“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Dr Viktor Frankl.
Reading Ismail Lagardien’s recent bleak pessimistic foretelling of the future, called to mind an interview hosted by the well-known psychologist Carole Charlewood (who recently passed away) with the famous psychiatrist Dr Viktor Frankl thirty years ago. I was at the time a newly graduated young social worker starting out on my career in a country that was in deep trouble.
Viktor Frankl is the author of the all-time best seller book titled “Man’s Search for Meaning”, first published in 1946 which explains his psycho therapeutic approach, grounded in his own experience as a survivor of the Nazi holocaust. It racked up sales of over 12 million copies, and has become a standard text that I offer to clients feeling overwhelmed by adversity.
At the conclusion of the end of the half hour interview Charlewood asked “Dr Frankl, as you know this country is going through a very difficult time. We have an economic recession. People are losing their jobs. Businesses are going insolvent. The political situation is far from settled. Do you have a message that can give us hope and meaning?”
I hope that many students and young adults pause to listen to the half hour interview, at this link to see if his response makes as much sense today as it made to me thirty years ago. Journalists like Ismail Lagardien and Justice Malala, who have memory of the times that Charlewood was referring to, should watch it too. His message of hope was to explain that despite the objective material conditions that said he was extremely unlikely to survive the death camps, he nevertheless did. He knew the chances of surviving were extremely small – in the region of one in thirty – but he reasoned that nobody could tell him with 100 percent certainty that he would not be the one person in thirty who survived. He found some space for him to make a choice, in freedom. The choice he made was to strive to live each day with a sense of meaning and hope for the future. Yes, he was relatively advantaged because he had already specialised in treating suicidal patients as a psychiatrist in Vienna for some years before the Nazi’s invaded Austria. But in the interview he explains that he found a clear correlation between the probability of survival, and a sense of meaning and purpose. Fellow inmates who could not find meaning in the “existential vacuum, the tragic triad of death, suffering and guilt” were statistically more likely to succumb.
South Africa did, in the years that followed, turn away from the apocalyptic scenario that so many feared. Neuro-scientists have since demonstrated scientifically that “attitude does affect altitude” as the cliché goes. Recent research on patients with Alzheimer’s has now shown that the deficiencies in the neurotransmitter, dopamine, is closely associated with onset of the condition. Dopamine secretion influences mood and confidence. It can be administered in a pill or stimulated by induced expectation so that the brain produces the tonic chemical endogenously. In one study, a sample of patients with symptoms, were all given pills which they were all told contained dopamine, and then subjected to MRI scans of their brains. Without them knowing it, half the patients were given pills with dopamine, and half placebo pills without.
The very expectation of an improvement was enough to stimulate dopamine secretion to produce the improvement. One elderly man found the wheel chair that had transported him to the laboratory redundant after receiving the placebo and bounded up the stairs after his brain scan much happier and alert.
Dopamine works in the feel-good “reward centre” of the brain and in normal everyday life is stoked by the expectation and acquisition of more money, more sex as well as by more power. Flagging libido can be remedied by a pay-rise. A weak erection can be treated by a strong election. That explains Henry Kissinger’s famous line “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”.
It is all about balance. The tonic dosage of dopamine that had an autogenic benefit to help keep Viktor Frankl alive, and send the Alzheimer patient bounding up the stairs, will become a toxic poison if one develops an unhealthy dependence on it. To remain motivated to meet the demands of leadership requires a constant flow of dopamine. People who become intoxicated by power suffer from an addiction to dopamine, which affects the leader’s psychological state of mind and risks losing touch with reality. Disequilibrium occurs between ones inner state and the circumstantial demands of the outer reality. If not remedied or treated the person will develop what is known as the Hubris Syndrome,
How does one prevent that from happening? The United States psychiatrist, Dr Dan Seigel, is making waves in the TED talk circuit with a simple truth that he did not learn in medical school, but only after he had dropped out, disillusioned with the reductionist bio-medical preoccupation. Human beings are not just a bag of chemicals and bones, responding to environmental stimuli in a robotic state. To be fully alive and functional, human beings we need an education that goes beyond the cognitive processes of “reading, writing and arithmetic” to educating young people in the skills of “relationships, reflection and resilience”.
Over the weekend my reflection over Lagardien’s pessimistic article last week was interrupted by a radio interview with a commentator that I much admire, Justice Malala, talking about his new book “We have begun our descent”. It was more the subtitle that got my attention “how to stop South Africa losing its way”. The interviewers, Sam Cowan and Africa Malane, of Radio 702, only got to speak to him about Part One, “The way we are now”, which echoed many of the same depressing themes that Lagardien had sounded. Hoping that Part Two would be charged with some dopamine like anti-gravity substance, such that I could not put the book down, I bought the book.
Like Lagardien’s article, I do not think students will find it satisfies their existential quest to make some meaning out of the dreadful situation that the dopamine addicted Zuma ANC leadership has gotten us into. At least certainly not the way Viktor Frankel inspired me thirty years ago.
Yes, I too am inspired and encouraged by Advocate Thuli Madonsela’s extraordinary courageous example, as is Malala, but the important lessons we need to learn from her is how she practices the “relationships, reflection and resilience” triad to cultivate meaning and purpose, and handle her powers so well, so that the next generation of young leaders can learn to do the same within their own domains of influence, without becoming narcissistic tyrants and despots.
I do not really disagree with the analyses of Lagardien and Malala, and am grateful to them for being so honest, but I find it much more consoling to take heart from a comment Thuli Madonsela made some months ago. She said that the Constitution had so far in its provisions anticipated every political problem that has arisen over the past twenty years.
Despite his intoxication with power it matters less whether President Zuma believes in the constitution than whether the people of South Africa believe in it. If we can find meaning in it, and claim the rights that it bestows on us, South Africa’s future will be bright. For as Viktor Frankel demonstrated, hope is believing in spite of the evidence. And then watching the evidence change. DM