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How to Be in Extreme Situations

Introductory Notes

If there really happens to be a conviction shared by sensitive and rational people of our times and our culture, then it most probably is the view claiming that our civilization finds itself in the throes of a crisis. Explanations of the genuine cause of this crisis as well as attitudes to it tend to vary. One of those, which – in our view – seems to have its sights set on the very crux of the matter, is the explanation of such a crisis as having been caused by an indisputable hypertrophy of an external, materially mediated dominance, which has gradually given rise to an atrophy of a life-giving internal, spiritually conditioned understanding, as if internal sources of intrinsically human life have been virtually exhausted for us. Indeed, in various contexts of our spiritual life we invariably come up against frequent manifestations of relativism, superficiality, a loss of perspective, although these are coupled with a new quest too. It is evident that the question whether this is still „merely“ a crisis of growth is closely associated with another – whether there is any human dimension of that growth at all.

Our historical process has led to far-reaching crisis situations facing mankind as a whole (ecology, economy, global military-political problems), various small or large groups of people (discrimination, manipulation, disinformation) and an ever growing number of solitary individuals (poverty, diseases, social marginalization, deterioration of interhuman relations, devaluation of spiritual values). Attempts at remedying such situations are usually confined to endeavours to identify mere symptoms; what exceeds the possibilities of external control is generally neglected to the detriment of the key, intrinsically human need to understand one's self and one's actions, even though such a need is usually most acutely felt by humans in situations of the deepest crisis. An externally oriented civilization is neither able nor willing to admit that a path can be found out of extreme situations neither with the help of „the best social order“ (which on the contrary – in totalitarian and military regimes – tends to provoke such situations on a large scale), nor with the provision of the highest material wealth and well-being (which rather serves to multiply them – in rich societies and social strata – by lowering the threshold of sensitivity to them).

There are certain elementary extreme situations, inevitable for human life and its maturation, associated with the natural course of life. But we often no longer know how to cope with these either. In our present era people seem to have somehow forgotten traditional spiritual strategies and tactics of coping with them (documented by myth, theology and philosophy), there is no inner connection to model personalities in extreme situations (Jesus, Buddha, well-known saints and martyrs), no rehearsal situations (initiation rites, exercises, etc.) are available, and even simple human empathy and active solidarity with people in extreme situations have likewise disappeared. On the other hand, the capacities of mental hospitals, jails, orphanages, and other specialized institutions have been expanding, various repressive measures have been widespread, and there are mounting tendencies to make up for the utter lack of meaning in life with a hectic scramble for power and wealth even at the cost of bringing about new situations of major crisis proportions, neither natural nor inevitable, which are increasingly difficult to cope with in any meaningful manner.

A merely externally conceived defence against extreme situations, which leaves all the spiritual possibilities of superseding these untouched, usually results in a drastic impoverishment of humanity and further reproduction of such situations at new and new levels. Naturally, extreme situations may be countered efficiently and productively solely with the help of internal, intrinsic sources; only therefrom is it possible correctly to stipulate the choice of external means too. An authentic capacity to carry out what would amount to a genuinely helpful external intervention is always commensurate with internal human maturity on the part of the decisive agents.

That is why the cultural-paradigmatic importance and profound historical human need of all such individual activities and social movements has been growing, activities and movements which – often deliberately tying on to certain spiritual traditions – are able, irrespective of their economic and social backup, to provide – inexorably proceeding from profound inner resources and at the cost of one's own sacrifices – meaningful ways out of various modes of natural as well as unnecessary extreme threats to humanity anywhere and anytime. (Let us name eg. the order of Mother Theresa of Calcutta or the Czechoslovak Charter 77 Movement or most followers of Western anti-psychiatry groups.)

The following philosophical study is dedicated to such personally motivated and involved people struggling for human dignity under any situation.

The individual sections – Entities, Humans, Values, Meaning, Being, Love – are meant as thematic probes into the contexts which seem to be of key significance for the issue under scrutiny.

1. Entities

If we approach everything there is receptively and with a critical detachment from our own utilitarian intentions, we may discern entities in the dimension of their own original inner self-determination, integrity and irreplaceability. They present themselves to our eyes in their independent identity emanating from the depth of being and aspiring to the heights of being. This makes it evident to us that characterization of this or that entity can in no way be exhausted through the characterization of its mere situatedness: no entity is „soluble“ within this or that situation, it is never completely shaped or determined by it; in changing situations it more or less remains itself – or it ceases to exist in its identity.

This initial, ontologically primary (and in view of the possibilities of any entity in extreme situation substantially significant) identity of any entity shows two different aspects. The external, actual aspect comes out directly against us: this is given by the specificity, differences, clear-cut particularity of entity, which outwardly tends to develop its identity vis-a-vis other entities. The internal, potential aspect of the identity of each entity can only be surmised in its entirety; it inheres in the inimitability, inaccessibility and inexhaustibility of the substantial specification of the given entity, which is internally rooted in the creative depths of being. Thanks to its „ready-made“ identity, entity therefore encounters other entities – finding itself in situations. Through its creative, internal, potential identity it stems from being – outside any situatedness, which is, as such, moulded solely by the interaction of entities.

It therefore seems that the creative current of being flows, as far as entities are concerned, from the inside outwards: for each entity its initial point in existential terms lies in its inner identity, received in profound dependence on being, while the impact of a situation on entities is determined only by their interrelations. Seen in this light, a situation affects entity principally secondarily, outwardly: the dependence of entities on a situation is conditioned by the dependence of a situation on entities, which jointly create it (actively or passively).

Under the term situation we may describe a sum total of external conditions and circumstances, under which something (meant as the „centre“ of a situation) exists or happens. At the same time, (especially as regards extreme situations) of vital importance is the fact that these external conditions and circumstances are not primarily constitutive for what exists or happens – although they may support or suppress existence, action or even the very origin of anything.

Whether a situation affects entity positively or negatively, whether it is more or less in harmony with it (Cf. an apple tree in a fruit garden) or whether it is in conflict with it (Cf. an apple tree in a building site) is for each entity a crucially important feature of its situation. An extremely unfavourable situation wherein the very identity of entity is threatened up to its actual limit of resistance beyond which its being-related potential to perfectibility opens up – such a situation is most accurately designated as its extreme situation.

The actual ontological necessity of the emergence of extreme situations evidently ensues from the fact that entities do exist in situations: given its external particularity and hence its actual limitations, no single entity can cope with an unlimited number of factually possible situations. The paradoxical ontological possibility of superseding extreme situations, on the contrary, emanates from the fact that entities do exist out of being and for the sake of being; on the basis of its internal determination – which is potentially inexhaustible (having emerged from the creative depths of being, in which each entity is rooted, and proceeded towards the transcendent heights of being, to which it is attracted) – entity may hold out even under an extreme situation.

Therefore, extreme situations are both exceptionally dangerous for the identity of entities, and immensely stimulating in terms of creativity and development. Being is the source and goal of the growth of their independence and integrity. Everything inanimate, animate and conscious gradually flows out of being into the space of the world, in time, which is pervaded with the struggle for growth in being – at different levels of its reception.

2. Humans

While an extreme situation is a situation whereby the most intrinsic identity of any entity is revealed and subjected to trial, a human extreme situation is a situation wherein all this concerns Man. Man in an extreme situation is also threatened in his own constitution, which he alone has acquired from being.

This signifies that exposure to extreme situations will most clearly show which particular characteristics are actually specific to him in terms of „species“, what is intrinsically his own and what eventually matters to him most. Man's extreme situations are situations highlighting and stimulating his humanity as a result of this humanity being jeopardized. All subhuman animate entities demonstrate their identity most prominently in situations in which their life is threatened. (A snail will withdraw into its shell, a gazelle will run, a tiger will fight.) After all, their innermost intrinsic characteristics serve their own survival in a specific manner. A threat to life and a threat to intrinsic characteristics in subhuman live entities are identical; their identity neither survives nor in any way extends beyond their physical existence. Just like in the sake of inanimate beings an extreme situation poses a threat to their intrinsically own mode of inanimate existence, situation involving a threat to one's life is the specific extreme situation of subhuman animate entities.

This should be seen as the point of departure while identifying the extreme situation of man as a live and consciously perceiving being.

While an animal which finds itself in a situation endangering its life tries to get out of it quite unambiguously and at any cost (although sometimes in a mediated fashion, as dictated by the instinctive attachment to one's offspring, mate or herd), under such a situation man does not always behave so unequivocally. His attitude to his own life is not determined solely by instinct, being freer and more complicated. Man is capable of not only saving his own life but also of sacrificing it, he is capable of running the risk of losing his life and sometimes of giving it up in passive resignation.

Such a free and differentiated approach attests to the fact that man does not identify what he intrinsically is with his own physical existence and that he can somehow confirm his humanity independently of his own survival, sometimes even against it. Evidently, he strives to exist somewhat differently than a biological entity, trying to transcend his physical existence. To put it in positive terms: he strives for a spiritually independent existence. Only on such a basis is it possible to compare life with other values and freely avail oneself of it.

This spiritual existence implements a purely human possibility of self-transcendence through a principal attachment to values. Man can sacrifice or save his life because of something that exceeds the value of this biological life – because of values towards which his life aspires, on which it is based, into which man invests, with which he identifies himself, to which he attaches a supreme meaning. Only a threat to such values – „sublime“ or „mundane“, but always vitally important – constitutes an extreme situation characteristic of man. If the principal values of his life have been destroyed or devalued, his bare life has any value only if and when he is capable of retaining at least some hope of discovering or creating new values. Then life becomes, provisionally, a supreme value only in the name of those unknown values and in a linkup to them.

Seen from a human viewpoint, life, survival does not appear to be an end in itself, something absolute, unconditioned but rather something to which man can assume a personal attitude: not an arbitrary but spiritually free approach – connected with values. The fact that man carries inside him something which he protects more than his own life and without which his life would lose its meaning and humanity for him may point to the conclusion that unlike other live beings Man's specific extreme situation is a situation involving a threat to value (values) which he regards as supreme (one of the supreme). A threat to life is perceived by humans as an extreme situation only insofar as it also jeopardises their possibility of living for certain values. In a situation of a total value vacuum and hopelessness, life tends to become virtually irrelevant to man.

Thus, he may attach to a certain value (not to his bare life) that which is intrinsically his own, his most profound identity, independence and integrity – which thus reveals its ontologically unique spiritual nature. What seems to be significant in human extreme situations therefore is not any boundary of human potential for biological survival but rather a limit of this or that individual value orientation and attachment.

3. Values

Freedom, health, honour, property, loyalty, power, friendship, enjoyment, work, success – each human individual is known to live in the name of a certain basic value orientation, which integrates his life. One may deduce from man's prevailing attitude to life his supreme, vitally important values whose threat inevitably takes him into an extreme situation.

The innumerable possible types of threats posed to various vitally significant values may be systematically classified by this three-degree scheme: I. threat to the embodiment of a given value, II. loss of the embodiment of a given value, III. doubts cast on the validity of a given value.

I. The first degree of the threat posed to a vitally significant value – extreme situation of the first degree – arises when the embodiment of such a value (ie. t o w h a t such a value is ascribed: a valuable thing, person, a valuable relationship, status, activity etc., collectively expressed as „goods“) is seriously threatened. (For instance, if I appreciate friendship or human dignity or property as the supreme value, then the embodiment of this value is my friend or my civic rights or my bank-account.) If such a threat is to fall into the category of extreme situations, the only one or the most important embodiment of this (supremely significant) value must be threatened and it must be extremely difficult to avert such a threat.

The imminent destruction of what is or can, for a certain individual, be genuine fulfilment, lively accomplishment, implementation of one of his uppermost values in life – tends to provoke massive defensive reaction. Man applies himself to saving the situation, which is not yet totally lost, even though it is so unfavourable that in order to retain a chance of changing it man has to stake out everything. After all, he has got nothing to lose because an extreme situation is a situation posing a threat to what is most valuable to him, with which he is tied up in a life-and-death relationship and from which, more or less, the very value of all the other things is derived.

An extreme situation of the first degree is therefore marked by its risky and demanding but still practicable changeability, which encourages man into trying to avert danger at any cost. What ought to be done by the individual, who – through the struggle for the existence of the embodiment of his cherished value – thus fights for the integral existence of himself, is to mobilize as much courage as possible.

Man will either succeed in saving the situation, in restoring the original state of undisturbed existence of the „good“ involved (regaining one's friend, civic rights or bank-account) or he will not.

II. Man who has not managed to do that finds himself in an extreme situation of the second degree – which, however, may also arise directly, without passing through the first stage at all. This is the situation involving the loss of the embodiment of a vitally important value. Its eventual restoration (if this is at all feasible, if – for example – no exclusive personal relationship is involved) is usually a long-term affair and does not depend solely on man's own activity.

In an extreme situation of the second degree the value itself (friendship, human dignity, property) is still not destroyed, on the contrary, it remains valid, man continues to regard it as his own supreme value and maintains towards it his intrinsically serious attitude. But the value's embodiment, through which the individual participated in that particular value (or intended to participate), no longer exists or is definitely inaccessible to him.

Within these terms, there is nothing to save at the given moment, the original state of affairs cannot be restored and it is uncertain whether the value itself will ever see its alternative embodiment. It is thus crucial to bear the situation at all. This means enduring the profound contradiction between what is most desirable for the individual, what „should be“ in order to sustain his integral existence and between that which simply „is“ under the given situation, regardless of the conditions of his most intrinsic identity and of the possibilities of his truly human life. This contradiction, which must be suffered, is one involving the existence of an abstract meaning of value and non-existence of its concrete embodiment. The value indispensable for the life of an individual, in its embodiment always intimately bound up with his life, loses – in an extreme situation of the second degree – its lively and impressive particularity and is preserved solely in his mind as a powerless idea, as nothing but a destructive awareness of what an individual cannot live without.

Extreme situations of the second degree, unlike the preceding stage, are characterized by the impossibility of salvaging the original state. The only way out here is to turn towards the future possibilities of finding a new embodiment of the selfsame value. That is why such a situation necessitates maximum mobilization of hope. For a man who attaches the meaning of his life to friendship or human dignity or property it is certainly difficult to live on his own or in prison or in impoverished old age, hoping for new encounters or freedom or a lucky win. The fulfilment of his desire does not depend solely on his own will and behavior – he simply has to persist: waiting and hoping.

It may well happen that man will not endure his trials physically and die; or he will lose all hope and commit suicide; or he can no longer endure that contradiction between the existing validity and non-existing embodiment of his value and will succumb to an insane illusion that the embodiment continues to exist („I manage to talk to my friend across the distance between us“, „I am Jesus“, „I have a treasure hidden somewhere“) or in a desperate desire for solace (at any cost) he will change his value orientation in an uncontrolled and unreflected manner (although with later „justification“), mostly by lapsing to lower values. (The value of friendship will gradually be replaced by eg. the value of external social recognition and appreciation, the value of human dignity will imperceptibly give way to chemically induced euphoria etc.) Or man will begin re-examining his existing value orientation quite consciously in a process that will, however, qualitatively change his extreme situation.

III. While humans grapple with false ways out of an extreme situation of the second degree, this situation may deepen still further, proceeding towards its third degree. This, however, may also arise in response to the first degree of the threat posed to the value involved or quite directly, without any previous threat having been posed or without the loss of embodiment of the given value. (This may also be a hidden process, a process which seems to be concerned not so much with the values themselves but rather with the embodiments representing them.) As far as the third degree threat to a vitally important value is concerned, not only is it the embodiment of this value that is threatened or lost, but the value itself is in jeopardy.

This may occur only after doubts have been cast on the validity of such a value, on its significance for man and its position among other values in his personal hierarchy of values. To cast doubts on the validity of one's supreme value is a free internal human act (albeit caused by external circumstances either repelling man from one value or attracting him to another), whereby man experimentally gives up his previous conviction of the meaning of life and sets out to seek a new, more substantial answer to the question: why live at all and where to invest one's life. Man goes out of his way to find a new value orientation or to make sure, with a degree of reliability, whether another value orientation would not be better, whether in it he could really find himself and his own path to the world. He does this in a conscious and reflected manner – unlike the above-mentioned uncontroled escape from an extreme situation of the second degree into a scramble for fake values.

Quite voluntarily man thus introduces problems into his ultimate life certainty (which itself may turn out to be not quite as bright and conflict-free as one would hope) and abandons it for the uncertainty of assessing, pondering and searching. He asks himself whether he has not been deprived of the embodiment of such a value rightly, whether this particular value is really worth sticking to as a supreme value (or one of the supreme values). He therefore wants to understand the situation.

The process of casting doubts on the validity of an existing vitally important value may stem from the value itself – man feels a certain dissatisfaction and uncertainty towards it, without perceiving as yet any other alternative value – or such doubts may, indeed, be caused by a comparison of one's hitherto valid principal value with other values – when man hesitates at a crossroads, trying to choose the right direction, not to opt for an illusion of salvation at the cost of commiting betrayal.

To avoid getting oneself wrecked in the straits of widespread inner uncertainty and intractable conflicts, to avoid losing oneself amidst the chaos of numerous options, a chaos, which tends to render choice impossible or at least difficult, man needs to mobilize wisdom out of his innermost self. It is immensely difficult to decide whether one has justifiably cast doubts on a key value, eg. self-assertion, and whether it is more appropriate eventually to replace such a value in one's hierarchy eg. with the value of loyalty or health. Faced with a situation involving doubts about, eg., the value of property, it is no less difficult to discover for oneself a higher value which would be sufficiently satisfactory. And nobody wiser can stand in for him in this decision-making.

One may or may not succeed in understanding the situation. One may not gain an insight into the situation and may succumb to resignation. He may even opt for a voluntary departure from life. Or he can quite consciously choose an inferior, easily attainable value („why should I seek meaning of life when there is so much fine drink and so many pretty girls around“), which, however, usually fails to be fully satisfactory to a man who has once set himself much higher objectives in life so that he now constantly lives with a suppressed sense of non-fulfilment, eventually of betrayal. Or he can finally respond by resigning, by becoming bogged down in the deadlock of the impossibility to decide: he will be seized by the experience of vanity and relativity of everything and gradually disintegrated by the feeling of absurdity and a loss of future.

Or a human individual will really manage to work his way to a clear-cut recognition and endorsement of a value he is able genuinely to accept with all his personality as a supreme value. As the case may be, this can even entail that original value, on to which doubts were cast for a time, or a value to whose unsuspected importance man has been led only through suffering experienced in an extreme situation.


first degree second degree third degree
initial situation threat to embodiment
of value
loss of embodiment
of value
doubts cast on validity
of value
goal save situation situation understand situation
way mobilize courage mobilize hope mobilize wisdom

4. Meaning

It is evident that human choice and defence of certain vitally important values or – on the contrary – their conscious abandonment cannot be explained by or deduced from a mere situation. There are situations which seem to be optimal for the full assertion of a given value, and yet under such situations man may give up this very value in exchange for another value (eg. to devote oneself to hard work in a situation facilitating a „dolce vita“). On the other hand, there are situations extre-mely unfavourable even for the very internal preservation of a certain value, and yet man is prepared to defend that value at the expense of his life (eg. the value of religious freedom in an atheistic dictatorship).

It seems that in consciously selecting and defending or giving up a certain value, man is not necessarily guided by situation. The ultimate explanation and justification of his decision is a purely internal matter: a certain value either has a meaning for him or it has not.

The meaning of a value need not be in accordance with the situation at all (on the contrary, it may prove it to be senseless), emerging independently of situation and enabling man to assume an independent position towards it. Also independently of a situation, a certain value may lose its meaning so that man no longer has any reason to defend it, much as the situation should „require“ it.

As a symptom of the intrinsic verity of values meaning refers to being and not to situations. It is its „sign“, which emerges as a mainstay or a challenge to man to espouse a certain value orientation intrinsically important for him.

In this way, each of man's c o n s c i o u s attitudes to values is guided by the perspective of meaning.

However, man's attitude to his principal values is not always fully conscious. Man may not find out which particular values are actually most significant for him until he gets involved in situations where such values are endangered: Extreme situations can therefore call forth a conscious verification of the meaningfulness of vitally important values.

In extreme situations of the first and second degree man may be forced into taking a conscious decision whether to mobilize his courage in order to save the situation, or his hope in order to endure the situation or not to mobilize them all. He is, therefore, forced into consciously examining whether the value whose embodiment is threatened or lost has any meaning or not.

If he realizes that, in actual fact, a situation involving a threat to his value simply signals to him that the value in question only seems to be one of his supreme values, that it has really lost its meaning for him, that he has – so to say – outgrown it and that he has acknowledged it thus far maybe only because it has not yet been endangered, ie. because of his certain unconscious inertia, while meaning has in the meantime been transferred to other values – then extreme situation immediately cancels itself out, without man having to save anything or trying to bear an unbearable situation in any way. He emerges out of extreme situation enriched with a clear awareness of what is really meaningful for him. (For instance, a distinguished scientist who has suffered a spinal column injury and who has found out that he will be able to continue his work but won't be able to walk any more may first react as if his supreme value had been jeopardized. But he will succumb to this extreme situation only very briefly – before he realizes quite clearly that for a long time the actual meaning of his life had not really lain in the value of physical health anyway. Similarly, an extreme situation can easily undeceive eg. a philosopher who believes that he cannot lead a meaningful life without a certain social status or father of a family who is convinced that the material well-being of his closest relatives is of paramount importance.)

If, on the other hand, man establishes beyond any doubt that a value whose embodiment is threatened or has been lost nonetheless does retain its meaning for him, this will serve as a source of virtually inexhaustible inner strength for him: it is truly remarkable what extraordinary feats can be performed and what an immense amount of hope can be held out by people inwardly integrated through their perception of the meaning of an espoused value. (A man saving the life of a child drowning beneath a weir, a political prisoner withstanding the torture by his interrogators, a wife forgiving her husband's repeated infidelity and cruelty, an aging author rewriting his destroyed lifelong work, etc.)

If long-lasting extreme situations of the first and second degree are involved, man repeatedly has to reassure himself of the meaning of his coveted value. Otherwise, the danger may arise that meaning will escape him and he will therefore succumb to the impact of situation after all. A prerequisite for rescue or endurance is repeated restoration of one's clear-cut awareness of whether and why he should still stick to this or that value. Only thanks to a keen perception of meaning man knows quite invincibly what he really wants, what he is working for and in what he puts his hope, whatever situation he may find himself in.

This keen awareness of meaning in situations of extreme suffering gives an exceptionally profound dimension to human life; rendering it perhaps truly human. If the meaning of a certain value is virtually the only thing that „sustains“ man in a situation where the embodiment of this value is lacking, he meets, as never before, the opportunity of fully experiencing the most profound, spiritual dimension of his own life and of leaning on it.

The inner strength, thus acquired and maintained, has nothing in common with the defiance of a man who tries – in uncontrolled panic, entirely on his own and at any cost, often using morally unsavioury means – to cope with his situation in his own behalf, without examining at all what this behalf is going to be from the viewpoint of meaning.

He, who believes, however transiently, that the meaningfulness of a certain value has been established merely by the fact that he himself wants it, runs the risk of getting bogged down in an illusory imitation of meaning. It cannot be used for long to draw strength for one's own will power because – on the contrary – such an illusion tends to live off his own will and depletes it.

The strength emanating from mere defiance will be quickly used up in an extreme situation and man will either lapse into resignation and failure (depression, suicide, hopeless feelings of guilt, a slide to surrogate life values, to „solace“ in alcohol, drugs, violence, vulgar distraction, overindulgent imagination etc.) or – in a happy moment – he will eventually awaken and – with the meekness of a keen awareness, even though he initially believes that this would only hopelessly deepen his suffering – he will start asking about meaning. Thanks to this, he will freely distance himself from all his illusions, sorrows, guilts, anxieties, uncertainties, and apathy. In this way he will be approaching the very underpinnings of meaning, which may turn out to be a source of necessary courage and hope in his life, whether it turns out to be meaningful to remain faithful to his value or to abandon it.

Conscious verification of the meaningfulness of life-values in extreme situations of the third degree qualitatively differs from the similar activity on the preceding two levels.

This entails not only a mere act of ascertaining whether the given value has a meaning or not, but also an intricate process of examining which value really has any meaning, either within the framework of a given alternative or in a previously unlimited (but always at least somehow structured) space offering possibilities of choice.

Man therefore finds himself, at least for a time, in a situation marked by lack of basic inner provisions, by an uncertainty as to which main values should be used to guide his life. (For example, a woman doctor, who is both a mother and a scientist in the field of tropical diseases, may – under the impact of her personal first-hand experience with the greatly insufficient system of medical care in developing countries – start re-examining the meaning of the value of maternal love for her teen-age children and the value of providing assistance to unknown suffering people whom she feels she owes her own deal of responsibility as a result of her professional qualification. Or an adolescent will suddenly start casting doubts on all the values he has recognized up till now, because he finds that his choice of such values was unconscious and that through these values he actually seemed to be directed from the outside. He duly rejects such an absurd situation and embarks on a painful and groping search for a new value orientation, still unknown but certainly more profound and indisputably his own.)

Faced with an extreme situation of the third degree, it is particularly crucial to retain unbiased confidence in meaning in general.

Naturally, one may also „seek revenge on fate“ in a negativist fashion because he finds himself in a state of hopelessness as far as values are concerned, one may even derive almost inhuman delight out of what can be termed the cult of absurdity (sometimes with tragic external consequences). But it is destructive enough when an unhappy individual allows his consciousness to be obscured by very intense feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, uncertainty, guilt, and despair, when he fails in extricating himself from his own self and in attempting to pursue the meaning, which seems to be escaping him, when he fails to allow himself to be led without any conditions or strings.

Within the enclosed space of the human mind, all the possibilities remain indifferently open. If man is not to become – in his own eyes – as unreal as such possibilities, if he is not to be drowned in a sea of indefiniteness and relativity, it is essential for him to leave his prison – to step out of the confines of his own self and of his situation. Conscious openness towards meaning is invariably supra-situational (practicable under any situation), making it possible to transcend the horizon of all the given possibilities and to assume towards them a novel approach „from above“.

There are people who – faced with situations in which doubts have been cast on their vitally important values – are capable of brightening up their consciousness possibly as never before particularly through their unqualified trust in meaning. They can divest themselves of all the negative and chance influences and positively gravitate towards the substantial. An awareness that I have nothing to lose and everything to gain is in itself a source of peace of mind and concentration even amidst the hardest suffering.

It is necessary to allow ourselves to be literally permeated by nothing else but our own thirst for meaning – to such an extent that we forget ourselves (making ourselves, in a sense, available to meaning instead of seeking it for our own ends). This is the condition for transcending the zone of what is seen, from our present standpoint, as liable to doubts, for opening ourselves to that absolute horizon in whose perspective, in the deepest perceivable background of our existence, a certain shape of our alternative value orientation, continued movement in life begins shadowing forth.

This key, liberating moment of understanding, when man's individually intrinsic shape of the fulfilment of humanity reveals itself, is not so much a moment of literal „discovery of meaning“, but rather a moment of „discovering ourselves in meaning“. This moment arrives only when man is so genuinely concerned with meaning that he longs for it not only because of himself but because of meaning itself.

Man who seeks meaning in such a selfless way, who is willing to let himself be led solely by it and never be distracted by any of its imitation on the one hand or the illusion of absolute meaninglessness on the other has the prerequisites to emerge from this extreme situation inwardly transformed and liberated for the certainty of his values. Through meaning received the order of human experience is again interconnected with the order of being.

5. Being

Through the external aspect of his own identity man finds himself in situations and through its internal aspect he proceeds from being while simultaneously gravitating towards being. In this context, man basically does not differ from other beings (Cf. above under l) – even though he follows his own ontologically unique human path. The fact that his independence and integrity (unlike all other entities) inheres in his existential relationship with values constitutes the focal point of his self-determination with regard to situations and to being. Through the choice of values he freely determines the mode of his procedure from being as well as the mode of his emergence in situations.

He can be guided by two principal criteria. In view of the situation involved, each value is more or less practicable, and in view of being it is more or less meaningful. To orient oneself during the choice or defence of values according to their practicability, therefore, means increasing the rate of one's dependence on situations, while to orient oneself according to their meaningfulness means enhancing the rate of one's responsibility towards being. Responsibility towards being means, at the same time, assuming a free attitude to situations and, on the contrary, loss of responsibility towards being is conducive to the enslavement by situations.

Each extreme situation puts man at a crossroads: whether to take his bearings either according to practicability or according to the meaningfulness of the endangered life-value.

One may orient oneself in terms of a situation: to abandon a meaningful value because its embodiment is threatened or made impossible, and to assert a value that is intrinsically perceived as not too meaningful but in a given situation practicable. (This course of action guarantees to me a certain situational profit but, at the same time, substantially harms my human dignity.)

Or one can orient oneself intrinsically: to abandon a practicable value if it is meaningless and to uphold a value which is – true to say – practicable with greatest difficulties but which I intrinsically experience as meaningful. (This implies to me that I manage to persist in humanely fulfilled harmony with being.)

A situational solution of extreme situations subordinates meaningfulness to practicability, the viewpoint of being to the viewpoint of situation: what is practicable is also „meaningful“, what is not practicable is „meaningless“. The concept of meaning is deprived of its genuine sense of a regulating agent independent of situation.

An intrinsic solution of extreme situations, on the other hand, subordinates practicability to meaningfulness, the viewpoint of situation to the viewpoint of being: what is practicable is not necessarily meaningful and what is meaningful does not have to be practicable here and now. The concept of meaning retains its authentic sense so that what is also preserved is that creative tension – specific to human life alone – between the requirement of practicability and the requirement of meaningfulness, which spells out man's lively relation to being.

An intrinsic solution of extreme situations thus offers the preservation and promotion of what belongs to human identity and dignity: a free relationship to situations and to one's own life in the name of responsibility towards meaning and being; in intrinsically selected and defended values man experimentally codifies his free differentiated attitude to situations and his responsibly integrated approach to being.

Being, meaning, value, life, situation – to a man oriented on being all these concepts have their full meaning and an order of their mutual creative tension stemming from being, resembling the tension of a cascade of lively streams, flowing gradually from the heights of being down to the levelling-off breadth of all situations. A keen sense of order of this ontological streaming constitutes a condition for man's full endorsement of his own being.

On the contrary, a situational solution of extreme situations tacitly presupposes that this order is completely converse. Ontological dominance has been ascribed to situation. To maintain such an idea being must never be allowed into play – its concept is simply utilized for the denotation of a mere summary of all situations. In this way, situation grows to be a supreme power. Whereas being – as an infinitely profound source of everything there is – constantly provides something, situation – as an infinitely broad context of everything – incessantly consumes something. Sucked into its whirlpool, man loses himself and his sense of the whole ontological order: he subordinates his life to the requirements of situation – and he subordinates to life, thus degenerated to a mere struggle for survival and prosperity, his values; „meaning“ (if it is at all mentioned) is reduced to a mere expression for satisfaction derived from the practicability of chosen values. The fullness of human being is then ascribed to the full development of one's abilities to adapt oneself to any situation and to succeed in deriving profit for oneself. This adaptability may – as need be – figure even as „responsibility“ – and power, attained through adaptability and situationally conditioned, may then be glorified as „freedom“.

Conflict between a situation-dominated and being-serving man is virtually inevitable. It can develop into extreme situation for both (their vitally important values contradict each other). Outwardly, the latter is usually the loser, sometimes to the point of the violent liquidation of his physical existence. But the main support of his human, ie. spiritually conditioned, existence can never be taken away from him through any situation whatsoever.

On the other hand, such a confrontation with the second from the two elementary life options may call forth, in the very depth of the soul of the situation winner, an unexpected feeling of guilt: a sudden pang of conscience that he is, after all, acting against being, against meaning, against values, which – independently of the situation – he would probably endorse as his own, a realization that he is, indeed, acting against himself. This sense of betrayal or defection from being – which invariably arrives as soon as the individual realizes that he has himself threatened a value which, at the bottom of his heart, is meaningful for him – at the same time paves the way for re-establishing his attitude to being.

If, however, such a man remains absolutely consistent in his situational life orientation, this orientation may result in his genuinely exceptional external prosperity, but also in his inward mortification, extinction of what is intrinsically most specific to him as a human being – his creative spiritual existence, which offers him, through an inner attachment to meaningful values, a fabulous privilege among all other entities: a free attitude to situations and a responsible relationship with being.

No external situation probably provides reliable breeding-ground for what makes man human; each attempt at striking root in the presupposed universality of outward situatedness (in the desire to master situations by incorporating oneself into them, to prosper under any circumstances) inevitably leads (on the contrary) to human independence being swallowed up and disintegrated by the relativity of this situatedness. In it man – callous, devoid of inner support from meaning and being, captive, and irresponsible – is dissolved and disintegrated into a building material of purely external (biological, economic, social, psychological, and ideological) factors of his life. He loses his self.

At the opposite end of the scale, human partiality rooted in being (without ambitions towards universal situational profit and power) receives life-giving fulfilment just like human partiality: it receives – free and responsible – an absolute life dimension.

A man who is inwardly happy thanks to this fulfilment is capable of meaningfully coping even with an immense situational suffering. A man who is „happy“ only outwardly, as a result of a favour granted by situation and for the purpose of situational appearances, is at the same time quite helplessly exposed to a hidden innermost suffering, before which he can either ignominiously flee in search of external distraction or to admit to himself, frankly and meekly, the intrinsically significant meaning of such a suffering, which challenges man to mend his ways.

But whatever the vitally important values this or that human individual has chosen so far, according to this or that criteria, in each situation involving their threat – in each extreme situation – he is offered a new basic opportunity in life: once again he finds himself at the crucial crossroads betwen being and situation, between the preservation and loss of one's human identity, between being and non-being. An extreme situation may even be directly outlined also as a situation in which the question whether to be or not to be is highlighted to man with extreme urgency.

Man more is if he chooses and defends his vitally important values primarily according to their meaning, that is in accordance with being.

Man more is not if he chooses and defends these values primarily according to their practicability, that is in accordance with situation.

If a human individual goes out of his way to avoid extreme situations – which is possible only through an unconditional adjustment to any situation – then he rejects his specifically human being.

If, on the contrary, he tries to accept any situation in freedom and responsibility – which is possible solely in unqualified loyalty to being – then his human being develops towards its specific fullness.

6. Love

Being is love. This is the only reason why something exists. Being gives itself (everything a loving subject can give) to everything there is from that moment on.

We learn that being is love insomuch as we ourselves are. To be really fully means to find oneself in the streaming of this original love. To know that if I am I am loved and if I am loved I can love.

To love, that is to join being in its creative and salutary self-giving: to support being in everything that is. To support being independently of any situation, just for its own sake.

To be fully therefore means to love intrinsically. The choice and defence of meaningful values in free and responsible harmony with being, under any situation whatsoever, actually represent a specifically human mode of upholding the order of ontological love. Its endorsement contains the main key for tackling extreme situations.

In actual fact, situation constitutes a certain sum-total of the external impacts of entities on the entity which is conditionally singled out as the „hub“ of the situation. The centre of „my“ partial situation is „myself“; in relation to the given situation I assert my own identity, independence and integrity. An extreme situation is a situation in which I have only a minimal or zero possibility of continued assertion of my identity, a situation in which I stand on the brink of my own (primarily internal) extinction – if I remain to be the absolute centre of this situation: if – in my destructive and situation-targeted self-love – I remain shut off from that inward-filling, liberating, absolutely purposeful streaming of love-being.

A key point for finding a way out of an extreme situation is to centre it towards being. To refer it to this hidden centre of all situations of all entities, each separately and also in their entirety; to pass it on to what secretly shares situation with each individual entity and supports its identity and independence in the absolute empathy and justice of love.

The order of love then highlights, in a totally different light, what had supremely endangered us: loss of property, social status, health etc. will open up for us access to a deeper understanding and endorsement of personal values; out of our love for a close friend or relative we will view his death as his liberation and as our commitment towards his spiritual heritage; loss of external freedoms is conducive to an awakening of our inner life; an act of betrayal by a friend will strengthen our capacity to be faithful; uncertainty concerning values as well as doubts and a sense of absurdity will sometimes result in understanding the general possibility to love.

If a man renders being itself the centre of his situation, he simultaneously gives himself to it – he is no longer firmly fixed merely in his situational identity – and at the same time finds himself identical in his anchorage in love, capable of responsibly sharing as his own also situations other than his own and ready freely to abide by the meaning-providing order of being, common to him and all other entities. He loves, and thus independently of his own situation he finds and supports in everything and especially in other people their own being, their love. (Kliment Maria Hofbauer, a Viennese priest, once asked a stranger for help for people who found themselves in need. The man attacked him verbally and spat into his face. The priest quietly took out his handkerchief, wiped his face and said: „That was meant for myself. And now, please, give something to my poor.“ The astounded man emptied the contents of his walet into the priest's hat.)

On many occasions we can spot this possibility to love – the possibility to support being in everything there is – but fully open ourselves to it often as late as under extreme situations – when we usually have „nothing that is our own“ to lose. Yet this possibility as such remains available to us at any time. It does not offer itself as the possibility of definitely safeguarding our own selves against extreme situations (a goal a situationally oriented individual strives to attain in vain) but on the contrary – as the possibility of free innermost exposure to extreme situations in the name of the meaningful order of being.

By attaching himself to being, a human individual, therefore, is not rid of extreme situations – on the contrary, such an orientation may sometimes be an overriding cause of their emergence (Jesus, Socrates and others) – but he is deprived of a far more dangerous factor – inner fascination with them. Extreme situations lose their power over him, something greater matters to him more than such situations.

Extreme situations constitute a constantly feasible component of the existence of each being (Cf. under l), they cannot be essentially avoided. It is, therefore, crucial to be ready for them beforehand: using wisdom, hope and courage (Cf. under 3), one should be trained to understand them beforehand as something which stimulates us to the greatest extent towards creative acceptance and endorsement of being. That is why extreme situations may sometimes be even sought out as a demanding yet most straightforward path to a more profound integration with being. A gradual active process of exposing oneself to very harsh living conditions (ascetism) and a gradual active process of casting doubts on all value-related supports, mere „signposts“ of human life, practised in the name of what is their ultimate objective (mysticism), lead to the gradual increase of independence of situational context of life. Man is (without adding anything) and this „is“ operates through him as active love more powerful than death, than blind thirst for life. Man is then received, permeated and carried by being, for which he has opted and which he serves without any reservations whatsoever. Viewed in this perspective, extreme situations are incorporated into life as a dynamising element of the hidden process of the growth towards the fulness of being. If this growth implicitely matters most in each human life, the endorsement of the „imperative“ and order of love may be the paradigm of an optimally humanly possible (even though in its possible perfection commonly unattainable) attitude to extreme situations.

In conclusion

It has been shown that if we pose – despite shocking impressions – quite consistently the question as to the truth concerning extreme situations, we will basically come to the conclusion that extreme situation is, in fact, a demanding and significant lesson in our „art of being“. In it, a situation of deepest crisis, the question invariably arises – always uniquely, always seen from a certain inimitable angle – as to the ultimate perspective of human life, its overall value and meaning, its absolute relational constant. In a situation of downfall man seeks his own self against the background of a higher meaning, which would enable him not only to cope with the threat but also to encourage further growth.

The fuller, more general – more absolute, more universal – the cherished meaning, the more magnanimously and truthfully can man accept his situation and the more creatively can he cope with it. Short-sighted solutions, fixed solely on the relative and partial, purely functional contexts of human life, make it impossible to promote fully all human relational potentialities, which extreme situation tends to stimulate, and thus sometimes condemn man to lifelong spiritual invalidity, intrinsic lack of fulfilment, to languishing in an entire inner dependence on what actually lies beneath his ontological level.

Seen against this background, the impact of human relationship with the endangered man is not without its significance either. In the main text of this study, it has been a deliberate intention to abstract from this issue because in an extreme situation man always remains essentially isolated. Furthermore, man's absolute orientation may be mediated by a second person only to a certain extent.

Naturally, a man in jeopardy may be given situational support: economic, social, medical, psychological, ideological. This support should, however, not obliterate, suppress or replace intrinsic, spiritual assistance. The latter, unlike the related psychological and ideological help, consists neither in the slightest mental manipulation nor in the presentation of ready-made „absolute truths“ but in mere co-being. I am with the fellow man in his situation so that he too could be in this situation. Jointly we therefore open the possibilities of being in the given situation.

As far as this love-filled support for the identity and independence of another man is concerned, the first task is to overcome in him distrust in the existence of an ontological context deeper than the situational one (if such distrust ever occurs). Such distrust often arises as a result of previous experiences of interhuman relations as situationally connected. Proceeding from such a basis, an analogically distorted self-conception arises. On the contrary, spiritual co-being as a supra-situational human elationship (persisting in any situation) offers to man under threat a pacifying key experience, a reliable gateway towards supra-situatedness in general. Within its principal context, he is more or less himself able to understand and save the endangered identity and independence against the destructive powers of situation. (Enjoying freedom towards situations and responsibility towards being, he is capable of selecting and upholding meaningful values.)

This intrinsic help to an individual who has found himself in an extreme situation should always predominate over situational support. Mere situational help conceals the danger of one-sided promotion of what is nonetheless a situational context, which – under the impact of such helps – may pose a definitely vicious circle to thus afflicted a man. Overemphasis on the situationally functional viewpoint (sometimes forced on another in good faith) poses the danger of exacerbating an extreme situation, which can really be overcome solely „from inside out“ – through the preservation and promotion of the individual's intrinsic identity.

Intense situational support without supra-situational co-being likewise tends to plunge the endangered man into a situational dependence on the individual providing help, whereby the former seems to cease living his own life and awaits, well beneath his dignity and in a fairly escapist manner, what his relatives, authorities or psychiatrists „are going to do with him“. On the other hand, co-being reverts man to himself, to his own being. It revives in him his intrinsic ability to enjoy free loneliness, contemplation, independent quest, and at the same time provides him with the supra-situationally anchored possibility of responsible togetherness, dialogue, joint creation.

In short, it teaches him how to „associate“ with being:to accept it in oneself and support it in others. At the same time, this is the most efficient method of prevention both against succumbing to extreme situations and against creating unnesessary extreme situations in any dimension (Cf. Introductory Notes). It is likewise the only point of departure towards such a process of changing human situations which would transpire without any unpredicted threatening impacts, in the genuine interest of all people – because conducted in profound harmony with being.

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