The existential vacuum: The hard work of ministry

Victor Frankl was a psychologist who experienced the horrors of Nazi concentration camps during the second World War. His previous education in psychology and then experience of human suffering and search for meaning lead him to write his brilliant Man’s Search for Meaning. His description of “logotherapy” is rather intriguing, but his description of concentration camp life, especially the psychological element are absolutely astounding. I want to share a long quote from Frankl that I believe applies particularly well to the youth culture of today. On Monday, all our students return from summer break. And, within a short time conflicts will arise which might cause a teacher to ask, “What’s wrong with this kid?” Frankl has a powerful answer, one that forces a change of approach.

Frankl writes the following describing what he calls the “existential vacuum”:

“…man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do,  and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).” 

First time I read this I couldn’t help but imagine our students. Ancient traditions like marriage, the family, “traditional” morality, truth, beauty and even the institutional church are rapidly diminishing. Where is the stability needed to foster real moral, intellectual, spiritual and physical growth? It’s gone. I especially see how students (particularly graduating seniors) “do not even know what he wishes to do.” I’ve asked graduating students, “What do you want to study in college?” A common answer: “I don’t know.” The same answer is given to “where do you want to go?” or a myriad of other questions.

Frankl isn’t done describing our students. He continues:

The existential vacuum manifests itself in a state of boredom…In actual fact, boredom is now causing, and certainly bringing to psychiatrists, more problems to solve than distress. And these problems are going increasingly crucial, for progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in leisure hours available to the average worker. The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with their newly acquired free time.

…Such a widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them…existential frustration often eventuates in sexual compensation. We can observe in such cases that the sexual libido becomes rampant in the existential vacuum.

Boom. There it is. Bored, depressed, angry, addicted, overly-sexual are all descriptive words of our students. Our youth are lost, wandering alone in dark woods and all our attempts, programs and formulations to help them miss the point when we don’t consider the collapse of society which is wreaking havoc on our young people. We must recognize the behaviors that categorize our students are not simply evil for evil’s sake, but rather a sin-sick soul showing symptoms of final death (for the wages of sin is death). This is the hard work of ministry: seeking to repair the ruins and relay a foundation strong enough to bear the weight of our building. There is such a foundation, and the foundation is Christ.

We have to minister to these students not as behaviors to be corrected but as broken, confused people seeking a healing balm and an explanation of the world that not only makes sense of life, but makes living worth it. No two stories are the same. My story includes both parents dying within sixteen months of each other during middle school. My existential vacuum, though, certainly was related to the collapse of stable institutions like my family. Other students, while not necessarily experiencing such events still experience this vacuum. You might even call it cultural dissonance. Our culture is extremely varied. There is no constant. We are without a reference point in our many conversations as we fail to agree to common terms or definitions. Implicitly, our young people get the impression that nothing really matters outside your own desires. But, what happens when you don’t know what you desire?

The Christian worldview can address these questions. It is our task to faithfully proclaim the truth and beauty of Jesus Christ and allow thirsty souls to come to the Living Water and drink deeply.

What’s the method of accomplishing this, you ask? There is no method. Simply put: know names and stories, share your story, eat and drink together, sit and talk together. Make plans to have no plans. Let people know with words and actions that you unconditionally love them. Then, watch how the Lord works. After all, it’s really in His hands anyway.

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