Principal’sAddress to the Graduating Students
Tonight as we celebrate your high school graduation I would like to take a short time to reflect on a very simple question about your future. The question is: “Will you be happy?” This isn’t a fancy question and at first, a person may even think it simple minded. But, this year I read a book which I felt was really profound; the author had everything in life taken away from him. He suffered incredibly in concentration camps during the Second World War. After his release in 1945, he wrote a beautiful book explaining what his experiences taught him about life. I’d like to share some of his insights with you tonight because I find them amazing and quite relevant to our world.
The book is called “Man’s Search for Meaning” and it was written by Victor Frankl. In the preface to the 1984 Edition, Victor Frankl explains his reason for writing; “I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life hold a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. .. If the point where demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing.”
So, you are probably asking yourselves – what’s this got to do with happiness? Well, Viktor Frankl discovered that a person needs a reason to be happy. He learned that as he lost his possessions, his loved ones and his friends that he still had a need to be happy. And it was that need that kept him going. As I read his book, I kept asking myself – How could anyone be happy losing everything like Viktor Frankl did? But he found that there is a difference between having a need and losing something you have. Viktor Frankl learned that everything can be taken from a person but that person can still seek happiness as long as they don’t let go of their humanity and continue to seek meaning in their life.
He explains this through an interesting contrast between European and North American culture. He says; “to the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy’. But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy’. … As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to be happy , …” (p. 140) Thinking about this – it makes a lot of sense. Different people become happy over many different things – it all depends on the individual – but everybody has a need for a reason to be happy. The reasons can change from person to person but not the need.
So what are the reasons that can provide real happiness? The kind of happiness that reaches into a person’s soul and draws out the best that they have to offer. Well, if ever a person could say they tested a question by undergoing the process of elimination – Viktor Frankl would be that man. Obviously, having survived and living to share his experience with his fellow human beings – Viktor Frankl found a reason to be happy that brought out the best in him.
He explains that happiness like success isn’t dependent upon getting things or even giving things; He says; “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, AND IT ONLY DOES SO AS THE UNINTENDED SIDE-EFFECT OF ONE’S PERSONAL DEDICATION TO A CAUSE GREATER THAN ONESELF … I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” (p. 12) Viktor Frankl learned that true happiness and success comes from living a moral life. What a radical idea – it’s not how much you have, how powerful you are or how much status you have that determines your happiness or success. Rather it’s how you journeying down the road of life – who and how you love, how you treat others and knowing right from wrong – and the actions are you taking.
Right now you may be thinking – HA. He couldn’t have been happy in the camp. Being beaten starved and worked to death. He wasn’t – not all the time – But in his book he describes times when he was happy – in his memories of his dear wife, for the rare and wretched small comforts of an extra ration of bread or peas in his soup. Also he was happy for the beauty that he and his fellows could still find – in the sunset, in the heroic actions of his comrades. He writes: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken form a man but one thing; The last of the human freedoms – TO CHOOSE ONE’S ATTITUDE IN ANY GIVEN SET OF CIRCUMSTANCES, to choose one’s own way.” (p. 75)
This idea isn’t new! Aristotle, writing three hundred years before Christ, worked out logically the very definition of happiness that Viktor Frankl learned from experience in Auschwitz. In his book “Ethics”, Aristotle argued that happiness is acquired through leading a decent life. “It is virtuous activities that determine our happiness and the opposite kind that produce the opposite effect” (p. 83, Ethics). Continuing, Aristotle considered the problem of ‘when bad things happen to good people’; “… a man bears patiently a number of heavy disasters, not because he does not feel them but because he has a high and generous nature, his nobility shines through…. no man who is truly happy can become miserable; because he will never do things that are hateful and mean. … the truly good and wise man bears all his fortunes with dignity, and always takes the most honourable course that circumstances permit.” (p. 84, Ethics). Vicktor Frankl came to this lesson in a far different way than Aristotle did, but the important point is that this idea will keep emerging in our human experience because it is central part of the what it is to be human. There’s no getting away from it. Decency – doing the right thing and happiness go hand in hand.
And now we can move to the crux of the issue for you and for all of us. We all have so many expectations of the world we live in. We want, we expect, we’re entitled to so many rights and privileges – good health care, a good education, good food and housing. We demand attention and service. Heaven forbid that anything should stand in the way of our future, our food or make us feel bad about ourselves. Things have gone to such a point in our world today that some seek victimhood as a guarantor of redress and the restoration of happiness through compensation. We have lost sight of the plain and simple fact that happiness is inside you not in the external props of your particular circumstances.
The camps taught Victor Frankl that: “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that 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 fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” (p. 85)
Another astounding and radical notion. What does life expect of you? Whatever currency or money life places in your hand – be it the meagre hoarded prisoners crust of bread or the weekly wages of a good job or available time – What does life expect of you? In coming up with your response to life’s expectations of you, you will express your happiness or unhappiness. These expectations will be presented to you by life in many ways – through your friend’s need, a neighbour’s or your parents trust in you, a call to duty or charity, or making the many many decisions small and large about the right thing to do as opposed to the smart thing to do. Are you going to do the thing that will get you ahead or the thing that will make something right? By now – it should be clear that happiness means choosing between two very different worlds – one world is governed by money and everything that money can buy – power, prestige, material wealth. The other world is the world of true happiness.
The greatest and wisest of all teachers once said that there wasn’t much point in storing up treasures for yourself with your hard earned money. He pointed out that a big pile of money or valuables just makes you a target for thieves. Moths and rust will get what isn’t stolen. He taught people to put their treasure in the love of others and not to be too worried about feathering your own nest. He put the entire matter into a simple, straight forward choice. He said; “No one can serve two masters, either he will hate the one and love the other or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matt. 6:24).
Viktor Frankl made his choice. He refused to become a victim. He chose to serve his fellow human beings. He survived and was happy in the truest sense of the word. He summed up his search for meaning in the following way: “The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered there is nothing he need fear any more – except his God.”
We all have to make the choice as life presents it to us every day. Hopefully and thankfully not in such horrific circumstances as Victory Frankl. You have to make this choice too – choose wisely.