Michael Hogan is the author of the new book Living Is No Laughing Matter: A Primer on Existential Optimism. His many other books include Abraham Lincoln and Mexico. He lives in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new book?
A: I had been working on a book about existentialism for several years. It was inspired by my work in the prisons back in the ‘80s. I was trying to figure out a way in which a prisoner could accept the finality of a life sentence and yet still live a meaningful life.
It seemed to me that existentialists missed an important factor. If life was essentially meaningless in the grand scheme of things (which seemed likely), why should there be any reason to hope? In 1990 I received a commission to teach in Mexico and more or less abandoned the manuscript but not the idea.
When I shared it with colleagues and friends in Mexico, one Jewish friend advised me to look at the works of Viktor Frankl and Bruno Bettelheim, concentration camp survivors who appeared to find the solution: creating meaning and therefore authentic significance.
This led me to the idea of existential optimism. Giving one’s life purpose by one’s actions seemed to be the key to transcending the external circumstances. As Frankl said, “No matter the what in your life; it can be surpassed if there is a why.”
Q: You dedicated this book to your late son Gary. What impact did write the book have on you?
A: For the most part my work on existential optimism, finding not only purpose in life but a way, through that discovery, to overcome grief, and depression, was totally theoretical. The death of my son changed all that. Now I had to discover for myself, whether those ideas were, as William James, would say: pragmatic. Did they really work?
In the process of putting them on paper combined with my experiential loss, I found great comfort.
Q: Did you need to do any research to write the book, and if so, did you learn anything especially surprising?
A: Well, yes. I discovered comfort was not quite enough. I did not want to simply live a stoical life of acceptance. I wanted a life of transcendence. So I began reading poetry, especially hoping for what T.S. Eliot called “the intersection of the timeless with time, the music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all but you are the music while the music lasts.”
I probably did not know at the time what I was looking for in poetry exactly, but once I found it, I knew. And it was just like one of those drawing puzzles in which they ask you to see if you can find the woman’s face in the tree. And you search and search and when you finally do, then you cannot ever unsee that face.
For me, it was the epiphanies in poetry that drew me in, and through them I discovered that several poets both traditional and contemporary had discovered a place where, to quote Wordsworth, they entered into a silence so deep they “fell asleep in body and become a living soul. It was my ah-ha moment.
Then my research branched out and I looked about other problems besides loss of a child, or that of dear companion, or sudden change in life circumstances, terminal illness, homelessness, incarceration, alcohol, and drug addiction.
Could this eclectic mixture of philosophy, psychology, poetry, and life experience be a medicine chest of holistic healing for those caught up in the tangled webs of brutal circumstance as well? If so, there might be a book which would be useful to others.
Q: The book ends with a postscript about the impact of the COVID pandemic. What do you hope readers take away from your book at such a difficult time?
A: One of the things that all these debilitating life circumstances mentioned above have in common is the feeling of being trapped, of being isolated, of having lost the connection to what is most meaningful in one’s life.
In the case of the COVID pandemic, the absence of physical contact with friends, the loss for many of meaningful work, the challenges and importance of daily interaction mirror many of the other life circumstances mentioned above.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a collection of my own poetry which is complete, entitled Refusing to Be Ghosts. Also am working with an Irish colleague who is involved with Syrian refugees. We are doing podcasts which address some of the problems associated with global warming and unbridled capitalism, not the least of which are wars, loss of sustainable resources, and massive migration.
Finally, I am active in the North American Project, which is a site dedicated to strengthening cultural relationships between the U.S. and Mexico: https://search.yahoo.com/search?fr=mcafee&type=E211US739G0&p=north+american+project.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: For reasons unknown to me, perhaps because my site was hacked too many times, I have been banned on Facebook since July. This has had a deleterious effect not only in my personal communications with friends, colleagues, children, and grandchildren, but also through my book sites, which were my main source of income.
I hope that those who would like to get in touch with
me or read my books would go to either my site, http://www.drmichaelhogan.com, or this Amazon author link: https://www.amazon.com/Michael-Hogan/e/B002KXOURE%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share.
Thanks so much for sharing my work with your friends,
colleague and fans, Deborah. I am ordering copies of your young reader’s
book John Adams & the Magic Bobblehead for my granddaughters and my great
grandson (now 7) for Christmas. It will make a great gift!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Michael Hogan.