Find Meaning by Looking at Yourself From a Distance
Only human beings possess the capacity for self-detachment.
Posted Mar 22, 2018
The ad in a London newspaper read, “Unemployed. Brilliant mind offers its services completely free; the survival of the body must be provided for by adequate salary.”1 The world-renowned psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, quoted this ad in his book, The Doctor and the Soul, to make an important point about the different ways that people may respond to being unemployed.
To be sure, Dr. Frankl was not in any way suggesting that unemployment is not a serious matter; on the contrary, he emphasized that being unemployed is a “tragedy because a job is the only source of livelihood for most people.”2 By the same token, this newspaper ad reflects the fact that not all unemployed people experience an inner emptiness to being unoccupied or to feelings that they must be useless.
First of all, the fact that we do not have work in the form of a paid job does not mean that life itself has no meaning for us. Second, our attitude toward any situation, including unemployment and other major life challenges, frames our ability and willingness to respond in a responsible manner. As you can see, the person who placed the ad in the London newspaper turned a dire situation into something humorous because she was able to put some distance between herself and the issue at hand.
She was also able to look at herself from a distance as well which, among other things, allowed her to find meaning in her plight and take appropriate action to remedy her situation. Indeed, even the text of the newspaper ad reflects both her sense of humor and her innate, distinctly human, capacity to look at herself in a detached way and rise above her predicament.
Dr. Frankl, who was a survivor of four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, during World War II believed that if there is one thing that distinguishes our “human-ness,” it is our sense of humor. Indeed, Frankl viewed our sense of humor as evidence of our unique ability to self-detach, that is, to look at ourselves from a distance with a sense of perspective.
“We know that humor is a paramount way of putting distance between something and oneself. One might say as well, that humor helps man rise above his own predicament by allowing him to look at himself in a more detached way.”—Viktor Frankl3
We all know dogs who smile—but they don’t burst out laughing, especially at themselves, when they forget for the umpteenth time where they buried their latest bone! Humor about ourselves represents the essence of self-detachment, especially when the joke is on us.4 It tells us, and anyone within earshot, that we aren’t taking ourselves so seriously—and isn’t that a relief? Our human ability to laugh at ourselves takes the edge off every serious life and work situation; and every serious life and work situation deserves, and needs, a dose of humor.
A sense of humor, moreover, is usually accompanied by cheerfulness. This is another one of those misleading words. Most cheerful people I know have experienced real tragedy in their lives. When tragedy strikes, it takes us to the depths of our grief. Going through grief gets us to cheerfulness. When we know how bad it can be, we find out, as the actor Jack Nicholson would say, “how good it can get.” Indeed, a moment of humor at the right time can lift us out of our self-imposed misery faster than anything else. When we detach ourselves from ourselves and our situation, we don’t diminish or marginalize the circumstances, we go beyond them. We can see, feel, and appreciate ourselves as separate from the distress. We don’t deny; we accept and rise above.
It is important to distinguish between self-detachment and denial. When we detach, we do so knowingly and with an orientation toward action. We understand our predicament and choose to behave in a way that supports our relationship with others. We might share our burden; we might not. But we know what it is and we know what we are doing. On the other hand, denial separates us from our experience and the benefits that can be derived from it. And, when we deny our own experience, we deny the experience of others. Denial leads to disconnection. Self-detachment, on the other hand, leads to connection, learning, and growth.
In the final analysis, of course, self-detachment is not about detachment at all. While it certainly has been proven to be an effective tool for coping with a wide range of situations, including crises, predicaments, and hardships from which we cannot escape, its ultimate value lies in the unlimited potential for bringing wholeness and authentic meaning to life. To summon the power of self-detachment and tap into this unique human potential, however, requires both freedom of thought and a will to meaning. And we can only fulfill these requirements if we are not “prisoners of our thoughts.”
1. Frankl, Viktor E. (1986). The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy. New York: Random House, p. xxiv.
2. Pattakos, Alex, and Dundon, Elaine (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd edition. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, p. 103.
3. Frankl, Viktor E. (1967). Psychotherapy and Existentialism. New York: Washington Square, p. 20.
4. The late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, aka “I don’t get no respect,” made a successful career practicing self-detachment with lines like, “My wife and I were happy for 26 years; then we met.”