matter, they're the kinds of things that as we figure out how what happened to us impacted who we were, who we are now, and who we want to be, they change us and they get us the meaning that we want. And in some ways, to go back to what Steve was saying earlier, we don't want to talk usually about the worst things that happen to us and I think that's the great irony, that one of the best ways, and I can say empirically that it works to do it, it's to talk about it. And in that sense, whether it's a professional that you get help from or a close friend and as you consider whatever it is that's occurring in your own life, figuring how it impacted who you are, who you were and who you want to be, I think starts to change it from something that occurred into something that can build you into the person that you want to be.

Wyatt: As we wrap this up, let's bring this home. And I think, Dan, you've kind of been there. But let's bring this home to our listeners and assume that some of the people listening to this podcast and participating in the summer book club have lost a loved one or a job or something, something really significant, and they're struggling. What would you tell them? "Read this book, think about it carefully, and...?"

Hatch: So, I would say that it's important to be honest about the event. I think that's one thing that Frankl said was it was the optimists, the eternal optimists that he found a little bit annoying because they were not rooted in reality.

Wyatt: They died.

Hatch: Right.

Wyatt: They didn't make it.

Hatch: So, root yourself in reality. And then, I think what I take from Frankl's book is to try to turn things that are objectively negative into something that's positive. To, instead of reflecting negativity with negativity, to try to transform it into something that's positive.

Wyatt: You know, this...it causes us to re-evaluate the definition of positive, doesn't it? Because Frankl writes about those that said, "I'm going to be home by Christmas. I know I'm going to be home by Christmas, I know I'm going to be home." The super optimistic person, and then they're not and they're so depressed. So, what you're describing in a healthy optimism is grounded in realism as well?

Hatch: Right. And I think I would add to that rose colored glasses and Pollyannaism isn't going to get you through, because that isn't, just like Tyler is saying, that isn't reality. So, maybe I would make the distinction between optimism and maybe hope. I think hope is something that matters profoundly and is, in a way, different from that Pollyannaism idea that, "I'm going to be home maybe by Christmas." Hope allows you, I think, a lot of latitude to be able to continue to find meaning, even if you haven't found it yet. You might hope that you could find meaning even though right in front of you, you don't see it and maybe you're not even sure how you could see it, but you could certainly hope that you might be able to find meaning. And I think...I don't know when he would say, I would be interested to ask that question, "When is it that you think you found meaning?" And I guess I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't say, "Well, not in that moment. Not in the middle of this moment." That it occurred...I don't know, maybe when he was writing the manuscript or the long conversations that he talked about having with his wife in his mind, maybe that's where some of the hope started to happen and then later some of the meaning, but that you could hope that you could find meaning. And to begin with, that might be enough.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. Today, we've been discussion book number one of our 2020 Summer Book Club, Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. We've been discussing it with Tyler Stillman and Daniel Hatch, two wonderful members of our SUU faculty and we want to thank Daniel and Tyler for coming in today and spending some time with us. Our next book for June is The Pacific Alone by David Shively, and it chronicles the story of Ed Gillet and his amazing self-powered kayak journey from California to Hawaii. I know you'll enjoy that. As always, we wish that you are well and happy, and we look forward to talking to you again soon. Bye bye.