Victor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” speaks of an existential vacuum which I believe is at play in the lives of many drug addicted individuals today. It is what drives their desire to numb themselves or fuels a feeling of connection through drugs. The word existential is huge and in the dictionary, it is defined as “concerned with existence, especially human existence. It is affirming or implying the existence of a thing.”
Frankl’s existential vacuum describes a twofold loss in humanity. First he describes a loss of man’s basic animal instincts that provide animals with a sense of security. It is a set of imbedded behaviors within an animal that tell them what to do in order to survive (Baby squirrel knows how to collect nuts for the winter). Frankl states that man has lost this set of instinctual (guiding principles) and he is forced to make his own choices. We enjoy that aspect of being human — having a free will. But with a free will also comes added responsibility.
Children must be taught what is good and right behavior. But they have the choice not to practice it. Additionally, there are always scenarios where it is unclear what is right behavior — and this often leads to anxiety or frustration. This is particularly true if we never learned how to think things through or anticipate the consequences of our behavior.
Confucius said “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First by reflection, which is the noblest; Second by imitation, which is the easiest (even a child can do it); and third by experience, which is the bitterest
The second of the twofold loss is the loss of tradition. The traditions that served as a support or a buttress that would guide and influence human behavior are largely becoming lost in our present day society. Our children and even we adults of today are living in a society with few moral directives or instruction.
Thus, there is no basic animal instinct telling us what we should do to survive; and no societal traditions illustrating for us what our ancestors did in the past to cause themselves to feel happy and fulfilled. It is not surprising then that often we, collectively and individually, do not know how to be happy, content, and joyful.
I laugh as I think about my cousin, Shannon. When she was around four years of age, I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up and she would very simply state “myself.” How novel and yet so profound, I thought!! The wisdom of a child. Perhaps we all had this wisdom when we were young, and life drove it from us.
Frankl states that the existential vacuum manifests itself in a state of boredom. He further quotes the philosopher Schopenhaur who said that mankind is doomed to vacillate between the two extremes of distress and boredom. These states of emotional unrest set the stage for a desire to escape and the pull towards experimentation, dependence, and addiction to chemical substances.
I see in this current epidemic of drug abuse and particularly opiate abuse, man’s attempt to escape this constant feeling of distress, anxiety, crisis, and sheer and utter boredom; the continuous vacillation between life or death; and the continual confusion caused by an inability to know what to do and how to live well.
I speak on this further in my new book Zombie Effects that will be coming out soon.