Friday Thread: “If we take man as he really is, we make him worse.”

Here Viktor Frankl cites a survey [h/t Ciaran] which comes to the following conclusions about American students: 60% said that they wanted to make a lot of money; and 78% said that finding a meaning and purpose in the world was important to them.

He then goes on to illustrate a great insight from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if are seen to be idealists and overestimating, overrating man, we promote him to what he really can be. So we have to be idealists in a way because then we end up as the true, the real realist.

So how are we doing in Northern Ireland?

Well intentioned projects like the social investment fund promise much and yet they also encourage competition between communities over who is worst, rather than focusing on what might be done to create meaningful social improvement.

So in your view, how are we doing? Do we over or under estimate our children’s quest for ‘meaning and a place in the world’? How do we know? Can we ever/always/sometimes promote them (and in the process perhaps, ourselves) to ‘what we really can be’?

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  • Just a small point, Mick, I think you misheard 16% as 60%:

    A public opinion poll was conducted a few years ago. The results showed that 89% of the people polled admitted that man needs “something for which to live.” In another survey nearly 8,000 people were asked what they considered “very important” to them,16% checked “making a lot of money;” 78% said their primary goal was “finding a purposeful meaning to my life.” .. source

  • Mick Fealty

    Happy to so well corrected!! 😉

  • Mc Slaggart

    I was recently part of a discussion on the advantages of going to university and which ones was the best. Three cities were discussed Derry, Dublin and Belfast. Dublin was easily coming out on top. Then one member of the discussion panel decided to give the befits of studying in Belfast. The example he gave was a bar in Belfast which allowed people to with their local Gaa tops and this had the advantage and that was one meet people from different clubs within Tyrone. It would be hard to argue against the concept that Tyrone Nationalists as a rule do have ‘meaning and a place in the world’ .

    As for “meaningful social improvement “ this only occurs when one knows what one wants to improve. Personally the removal of poverty is the only thing that gives lasting meaningful social improvement. Intellectuals over estimate the importance of theory in a person’s daily existence. Practical help and social interaction leading to a small improvement in a person’s life is what is required.

  • David Crookes

    “Intellectuals overestimate the importance of theory in a person’s daily existence.”

    Chisel on stone and repeat every day.

  • wild turkey

    David Crookes

    dead on, although i do know, and have read some intellectuals who posit ‘people in their daily existence underestimate the importance of theory in their lives. without a theory, there is no meaning’

    Mick, many thanks for a of bit a quirky, neo-hipster post.

    but If we take nornironland man as he is, he would make us worse.

    anyone for Shakespeare in Newtownabbey?

  • Mick Fealty

    So the GAA in Tyrone fits the positive pattern.

    But to pitch to the other side, there is a rise in suicide amongst youngsters during the bulk of the peace process years, especially in poor and deprived areas. Mary O’Hara in the Guardian a few years back:

    According to the Public Health Agency (PHA), after a period of relatively static figures in the latter half of the last century, between 1999 and 2008 rates of suicide in Northern Ireland increased by 64%. Most of the rise was attributable to young men in the 15 to 34 age group.

    A large proportion was concentrated in disadvantaged areas and, in particular, north and west Belfast. In 2002, 76% of all suicides in Northern Ireland were male, and 60% were between 15 and 34 years old.

    By 2008, the latest year for which a reliable breakdown of the statistics is available, 77% of suicides were male, but the proportion aged between 15 and 34 had risen to 72%.

    More information on trends from NISRA:

  • Mick Fealty

    We’ve sorta done that one already WT, but as ever I was too subtle for most part. The Friday thread is an occasional trip to neo hipsterville. Although this one also contains a deadly serious question.

  • Mc Slaggart

    10 in 100 000 or 1 in 10 000 what is the margin of error in the PHA report?

    For example are doctors more inclined to write that a death with was due to than suicide than years ago?

  • Mc Slaggart

    For example are doctors more inclined to write that a death was due to than suicide than years ago

  • Zig70

    Like playing pooh sticks. Set them off and hope nature is kind.

  • This Samaritans report – Suicide in the UK and the Republic of Ireland – provides a wider context.

  • Im not sure how we measure Happiness.
    I think it is the space between the Reality of our lives and what we want out of life.
    if the space is small…we are happy.
    If its a big space …we are unhappy.
    Optimism and Pessimism. Thats different. We always know that life ebbs and flows.
    Leaving aside the Troubles (not easy) but 1960s and 1970s seemed optimistic.
    1980s dour and Thatcherite greed.
    1990s into the new century seemed good.
    Maybe 9/11 and the banking Crisis makes us depressed.

    I detect two things. The near feral “underclass”. Was in Lower Falls near midnite last week. Surprisingly quiet. Yet almost deserted.
    Those Divis Hoods are scary animals. Self Self Self.
    No connexion to Society.
    And a greedy nasty “Overclass” equally detached from everything.
    Everything is social media …and nothing is social.
    Self Self Self.
    The Old Decency has gone.
    Whether its joyriding on the Falls, glue sniffing on the Newtownards Road or sipping coffee in the Cathedral Quarter…I see no connexion to the real life of ordinary people.
    Just a siege mentality.
    Dodging or Bantering with the Cold Caller who only wants me to confirm my email….not sure why exactly.
    Or watching the Wonga ads.
    Or the man who wants me to get back the PPI.
    My memory of the 1980s seems to be driving home with my wife, listening to news reports from the Miners Strike and Fire Brigades strikes.
    It was always Kenneth Clark
    “Never mind darlin’ at least youre a woman and you get your pension at 60….we can bank on that”
    Cept we couldn’t.
    “She” now has to wait until she is 67.
    So what is £110 a week for seven years?
    No afternoon adverts to tell me we were mis-sold a pension.

    Society is broken and cant be repaired. We peaked with Harold Wilson, the Beatles, the Likely Lads, and women who burned their bras.
    Nowadays women have loyalty cards at Ann Summers.
    And we are at the mercy of The Divis Hoods and cathedral Quarter coffee drinking yuppies.
    Strangely I never thought this is how a Zombie Apocolypse looked…but I am locking the doors and hoping for the best.

  • Mick Fealty

    Frankl is a fascinating character. His experience of death camps led him to the conclusion that those who survived often had someone on the outside to live for. If everyone who was close to you was in the same situation, fatalism caught hold.

    If you talk to people who work in care they will tell you that that finding a stable girlfriend is often a direct route out of the cycle of juvenile crime for young teenage men. It gives them something to live for.

    And as we know young men will starve themselves to death for political cause they estimate to be of higher value than their own lives. In other words it provided them with meaning and a honoured place amongst their peers.

    I wouldn’t describe any of that as ‘happiness per se although you can imagine that’s one of the things it could lead on to. The question is, is this something we are doing?

    GAA, check.
    Boxing clubs, check.
    Orange bands, check.
    Irish language education, check.

    I see it in other areas of civil society too. Where I’m struggling to see the struggle for meaning is in the political arena.

  • Mc Slaggart


    ” Where I’m struggling to see the struggle for meaning is in the political arena.”‘


    The nationalist parties are so driven by the “struggle” for a better tomorrow that they are often at odd with the the people who vote for them.

    Some examples would be their education policies and how they promote the idea of tolerance towards excessive “Band”/OO parading

    1: “not doing much to stop violence around the flags protest”.

  • DC

    ‘The comments by Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire in Tatler, regarding the abandonment of the stiff upper lip in British society, are a welcome reminder of the days when this country still had purpose, backbone and self-control. The Duchess condemns the present “sloppy sentimental” culture in modern Britain and observes that money, illness and sex were not talked about in the old days, whereas now they are the only things people talk about.

    “Self-pity and self-esteem, which are now the key things in schools, were not allowed,” she recalls. She is right. The modish cult of self-expression and self-indulgence in British schools, combined with a nanny-state culture of health and safety, is filleting all character out of the next generation. Discipline is non-existent: louts who self-evidently need a good birching are given counselling instead. Youngsters’ “experiences” and “feelings” are awarded spurious significance when what is required is enforced hard work in fields of genuine academic importance, coupled with rigid discipline.’

  • Mc Slaggart


    ” British schools, combined with a nanny-state culture of health and safety, is filleting all character out of the next generation. Discipline is non-existent: louts who self-evidently need a good birching are given counselling instead. Youngsters’ “experiences” and “feelings” are awarded spurious significance ”

    I am Irish and the youth in my part of the world makes me think that Charles Dickens was correct:

    “It is a pleasant thing to reflect upon, and furnishes a complete answer to those who contend for the gradual degeneration of the human species, that every baby born into the world is a finer one than the last.”
    Charles Dickens

  • Mick Fealty

    I found (completely serendipitously after writing my comment above) this old 1983 documentary on the boys that Bobby Sands played football with (including a young Raymond McCord) in Rathcoole this morning…

    I’d pull out two points which illustrate some of things I’ve been saying further up this thread.

    – on the personal transformation of Sands from boy to political activist:

    – how Sands own self sacrifice was experienced differently by one of his closest boyhood friends:

  • 241934 john brennan

    My other piece of advice, Copperfield, said Mr. Macawber, you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and, in short, you are forever floored. As I am!

    Happiness can be defined as some sort of compromise between what we want, what we get, and what we are prepared to settle for.

    We want good government. What we have at Stormont is bad government. What we are prepared to settle for is more of the same. We vote for a Punch and Judy show, so we get Punch and Judy.
    The ancient Romans had to settle for bread and circuses. But at least that was a better class of entertainment. Here we pay through the nose for a cheap Punch and Judy show, dressed up as government.
    It’s what we like – so we will continue to applaud Punch and Judy, and again vote for repeat performances. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

  • Mc Slaggart


    What is the point your trying to get at?

    Do you think their is no one left who is not prepared to fight/Die for Ireland?

    Finding a meaning and purpose in the world is not hard on a “battle field” but it is in the unemployment line. The rise of jobless growth is the start of a new scary world. AI will take the middle management jobs of the current middle income people. AI will hit a wide range of other types of employment Farm jobs and even driving ones. What 3 D printers will do no one is sure but it is sure to impact on manufacturing.

    This aligned with the rise of the 5% who have the wealth of 50% of the rest of the worlds population means real revolution will be in the air.

  • Mc Slaggart

    241934 john brennan

    John you problem is that you think of the Assembly as a “Goverment”. An “unsettled people” cannot be governed! It is a political holding pattern. A political least worst option nothing more.

    “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.”

    Marcus Aurelius

  • Mick Fealty


    “A political least worst option nothing more.”

    …which, if we accept Frankl/Goethe’s dictum is an invitation to make man worse than he actually is?


    I think we can usefully ask what good government (as opposed to ‘administration’) would look like or feel like?

  • Mc Slaggart

    ” if we accept Frankl/Goethe’s dictum is an invitation to make man worse than he actually is?”

    I would agree that the Assembly is a bad idea. The fact that people refer to it as a “government” shows you how bad it is. If you look at it on the TV you see its not even a good talking shop with all the empty seats.

    It always struck me that the opulence of the building shows how insecure the builders were. At least the Greeks (Athenian) complained about the cost of the pantheon.

    It is ironic that its Unionists who spend their time making their own “Goverment”/country not work.

  • Mc Slaggart


    “good government”

    One in which you have control over how much money you can raise or spend.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Frankl is right that the search for meaning is kind of central to life. The vast majority of so-called intelligent people live their lives in a pretty deluded way, privileging their careers over all other forms of activity, as if when they get to the end of their lives someone’s going to give them a mark for achievement.

    I think the generations coming through have a much more rational take on life than the world I came into (and which my own generation has largely failed to challenge). From what I’ve seen (in market and social research), they seem much less obsessed with status-chasing than previous generations and much more aware of savouring life as something fleeting and precious. A achievement for them is more about having rich and satisfying experiences through developing strong relationships and carrying out rewarding activity – with a heathy skepticism about the limits of what material wealth can bring.

    But I’m not sure I fully agree with Frankl (and Goethe I suppose) about making humankind worse if we take it as it really is. I think over-optimistic views of human nature are dangerous. The idea of the Perfectability of Man is at fault for a lot of the crass and often violent attempts to mould the masses to the ideal of a few; or more often, to disdain the mass of the people entirely for falling short of some intellectual ideal of what they should be.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks a lot, MU, that was well worth reading.

  • Charles_Gould


    I too am impressed by todays youth. From what I see as they seek culturally enriching experiences, travel, people, relationships, and have eschewed the narrow hedonism of previous generations.

  • Mc Slaggart

    Mainland Ulsterman

    “The vast majority of so-called intelligent people live their lives in a pretty deluded way, privileging their careers over all other forms of activity,”

    I do not know many people one could ascribe such an attitude to life. Most people base their life around the family. Peoples demons tend to be many an other thing rather than work.

    Then again their is some people who are overtaking by the process of their work.

    ” However, George, now loving and joyful, reappears with the now-mended kite for Jane and Michael. Winifred uses one of her suffragette ribbons as the kite’s tail.”
    Mary Poppins

  • Charles_Gould

    “The vast majority of so-called intelligent people live their lives in a pretty deluded way, privileging their careers over all other forms of activity, as if when they get to the end of their lives someone’s going to give them a mark for achievement. ”

    There is the satisfaction of looking back to say you achieved. It is important, when deciding how to live ones life, to ask how you will feel about it at the end of ones days. I think that for many people people don’t just want to do the usual things their parents did, but want to achieve more, and aspire to creativity and contribution.

  • Mick Fealty


    Between the mid eighties to the early nineties I did a lot of work in schools in Ireland, Britain and western Europe. I saw that principle in practice all the time, in fact we put it into practice, sometimes because we had to.

    I remember arriving at a small Catholic elementary school in Valladolid where the teacher offered to give us a sheet with all the English her kids had been taught since Christmas (it was May at the time).

    We were using a reasonably complex technique to get the kids to create stories in English which is one reason why in Spain at least (and this was not the coast where they’d hear a lot of it every day) we tended to work with older students and adults.

    But we pitched them an idea and they ran with it. Through lots of repetition and recapitulation they crafted a coherent group story with the minimum of vocab. They took the task up with enthusiasm and broke the barriers to get it done.

    That sort of stretch is good both for the students, the teaching staff who are often amazed at what their kids can achieve when the mental blocks are taken away whether by forced necessity, pure ignorance or serious intent.

    Here’s a snippet from a Q&A I did in Washington for the US Institute of Medicine on why value and meaning matters more than almost anything else regarding the breaking of barriers online (or offline for that matter).

    What makes me grumpy about NI politics is not (believe it or not) the upness or downess of any given political party. Rather it’s the long slow subtraction of ‘meaning’ via ‘process’.

    In food production, process largely serves the material needs of the producer by pushing up both sales and overall margins. By the end the product is so unlike the thing it’s supposed to be that flavours must be added to make it taste like ‘the real thing’.

    Instead of real political struggle we wind up with something akin to the mouthing of Yeats’ ‘polite meaningless words’.

    Our politics is becoming so overlaid with process (see what’s happened to the £80 SIF if you don’t believe me) our politicians neglect all focus on outcomes never mind connecting them with voter intentions.

    None of which, I think, will do us much good in the long run, since leads to exactly the kind of disengagement from voters we’re likely to see over the next few elections.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    I liked your snippet – so true that in all the guff about new technology, especially from developers and early adopters, they misunderstand completely how the rest of us see it. What most us crave is content – something funny, something interesting or whatever.

    I always enjoy doing discussion groups of the public, watched by technology developers. When you go behind the screen after the discussion and see what the techies made of it, they often have a kind of incredulity about how little most ordinary people care about the actual technology. “People love our products don’t they? They spend loads on them, they spend a lot of their free time on them?” What most people love is what the technology does for them and go with it because there’s something worth having if they do.

    And so with politics – agree with you here too Mick. People outside the process often cut to the chase in a way political operators have forgotten to. We don’t really care, for example, whether the Haass document should have had x, y or z clause – ultimately, we just want to see less trouble at parades, people broadly happy with or tolerant of the flags they can expect to see flying and some sense that when it comes to telling the story of the Troubles, we can start to focus on a fair truth, not self-justification.

    So politicians: please don’t bore us with how hard it is to make the computer – just give us one that works well enough for us to do our thing on it. And that thing is likely to be business, culture, fun – anything but more effing “process”.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    There are two competing belief systems around this I think: the ‘carpe diem’ (life as an accumulating of ‘seized’ days) and the ‘final score’ or approach (life rated on your deathbed). They are not mutually exclusive but they represent two ends of a spectrum. The shift in the public since the 60s at least, as I see it, has been towards ‘carpe diem’ and away from ‘final score’. That is, more people than before now think: what is the point in a life of sacrifice for some short moment of satisfaction at the end? It doesn’t add up. The prevailing logic now is, deferring your enjoyment of life is to waste it.

    The collapse in religious belief has been part of that (the old system was based on some idea of deathbed judgement and being rewarded not in this life but the next). The social and consumer world has also developed to feed the need for “having it now” and taken on its own dynamic.

    I side with the carpe diem side of things myself – which is not to say I’m some free spirit, but just that I see friends of mine who have been more ambitious than me in their careers missing out on a lot of the everyday stuff with their kids, for example. They are not nakedly chasing status but at some level they have failed to get themselves off that track of social expectation. And in my experience, the people I know in high status positions seem often less happy, fulfilled and balanced than those I know who aren’t.

  • DC

    It’s like this, if you fail to Frankl you might Fritzl.

  • tacapall

    We all, after life threatening experiences realise life can be measured like a pencil. From the non sharpened end to eternity is before you were born and from the sharpened end to eternity is after you die, the length of the pencil is your life and what way you live that life determines when you need to sharpen the pencil therefore shortening the length. I was diagnosed with cancer a few months back and while I must admit shock, the fear of the unknown and a feeling of helplessness when attempting to come to terms with my position but it was hope, desire and a will to live that eventually overcame the fear and helplessness. Both Frankl and MU above are right, love and contentment are what we all crave. What way we achieve those desires is how we look back and judge ourselves. On the subject of being or achieving what we really want to be or achieve how can this truly happen in a monarchical society where your status and the limit of your achievement is already decided before you are born.

  • David Crookes

    Tacapall, any man will want to be careful with his words after reading a posting of such tremendous gravity and honesty. Thanks very much for telling us what you have told us. We all salute the “hope, desire, and a will to live” that you are displaying, and we join our own hopes with your own.

    Real achievement is a great thing. In one of his novels Nevil Shute makes a bemedalled prince address a bemedalled veteran. ‘You’re lucky,” says the prince. “You were able to earn your medals.” Or words to the same effect.

  • Mick Fealty


    Some say Tragedy (in the Greek sense) encourages us to become the best we can, whilst Comedy (again in the same abstract sense) encourages the worst in us.

    When I first started reading your post I was first struck by both the fresh originality and fitness of your pencil metaphor and then saddened to hear your news.

    Somewhere in Westen’s book I quoted earlier, he commends the importance of just plain old fashioned telling of the truth even if it contains admissions of inferiority or weakness.

    People warm to truthfulness because they immediately recognise it for what it is. At risk of sounding too much like that neo hipster WT referenced earlier, thanks for sharing both your metaphor and your news.


  • Charles_Gould


    Part of living for the moment is that when you are old you have more to look back on , in terms of experiences. So the “final tally” may actually be much better even for those who live for the moment.

  • Alias

    “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”. – Chuckles the Clown, revealing the meaning of life on an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show

  • tacapall

    Charles and Mick.

    Plato believed courage was the coward’s salvation he understood we all must some day accept the inevitable consequences of being born. Anyone can be frank even the simple but being tactful is being virtuous. Thank you

  • Mick Fealty

    I don’t know if any of you read Newton Emerson’s Saturday round up in the Irish News, but he leads with his favourite gripe against the Chief Constable, ie that he has indulged the UVF by not moving in on them when they organised riots against the Short Strand.

    Now, as I’ve have strenuously pointed out many times before, the CC’s community led approach was apparent long before his appointment here. But I guess we could measure his ‘let’s work with what’s there rather than seeking to bring higher standards’ approach to policing communities.

    I still feel somewhat defensive of him since no cop can do that if he doesn’t have the solid support of those employing him (ie, our political cartel via the PBNI). But still, I think there’s valid query to be made here under Frankl’s terms.

    PS, Nice spake. Thanks again Tac..

  • Richlinkedin

    Schindler was happy and fulfilled as an industrial grant aid con man. But no one could make him a murderer.

    If you phone a university and speak to a research department. Say historical deaths. They have guidelines telling them how to be good boys to report knowledge they might acquire. Misprision of Treason, Terrorism Act etc.

    If you transfer to the law dept professors and ask for a specialist in human rights they will all be queuing up. Now ask for the one who specialises in rights of a whistleblower to be protected from the consequences of his moral action in the reporting of knowledge for the greater good.

    Then ask to speak to their specialist professor in human responsibilities, duties and obligations. There won’t be one.

    You might wonder who the hell drew up the moral whistleblower directive, enshrined in law, for the research department then.

    The researcher is good cos he’s told to be and the whistleblower chooses to be good but needs protecting ?

    That’s just not fair denying research post graduates the choice to be less worse.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Thanks for sharing that difficult news – wishing you all the best of luck. And I agree with you on the monarchy!

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    At the risk of boring people with popular psychology, I thought Alain de Botton’s ‘Status Anxiety’ was a good read on why craving the recognition of one’s peers is often a curse, while also making the world go around. As ever, it’s all about balance. The other book I’ve really enjoyed on this stuff is Richard Layard’s ‘Happiness’. I was going to quote from it but seem to have lost my copy, which makes me very unhappy.

  • Mick Fealty

    On the whistleblower matter Rich, I think there are some corporates who are beginning to recognise that such reporting is actually socially/commercially useful and are beginning to build positive feedback loops that reward such reporting from the front rather than the back of the issue.

    In Northern Ireland I’m afraid my experience is that they are usually given the ‘you will never work in this town again, or any other town like it’ treatment and an awkward silence from the serried ranks of the great and the good…

    When there’s a choice to play up or play down, it seems our default choice is more often than not the latter.

  • David Crookes

    Tacapall (and Mick and MU), I had a pretty close call eighteen months ago, and was greatly sustained by having read John Buchan’s “Sickheart River”, which is an astonishing book about confronting ultimate things.

    On several occasions I’ve come up against the “awkward silence” that Mick talks about. As the newest member of a board, I once felt impelled to point out that a rather important thing which someone had said at the last meeting had been omitted from the minutes. Faces all round me froze in sincere ham-actorial disapproval.

    DON’T ROCK THE BOAT is a maxim that motivates many people even when they know, as Leonard Cohen would say, that the ship is rotten and that the captain has lied.

    Sometimes a whistle is blown and we all think that nothing will ever be the same again. But the rotten old ship has a wonderful way of surviving. It’s a bit like the laboratory experiment called regelation. You place a brick of ice so as to bridge two table-tops, and set over its middle a wire which has a heavy weight attached to each of its ends. Over time the weights cause the wire to cut right through the ice-brick, and eventually the weights and wire land on the floor. The brick stays as it was, because it has frozen up behind the track of the wire.

    Chief Constables come and go, but unless the politicians who effectively appoint them are unequivocally devoted to the rule of law, the rotten old ship will survive.

  • Charles_Gould


    Richard Layard (and indeed the happiness economics literature) is of the view that “Keeping Up with the Jones” is one of the key drivers of unhappiness.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Yes, he rightly identifies insecurity about status as a major driver of unhappiness – and grasping the delusion of status-chasing fully was I think the start of discovering a more meaningful life, for me personally. Mind you, I was a lot more driven when I was insecure!
    Layard also talks a lot about the “hedonic treadmill”, which is another idea at the centre of the book:
    I’m a big fan of Oliver Burkeman’s ‘The Antidote’ – how being pessimistic can make you happier, to massively and disturbingly over-simplify it. Big thoughts and proper philosophical traditions discussed very accessibly and practically.