Victor Tan Chen: On Frankl — the last freedom — most fundamental freedom of all — the freedom “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

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http://inthefray.org/joomla/content/view/1474/39

http://inthefray.org/joomla/content/view/1475/39

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For a while now I’ve been meaning to mention some books that have been on my mind and on my bookshelves — some newly published, most quite old. The problem is that with any good book, there are a hundred different things to talk about, and I never have the patience to write a comprehensive review. Capsule reviews, on the other hand, don’t give you a chance to say much of interest. So I’m going to limit myself to some random thoughts about random books, with the hope that whatever I say piques your interest enough to read the full work. (It goes without saying that I’ll only mention books worth reading. It’s hard enough for most people to pick up a book, so why waste your time on a mediocre one?)

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Today I’ll discuss a book by book by Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, which was first published in 1959. It is perhaps the most accessible book by a psychiatrist you will ever read. The first part tells the story of Frankl’s experiences as a prisoner of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The second part outlines the tenets of logotherapy, an approach to psychotherapy that maintains that what drives human beings is not the search for pleasure or power, but rather meaning — however the individual defines it.

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What Frankl does in his relatively short book can only be called ambitious — who else would dare to have subject headings like “The Meaning of Life” and “The Essence of Existence”? Yet, unlike so many self-help gurus and modern-day philosophizers, Frankl manages to rise above caricature. One reason, of course, is the iconic horror of what he and others experienced in Auschwitz, Dachau, and other Nazi-run camps. Frankl’s autobiography is the grim foreground of the book’s first part and the essential background of its second, offering us a rare glimpse of humanity at its worst and best. When Frankl speaks of the meaning of life, we know his words to be credible, the testament of a man who survived life at its cruelest and salvaged meaning from its most nihilistic depths.

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But this is not just a Holocaust story. What I found to be most valuable in Frankl’s book is its insistence that the lessons of Auschwitz apply in any situation, in any individual’s life. Fate, in fact, matters little. What matters is how human beings respond to it. Can we find meaning in our suffering, regardless of how arbitrary and maddening it may seem? Do we bear the inevitable misfortunes that befall us — all of us, eventually — with grace and dignity? Indeed, many of us are blessed with liberties and comforts unknown to the camp prisoner, and yet we still show an inability to make use of the most fundamental freedom of all — the freedom “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

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This is not to say that all of Frankl’s fellow prisoners (or even Frankl himself, as he suggests in the book) chose virtuously in the concentration camp. The majority did not. There were many, in fact, who allowed the brutality of the conditions there to eviscerate their humanity. These men were selected to be Capos — prisoners with special privileges — and as Nazi stooges they treated their fellow prisoners more cruelly than the guards themselves, Frankl points out. Likewise, among the guards there were many who perversely enjoyed their work of torture and killing, and yet there were also a few who showed unexpected kindness to their prisoners. It seems the same choice was posed even to them, the captors: Would they allow the baseness of their surroundings to destroy them? “It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing,” Frankl writes.

Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp’s influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible. Obviously the prisoners found the lack of character in such men especially upsetting, while they were profoundly moved by the smallest kindness received from any of the guards. I remember one day a foreman secretly gave me a piece of bread which I knew he must have saved from his breakfast ration. It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at that time. It was the human “something” which this man also gave to me — the word and look which accompanied the gift.

Frankl here shows a remarkable ability to empathize even with his Nazi captors, and in doing so he demonstrates the fundamental truth of his teaching: the ability of every individual to reject the corruption and the blindness of hate and to see the world as it is, without illusion, without cynicism.

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Here below is about what meaning Frankl’s book has for a modern culture obsessed with avoiding suffering.

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I wrote about Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning and its message that human beings could choose their way in life, in spite of any hardships. The philosophy can be summed up in a few words from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that Frankl quotes repeatedly: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” This why can come from various sources, and it does not stay the same over the course of a lifetime; its origin, Frankl says, “differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.”

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Frankl discusses three different ways that individuals go about discovering meaning in their lives.

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The first is by “creating a work or doing a deed.” This is usually what we think about when we hear someone talking about finding “meaning” in their life. Through creative work we lose ourselves in a greater principle or cause.

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The second is more passive, a matter of “experiencing something or encountering someone” — in a word, enjoyment. This may mean contemplating the beauty of nature, or savoring the intricacies of culture, or simply loving another human being. In one of his more eloquent passages, Frankl describes love as a way of becoming aware of the “very essence” of another person, of understanding “what he can be and … what he should become,” and by doing so helping the loved one to reach his potential.
A few of us will be able to find meaning in our lives through the utilization of unique and valued talents. Some may find meaning in experiences of love, or encounters with the beauty that surrounds us. But for others there will not be those consolations. For many, even the blessings of achievement and love will be fleeting, forgotten or lost with the passage of years.

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But the third path is open to all. It was the one alternative left to many of those trapped, along with Frankl, within the automaton existence of the concentration camp. Some of these prisoners had once been learned, wealthy individuals with power and prestige, others had known the love of partners and children, but in the nakedness and poverty of camp life even these seemingly intangible possessions had been stripped from them — for many, irrevocably so. What remained to these men and women was a choice. Would they give into the humiliation and terror that enveloped them, or would they choose to show courage, dignity, and compassion in spite of their surroundings?

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worth of his sufferings or not.

 

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This ability to conquer suffering should not be confused with masochism, Frankl emphasizes: Avoidable suffering should always be avoided.

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But especially in today’s more affluent, technologically sophisticated societies, there is a tendency to delude ourselves into thinking that all suffering can be avoided, and that any kind of suffering is meaningless.

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Frankl’s experience in the concentration camps is testimony to the contrary. “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering,” Frankl observes. “Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”

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The problem is that we see suffering as destruction, a pathway to that most absolute destruction of all, death. Suffering closes off our possibilities; it degrades our most important possessions of mind and body; it saps away our potential for future life, future achievement.

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For a similar reason we fear old age, that most gradual form of suffering that all of us must endure. In a society in love with youthfulness, suffering and old age inspire dread not only for the difficulties they present, but also for the shame they burden us with — the shame of no longer being useful, of being contrary to the universal order of happiness.

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Yet Frankl reminds us how foolish those fears are.

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The suffering that awaits us can be ennobling.

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To bear it with dignity can be our life’s greatest achievement.

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Why envy the youthful, then? The promises of their future potential are mere shadows, while the joys of a moment well-lived remain with us to our ends.

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“Usually, to be sure, man considers only the stubble field of transitoriness and overlooks the full granaries of the past, wherein he had salvaged once and for all his deeds, his joys and also his sufferings,” Frankl writes. *

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Nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with. I should say having been is the surest kind of being.”

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When the future is lost to us, the meaning of our lives may only then become clear. Frankl tells us the story of a young woman he met in the camps, a woman who knew she would die in the next few days.

… when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.’”

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2013/02/23/radical-commitment-and-nothing-less-makes-a-marriage-thrive-sage-steven-kalas/

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/by-putting-aside-our-selfish-interests-to-serve-someone-or-something-larger-than-ourselves-by-devoting-our-lives-to-giving-rather-than-taking/

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/greatest-sage-viktor-frankl-what-is-to-give-light-must-endure-burning/

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http://ilovelovelovehumans.blogspot.com/2011/11/mans-search-for-meaning.html#!/2011/11/mans-search-for-meaning.html

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man’s search for meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning
An Introduction to Logotherapy
Viktor E. Frankl
 
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” –Nietzsche
 
Basic Concept of Logotherapy
            Striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.
 
The Will to Meaning
            There are some authors who contend that meanings and values are “nothing but defense mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations.” But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my “defense mechanisms,” nor would I be ready to die merely for my “reaction formations.” Man, however, is able to live and even die for the sake of his ideals and values. Man needs “something” for the sake of which to live. The will to meaning is in most people fact, not faith.
            Man is never driven to moral behaviour; in each instance, he decides to behave morally. Man does not do so in order to satisfy a moral drive and to have a good conscience. Man does not behave morally for the sake of having a good conscience but for the sake of a cause to which he commits himself, or for a person whom he loves, or for the sake of his God. The meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected.
 
The Existential Vacuum
            Existential vacuum may be due to a two-fold loss which man had to undergo since he became a truly human being. At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behaviour is embedded and by which it is secured. In addition to this, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behaviour are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; soon he will not know what he wants to do. More and more he will be governed by what others want him to do, thus increasingly falling prey to conformism.
            This existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. Schopenhauer once said that mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between two extremes of distress and boredom.
 
 
The Meaning of Life
            The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion, “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There is simply no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor his life can be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.
            Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
 
The Essence of Existence
            The categorical imperative of Logotherapy is: “So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you have acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
            The true meaning of life is to be found in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. By the same token, the real aim of human existence cannot be found in what is called self-actualization. Human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization. Self-actualization is not a possible aim at all; for the simple reason that the more a man would strive for it, the more he would miss it. For only to the extent to which man commits himself to the fulfilment of his life’s meaning, to this extent he also actualizes himself. In other words, self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.
            The meaning of life always changes, but it never ceases to be. We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by doing a deed, (2) by experiencing a value, (3) by suffering.
 
The Meaning of Love
            Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him.
 
The Meaning of Suffering
            Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.
            Edith Weisskopf-Joelson, professor of psychology at Purdue University, contends in her article on Logotherapy:“Our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.”
 
The Supra-meaning
            What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life; but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.
 
Life’s Transitoriness
            The only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualized, they are rendered realities at that very moment; they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved from transitoriness. For, in the past, nothing is irrecoverably lost but everything irrevocably stored. Nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with. Having been is the surest kind of being.
 
Logotherapy as a Technique
            Paradoxical intention is a technique in Logotherapy wherein one is invited to intend, even if only for a moment, precisely that which he fears. This approach is based on the two-fold fact that fear makes come true that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes. In other words, as the sayings go, “the wish is farther to the thought” and “the fear is mother of the event.”
 
The Collective Neurosis
            Nihilism is the contention that being has no meaning. There is a danger inherent in this teaching of man’s “nothingbutness,”the theory that man is nothing but the result of biological, psychological and sociological conditions, or the product of heredity and environment. Such a view of man makes him into a robot, not a human being. This neurotic fatalism is fostered and strengthened by a psychotherapy which denies that man is free.    
            To be sure, a human being is a finite thing, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.
 
Critique of Pan-determinism
            Pan-determinism is the view of man which disregards his capacity to take a stand toward any conditions whatsoever. Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exists but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.
            By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. Therefore, we can predict his future only within the large frame of a statistical survey referring to a whole group; the individual personality, however, remains essentially unpredictable. The basis for any predictions would be represented by biological, psychological or sociological conditions. Yet one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions and transcend them. In the same manner, man ultimately transcends himself; a human being is a self-transcending being.
            How can you dare to predict the behaviour of man! You may predict the movements of a machine, of an automaton; more than this, you may even try to predict the mechanisms or dynamisms of the human psyche as well. But man is more than psyche.
 
The Psychiatric Credo
            An incurably psychotic individual may lose his usefulness but yet retain the dignity of a human being. This is my psychiatric credo. Without it I should not think it is worthwhile to be a psychiatrist. For whose sake? Just for the sake of the damaged brain machine which cannot be repaired? If the patient were not definitely more, euthanasia would be justified.
 
Psychiatry Re-humanized
            A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment – he has made out of himself. Man has within himself any potentialities to behave in any way; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.
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4 Responses to Victor Tan Chen: On Frankl — the last freedom — most fundamental freedom of all — the freedom “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

  1. Pingback: Ethan Remmel: One of the most helpful things I’ve read since I got sick is Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps in World War II. He experienced and o

  2. Pingback: Ethan Remmel: One of the most helpful things I’ve read since I got sick is Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps in World War II. He experienced and o

  3. Pingback: Ethan Remmel: One of the most helpful things I’ve read since I got sick is Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps in World War II. He experienced and o

  4. Pingback: Ethan Remmel: One of the most helpful things I’ve read since I got sick is Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps in World War II. He experienced and o

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