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Adlerian Concepts: The Meaning of Life

Simulated Interview with Alfred Adler


XK: Hello, Dr. Adler, thank you for talking to me! Today I want to ask you about social support... no, rather about the meaning of our life... You know, on the way here I've looked through the Daily Herald, and saw the article that, figuratively speaking, has hit me in the very heart. Here it is: "The American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walks will be held (date and place) to unite communities, honor those touched by the disease and raise awareness and funds for a world without breast cancer. "

My first question is, do you think such events are helpful for anybody?


AA: "For a long time now I have been convinced that all the questions of life can be subordinated to the three major problems--the problems of communal life, of work, and of love. As can be easily seen these are no casual questions, but confront us continually, compelling and challenging us, without allowing us any way of escape. For the answer we give to these three questions, by virtue of our style of life, is seen in our whole attitude towards them". (Adler, 1933, p. 23).


XK: It is really hard to define the borders between them... One's illness may become the question of love, while communal life refers rather to our common fear of illness, and further, of death, of the limb of life. How we can overcome it?


AA: "According to... conception, which combines the fundamental views of Darwin and Lamarck, the life process' must be regarded as a struggle which maintains its direction in the stream of evolution by aiming eternally at a goal of adaptation to the demands of the external world. Imperfect organs and functions are subjected to constant stimulation from without, and it is when such stimulation bears fruit, i.e. when the organ or function adapts itself to the outside world, that evolution takes a step forward. This struggle towards a goal can never arrive at a peaceful end, since plainly the demands and problems set by the powers of the external world to beings created by them can never be completely satisfied. In this struggle there must also have been developed that capacity which according to the view we take of it, is called soul, spirit, psyche, reason, and includes all the other 'psychical powers'. And, although in our consideration of the psychical process we move on transcendental ground, we may assert, still keeping to our point of view, that the soul as part of the life-process and of everything included in that process must in its essential characteristic be similar to the matrix, the living cell from which it has come forth. This essential characteristic is to be found above all in the ceaseless effort to reach an advantageous settlement with the demands of the external world, to overcome death, and with that end in view to strive towards the attainment of an ideal final form, and, in common action with the bodily powers prepared for that purpose by evolution, to reach by reciprocal influence and help a goal of superiority,perfection, and security." (pp. 38-39).


XK: If I understand you correctly, we all need such events because we need to be connected with each other, and the social feeling will help us to get rid of the fear?


AA: "...only if we keep in view the related system of man and the cosmos. When we do this it is easy to see that the cosmos in this relationship possesses a formative power. The cosmos is, so to speak, the father of everything that lives, and all life is engaged in a constant struggle to satisfy its demands." (p. 156).


XK: I would rather prefer the term "mother of everything that lives", but I do agree with you. Although the "constant struggle" sounds woeful...


AA: "To live means to develop oneself. The human spirit is only too well accustomed to reduce everything that is in flux to a form, to consider it not as movement but as frozen movement-movement that has become form." (p. 156).


XK: So, a constant struggle is actually a constant movement?


AA: "Certain it is that ... a movement is implicit which strives towards self-preservation, towards propagation, and towards contact with the external world-a contact that must be victorious if life is not to succumb. In the light that Darwin has shed we can understand the selection of all those species that can turn to advantage the demands of the external world. Lamarck's view, which is more akin to our own, gives us proofs of the creative energy that is inherent in every form of life. The universal fact of the creative evolution of all living things can teach us that a goal is appointed for the line of development in every species-the goal of perfection, of active adaptation to the cosmic demand." (p. 156).


XK: This is very important. We used to think that speaking about transcendental and energies is against the scientific approach, that it's all metaphysics.


AA: "Unfortunately there are many people who have a wrong idea of metaphysics; they wish to exclude from human life all that they cannot grasp directly. By doing this we would limit the potential development of every new idea. Immediate experiences never result in anything 0 new; that is given only with the comprehensive idea - that connects these facts. This new idea may be called speculative or transcendental, but there is no science i that does not end in metaphysics. I see no reason to be afraid of metaphysics; it has had a great influence on human life and development. We are not blessed with the possession of absolute truth; on that account we are compelled to form theories for ourselves about our future, about the result of our actions, etc. Our idea of social feeling as the final form of humanity-of an imagined state in which all the problems of life are solved and all our relations to the external world rightly adjusted-is a regulative ideal, a goal that gives us our direction. This goal of perfection must bear within it the goal of an ideal community, because all that we value in life, all that endures and continues to endure, is eternally the product of this social feeling." (pp. 158-159).


XK: Your notice about absolute truth is so true! For me, the problem of truth and eternity are intertwined. I must confess, that I was personally interested in talking to you. A year ago I have lost my friend, she died from breast cancer (that's why that article touched me). She was young, she dreamed about having kids and traveling, and the disease, which I think was hereditary - her relative died from it, - just cut everything off so brutally... I feel that injustice and injustice for me is an untruth, and all these make life senseless. Do you think death does not mean total disappearance?


AA: "The general welfare and the higher development of humanity are based on the eternally imperishable contributions of our forefathers. Their spirit lives forever. It is immortal as others are in their children. The continuance of the human species rests on both these factors. Whether or not mankind knows this is immaterial. It is the facts that count. The question as to the right path seems to me to be answered, although we are often groping in the dark. We have no desire to make a final decision; but this one thing we can say: A movement of he individual or of the mass can only be counted worthy by us if it creates values for eternity, for the higher development of the whole of humanity. One ought not to cite one's own stupidity or that of other people as a refutation of this argument. It is obvious that we are concerned not with the possession of truth, but with the struggle for it. This fact becomes more impressive, not to say more obvious, if we ask: What has happened to those people who have contributed nothing to the general welfare? The answer is: They have disappeared completely. Nothing remains of them; they are quenched body and soul. The earth has swallowed them. It has happened with them as it did with animal species that have become extinct because they were unable to get into harmony with cosmic facts. Surely there is a secret ordinance here." (p.161)


XK: That sounds encouraging because she was really socially active, helping others. She always said that human's well-being is above any ideas. I think she would agree with you if she was here. I am not religious but I do want to believe that she has not disappeared. Do you believe in God? How religion relates to the concept of social feeling?


AA: Mankind has made many attempts to imagine this final goal of human evolution. The belief that the cosmos ought to have an interest in the preservation of life is scarcely more than a pious hope. As such, however, it can be used, and has been used, in religion, morals, and ethics as a powerful motive force for the furtherance of human welfare. The worship, too, of a fetish, of a lizard, of a phallus as a fetish in a prehistoric tribe does not seem to be scientifically justifiable. Still, we should not overlook the fact that this primitive conception of the universe has furthered communal life, the social feeling of humanity, since everyone who was under the spell of the same religious fervor was regarded as a brother, as taboo, and was accorded the protection of the chief tribe. The best conception hitherto gained for the elevation of humanity is the idea of God... There can be no question that the idea of God really includes within it as a goal the movement towards perfection, and that, as a concrete goal, it best corresponds to the obscure yearning of human beings to reach perfection. Certainly it seems to me that every one conceives of God in a different way. There are no doubt conceptions of God that from the very start fall far short of the principle of perfection, but of its purest form, we can say here the presentation of the goal of perfection has been successful." (p.157)


XK: Struggle for perfection supposes mistakes, fails, wrong directions...


AA: We ... have to deal with failures, with persons who suffer from a neurosis or a psychosis, with delinquents, drunkards, etc., see the goal of superiority in them as well; but it leads in a direction so opposed to reason that we are unable to recognize in it a proper goal of perfection. When, for example, a person seeks to make his goal concrete by wishing to domineer over others, this goal of perfection seems to us to be unfitted to guide either the individual or the mass of men, because it could not be the task of everyone. The individual would be compelled to oppose the urge of evolution, to violate reality, and to protect himself in utter fear against the truth and against those who follow it. Dependence on other persons is taken by many as their goal of perfection; this too seems to us to be opposed to reason. Some find their goal in leaving the problems of life unsolved, in order to avoid defeats that would otherwise be inevitable and would be contrary to their goal of perfection. This goal, too, seems to us to be thoroughly unsuitable, although it appears to be acceptable to many people" (p. 158).


XK: I think I understand. Striving for perfection should be determined by the needs of common well-being which will lead to the feeling of belongingness, and thus we become closer to eternity, which means that we are closer to perfection! Now I'm thinking about those people who are ruled by the principle "end justifies the means" - how do you think, can bad means bring good results?


AA: "Attempts even when made with the best intentions, to attain a higher development through the intensifying of one of these evils, by war, or by the death penalty, or by racial and religious hate, will invariably lead to a lowering of the social feeling in the next generation, and along with that an essential worsening of the other evils. It is interesting, too, to note that such hates and persecutions almost always cause a vulgarizing of life, comradeship, and love-relationships-a fact in which one can clearly see the depreciation of social feeling." (p.163).


XK: You have definitely provided me material to think over, thank you! Probably, you want to say something to our readers?


AA: It is important to get to know something of the meaning of life and also to discover the conceptions different people have of this meaning (p. 8). It is meant to enable the reader not only to understand other persons, but to grasp the importance of social feeling and to make it living for himself." (p. 178).


The interview is based on:


Adler, A. (1933). Social Interest: A challenge to humankind (Links to an external site.). Retrieved from http://www.alfred-adler.us/social-interest-rev-comments.pdf

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