Genrich L. Krasko
VIKTOR FRANKL: THE PROPHET OF MEANING*
For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.
Viktor E. Frankl, “The Unheard Cry for Meaning”
26 March 2005 Viktor Frankl – one of the greatest minds of the 20th century: the psychiatrist, psychologist and philosopher – would be 100 years old. The life of Viktor Frankl was not a usual life. He lived three lives in one. And the three of them were extraordinary and astounding.
A humble medical student in the late 20th, a disciple of first Sigmund Freud, and then Alfred Adler, Viktor Frankl eventually challenged their authoritarianism and was expelled from both schools.
The originality and deep humanism of his thinking had enabled him to develop his own approach to human soul: he became founder of the so-called Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy. Thrown into a Nazi death camp in 1942, he, by his spiritual strength and his will to life, had managed to survive and thus became a living proof of the main thesis of his philosophy: one can live only for so long as one’s life has a meaning.
Numerous books written by Viktor Frankl after the liberation where he formulated and discussed the logotherapy – his new approach to psychotherapy – were translated into dozens of languages and sold throughout the world in millions of copies.
To be a prophet – to tell people the truth they would not like to hear – is a difficult job. And yet, throughout the history of humankind, both ancient, and more recent times had its own prophets. At the dawn of our civilization, the Biblical Prophets, humble but rugged, dared to challenge both kings and the mob. Too often they were stoned. Today we do not stone the prophets: we simply do not listen to them. Besides, there were so many pseudo-prophets in the Earth’s history: how does one know that this one is real?
The truth is that there is no way to know. The Biblical times have gone, and we do not believe that today’s prophets are God’s messengers. Perhaps they are not. Perhaps they are just the people who see beyond the easily seen, and understand beyond the easily understandable. And they do tell truth we do not like to hear.
Viktor Frankl did not consider himself a prophet. But how else but prophetic would one call Frankl’s greatest accomplishment: over 50 years ago he identified the societal sickness that already then was haunting the world, and now has become pandemic?
This “sickness” is the loss of meaning in people’s lives. In one of his books (MSUM, p.94. Abbreviations to references of Viktor Frankl’s books are listed at the end of the essay.), Frankl writes:
Unlike an animal, man is no longer told by drives and instincts what he must do. And in contrast to man in former times, he is no longer told by traditions and values what he should do. Now, knowing neither what he must do nor what he should do, he sometimes does not even know what he basically wishes to do. Instead, he wishes to do what other people do… or he does what other people wish him to do…
In this situation when people “loose ground” the old liberal social philosophies also fail. The bitter truth, says Frankl (UCM, p. 21), is that (italics by Frankl)
For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.
In another book (PAE, p.122) Frankl notes:
What threatens contemporary man is the alleged meaningfulness of his life, or, as I call it, the existential vacuum within him. And when does this vacuum open up, when does this so often latent vacuum become manifest? In the state of boredom.
Boredom is the main symptom of this illness. To see if society is sick one has just to observe how deeply boredom – in its many forms and manifestations – overflows peoplesí lives. Sometimes it becomes unbearable, and then its companions: addiction, depression and aggression, become the threat not only to the individual but also to society as a whole.
Just a glimpse of the state of boredom among Americans – a significant segment of American society – does not leave any doubts that the crisis of meaning has overwhelmed this great nation.
Robert Kaplan (1994), a noted American journalist gives a vivid picture of the existential vacuum that has engulfed America:
When voter turnout decreases to around 50 percent at the same time the middle class is spending astounding sums in gambling casinos and state lotteries, joining private health clubs and using large amounts of stimulants and anti-depressants, one can legitimately be concerned about the state of American society. We have become voyeurs and escapists. Many of us don’t play sports but love watching great athletes with great physical attributes. It is because people find so little in themselves that they fill their world with celebrities. The masses avoid important national and international news because much of it is tragic, even as they show an unlimited appetite for the details of Princess Diana’s death.
An important symptom of the sickness – and it can be observed not only in America – is the willingness to give up self and responsibility, which Robert Kaplan even sees as a ìsine qua non for tyranny.î
Perhaps tyranny is not something that threatens America today. However, the most serious problems in America, that haunt the nation, are direct consequences of that boredom triad.
ïAddiction to illicit drugs is one of the most pressing problems in America today. President George H. W. Bush, in 1989, called drugs ìthe gravest domestic threat facing our nation.î Later, President Clinton termed drugs as Americaís ìconstant curse.î The street cocaine market in the United States has been stable for years and totals over $35 billion a year. Approximately 1.5 to 2 million people is regular cocaine or crack cocaine users. Although, in percentages, the numbers of ethnic minority drug users are higher, the market itself — and that is what is important even if one only wants to stop the spread of drugs — is sustained mainly by whites, middle and upper-middle class whites.
America has spent and continues to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to stop the supply of illicit drugs. But it is the demand for drugs that makes the problem so serious. In fact, it is the problem. NaÔve attempts to curb the demand, like the Just Say No to Drugs! Campaign launched in 1986 by the then First Lady Nancy Reagan, have miserably failed.
Gambling – through numerous state-supported lotteries, and legal and semi-legal casinos spreading in America like mushrooms after rain – is pandemic. Other forms of addiction, among them the addiction to video and computer games (especially among children), and to the Internet, are also wide spread.
ïDepression has reached the proportion of an epidemic in America. Some 20 million people suffer from depression. It has been accepted as something unfortunate but ìnatural.î One in five children meets the government criteria for mental health help. And depression among children grows at an astonishing rate of 23% per year!
In 2001, three million American teenagers thought about committing suicide, and one million actually attempted it. According to medical authorities, in most cases the leading cause was depression.
The use of Prozac and other psychotropic drugs skyrockets. The pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly makes on Prozac over $1 billion annually. And no voices are heard even hinting on the possible existential causes of this epidemic.
ïAs for aggression, it finds its realization in proliferation of violence – both in the media (movies, TV, video and computer games) and real life. It is a general belief in this country that Hollywood deliberately engulfs America with violent movies. But it is, again, the problem of supply vs. demand.
Why do people like and want to watch this kind of movies and TV programs? The reason is exactly the same as that, which, two millennia ago made the Roman mobs pack the Coliseums where gladiator slaves killed each other, or were thrown to wild animals. This reason was and is boredom.
A powerful factor that also feeds aggression in America is the proliferation of firearms. It is now threatening normal life in our cities and towns. In my view, the desire to “bear arms” is not so much a result of Americans’ deep-laying mistrust of government as a potentially oppressive institution, but as a response to high level of the boredom-born aggression in American men – a vicious circle.
All segments of our society have been penetrated by the existential vacuum. Frankl also calls it “frustration of meaning.” This sickness, rooted in the meaning of one’s existence, is nearly universal: as the post-industrial revolution spreads worldwide, it infects affluent societies, welfare states, and even the poorest countries.
In America the crisis is exacerbated by the fact that our education does not help people to overcome the infection, but rather enhances its toll. Our younger generation is the victim who suffers most from the crisis. The use of illicit drugs by youths and juvenile crime are steadily on the rise in America today. Their cause is almost without exception the meaninglessness in the lives of our children.
In fact, the very foundations of the American philosophy of life have been threatened. The American Dream – the dream of affluence and success – does not seems to promise happiness anymore. Acquiring wealth and success does not add meaning to life: among the drug users there are more affluent than poor…
The quintessence of this devastating crisis has been expressed in a statement by International Network on Personal Meaning:
In modern society, several forces and trends are converging in creating a crying need for meaning and spirituality. Prosperity without a purpose leads to disillusion and emptiness. Progress without a spiritual direction results in confusion and uncertainty. A winner-take-all economy contributes to conflict and injustice. Violence, conflict, addiction, depression, and suicide reflect an existential crisis. The paradox of prosperity without happiness reflects an unfulfilled spiritual hunger. The intense competition of the new economy results in an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Frankl’s books have been published in dozens of languages. Only in the United States were they sold in the millions of copies. But in America today Frankl’s name is known only to a handful of professionals, and his ideas are either unknown or disregarded. They have not been given any serious discussion either on the level of government and policy making, or on the level of “us, the people,” the millions who suffer most from that sickness which Frankl diagnosed over half a century ago. And this is in a time when the sickness of meaninglessness has taken on the proportions and scope of an epidemic.
Why? Probably, because paving a way out of our crisis, the existential crisis, would require fundamental social reforms, a radical change in our educational philosophy and educational system in the first place, to which the numerous interest groups would not agree without a fierce struggle. On the other hand, the populist politics of our policy makers, on both sides of the aisle, prevents them from doing anything that “we, the people” would not like. And the therapy that would make the society healthy again may be painful…
A dozen of institutions throughout the world keep the flame of Viktor Frankl’s ideas alive. Among them, the “hub:” Viktor-Frankl-Institut in Vienna, Austria (http://www.logotherapy.univie.ac.at), Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy, Abilene, TX (www.logotherapyinstitute.org), and International Forum for Personal Meaning, BC, Canada (http://www.meaning.ca). Hundreds of dedicated women and men, most of them psychologists, are helping people to overcome the “existential vacuum” in their souls and return to fulfilling and meaningful lives. But their heroic efforts are not enough to quell this devastating crisis. Our society needs, and needs very badly, the honest discussion of the origin of this crisis of meaning, and the social conditions that are feeding it everyday, no matter how painful this discussion may be.
This essay is about Viktor Frankl—his life, his ideas and the legacy he has left.
“There is only one Vienna”
A common phrase in Vienna, c. 1781
In the second half of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was also a second cultural capital of Europe, second only to Paris. It was a cultural Mecca and a center of science.
It was also a powerful economic magnet, attracting numerous immigrants. Among the notable immigrants were composers Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler, the founder of Zionism Theodore Herzl, and the great Sigmund Freud.
The decline of the Empire, reaching its nadir after Austria’s defeat in World War I, was also the time of triumph and fame of the new school of psychiatry named psychoanalysis. In 1920, the 64-year-old Sigmund Freud was the dominant and most authoritative international figure on the scene of psychological science and psychiatry.
Vienna was boiling with multiple ideas, originating from the Freudian revolution in psychology. Not only the university campuses, but also numerous discussion clubs in schools were caught in this process of learning and discussion.
Passionately absorbed by this sea of ideas was a young teenage boy named Viktor Frankl. Just 15 in 1920, he still remembered how his family, immigrants from Moravia, was on the edge of starvation, begging for food at the farmers’ market. The Frankls could not afford an expensive private school for their son, but in a Volkshochschule (free public school, attended mostly by children of poor people), Viktor was an active speaker in youth and discussion clubs. He writes in his autobiography (RCL): “More and more my speech exercises and school papers became treatises on psychoanalysis. More and more I supplied my schoolmates with information in this field.” This was right after Freud had published his epochal work “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” It was on everybody’s tongue…
“I was still in high school” – recalls Frankl -” when the wish of my early childhood to become a physician became focused, under the influence of psychoanalysis, on becoming a psychiatrist.” Actually, when the time of decision came, Frankl for a while “toyed with the idea to turn to dermatology or obstetrics.”
Frankl recalls that the final decision – to become a psychiatrist – came after a friend of his, in their argument about the future, quoted from Kierkegaard: “don’t despair at wanting to become your authentic self.”
A few years later, as a university medical student, Viktor Frankl was a witness and participant of the battle of the psychiatrists in the atmosphere that “made Vienna a city of couches as much as a city of dreams.”(W. B. Gould, “Frankl: Life With Meaning.”)
Ideologically, psychiatry was not an untroubled and peaceful kingdom. In 1912 Freud expelled from his inner circle – and, as a matter of fact, from his kingdom altogether- his most talented follower, Alfred Adler. Adler later became the founder of the so-called “The Second Viennese School of Psychotherapy” (the “First” was the Freudian school).
As a medical student, Frankl began to correspond with Sigmund Freud. “I sent him material which I came across in my extensive interdisciplinary readings and which I assumed might be of interest to him. Every letter was promptly answered by him”(RCL). As a matter of fact, Freud personally presented Frankl’s paper of 1924 – his second scientific paper – to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis.
In spite of the fact that Frankl’s psychoanalysis professors were two exceptional followers of Freud, the young medical student began to drift away from the “canonical” Freudism. He felt that Freud’s “Pleasure Principle” was lacking a human dimension, and began developing his own theories that contradicted Freud’s Principle. He also felt that the whole Freudian philosophy was somewhat nihilistic. This feeling brought him into the Adlerian camp.
Unlike Freud, Adler saw an individual’s freedom of choice as a fundamental factor in the decision-making process. This idea became a starting point, and, in fact, a cornerstone in Frankl’s own theories. Ironically enough, history repeated itself: Having been expelled by Freud 14 years before, Adler insisted on Frankl’s leaving his circle after the latter openly supported the dissenting view of two of Adler’s followers.
After graduating from the university, Viktor Frankl became a practicing psychiatrist. He passionately wanted to help people. Apart from taking patients, he was spending a lot of time giving lectures and counseling. Since 1927 he had been teaching a weekly class at the adult education school. For many years – until the dreadful day when Frankl, together with his family and thousands of Viennese Jews, was deported to a death camp – he worked at clinics for the poor.
Seeing hundreds of patients, watching the symptoms and development of neuroses, his new approach had crystallized. He even suggested a method of treating some neuroses, the so-called “no–genic neuroses,” the ones to do with frustration of man’s spirit (no–s). Psychoanalysis gave way to a Meaning Analysis.
This approach, by 1929, grew into the whole philosophy that revolutionized both psychology as a science and psychiatry as a branch of medicine. Frankl named his new approach, logotherapy (logos is Greek for meaning) showing a new way of treating neuroses and, in fact, exposing the origin of the many ills of contemporary society.
In his autobiography Frankl writes: “…as a psychiatrist, or rather a psychotherapist, I see beyond the actual weaknesses… I can see beyond the misery of the situation, the possibility to discover a meaning behind it, and thus to turn an apparently meaningless life into a genuine human achievement. I am convinced that, in the final analysis, there is no situation, which does not contain the seed of meaning. To a great extent, this conviction is the basis of logotherapy’s subject and system.” (RCL; italics by Frankl).
Frankl’s school of thought was later named “The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.” In a nutshell, the difference among the three Viennese Schools of Psychotherapy is as follows: the Freudian and Adlerian psychologies are centered respectively on the “will to pleasure” and the “will to power.” Frankl argues that it is “the striving to find a meaning in life” that “is the primary motivational force in man” (PAE, p. 34). Moreover, Frankl claims that “Actually, ‘pleasure is not the goal of human striving but rather a by-product of the fulfillment of such striving; and ‘power’ is not an end but a means to an end. Thus, the ‘pleasure principle’ school mistakes a side effect for the goal, while the ‘will to power’ school mistakes a means for the end” (ibid.). However, society gets sick when the two latter “wills” take over: they bring society into a state of “existential vacuum.”
Here are the logotherapy‘s central affirmatives:
ïLife has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
ïOur main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
ïWe have freedom to find meaning in how we think, in what we do, in what we experience, and even when we are faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.
ïWe are mind, body and spirit. These dimensions of the self are interdependent. The key is the spirit. The spiritual core, and only the spiritual core, warrants and constitutes oneness and wholeness; it enables us to exercise our will to meaning, to envisage our goals, and to move beyond our instinctual and sexual needs to self-transcendence
But let us turn back. The year 1933. The Nazis had just taken over in Germany. But it was still quiet in Austria, although the Nazi party became more and more noisy… Vienna, Austria’s capital was still the capital of world psychology and psychiatry. The great Sigmund Freud was still a ruling emperor. But life had changed. Anti-Semitism was on the rise and the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria by Germany seemed imminent.
The world of ideas and aspirations together with all hopes for the future collapsed 12 March 1938, the day of Anschluss, when Nazi Germany invaded Austria. Two days later, Sigmund Freud’s apartment and his university offices were searched and his passport revoked. With great difficulty, and only after the interference of the international scientific community and the American President personally, was the 82-year-old and terminally ill Sigmund Freud allowed to leave Austria.
It was the collapse of Viktor Frankl’s world also. Since 1937 Frankl had had his own practice as a specialist in neurology and psychiatry, at the same time continuing to work in hospitals and youth counseling centers. Gradually he became renowned internationally. He was being invited to give lectures at international conferences throughout Europe.
However the future looked grim. Viktor was thinking of emigrating, but was hesitant. He hoped, that as a psychiatrist, he would be able to support his parents, his younger sister and brother and his fiancÈe. But, he also knew that in spite of his international standing, nobody would be able to defend them against possible Nazi persecution. Eventually he submitted an application for an immigration visa to the American embassy – a visa he was not destined to use.
That is how Victor Frankl recalls those dramatic events in his Autobiography. “I had to wait for years until my quota number came up that enabled me to get a visa to immigrate to the United States. Finally, shortly before Pearl Harbor, I was asked to come to the US consulate to pick up my visa. Then I hesitated: Should I leave my parents behind? I knew what their fate would be: deportation to a concentration camp. Should I say good-bye and leave them to their fate? The visa was exclusively for me”
When he came home that day he found his father in tears. “The Nazis have burned down the synagogue,” said the father and showed him a fragment of marble he had salvaged. That piece of marble had just one letter of the Ten Commandments engraved on it, the beginning of the commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Frankl called the American embassy and canceled his visa. “It may be that I had made my decision, deep within, long before, and the oracle was in reality only the echo of the voice of my conscience,” concludes Frankl.
As a part of the infamous “final solution” – complete extermination of the Jews from the face of the earth – the turn of the Austrian Jews came in 1942. Dr. Joseph Fabry, a most distinguished student and disciple of Viktor Frankl in the United States, and the translator of his Autobiography into English, writes: “The deportation of the Jews from Austria was no different from that from other countries, perhaps more severe because of the innate anti-Semitism of many Austrians. Up to 1942 the deportations were somewhat selective and exceptions were made for a certain class of Jews or individuals, such as doctors in the Jewish Hospital (Frankl), nurses there ([Frankl’s wife] Tilly), or people recruited to help clean up apartments of deported Jews (Tilly’s mother), and often their immediate families. From the Wansee Conference on (1942) where the “final solution” was decided, there were no more exceptions.”
The Frankl family was deported to the Theresienstadt camp in July 1942… Almost all the family perished: Frankl’s father died in Theresienstadt; his mother was gassed in Auschwitz; his wife Tilly died in Bergen-Belsen after she had been liberated by the British; his younger brother died in a branch camp of Auschwitz, working in a mine; only his sister survived the camps and later emigrated to Australia.
Frankl’s experience, as a death camp prisoner, was described in his first book written after the liberation. First published in 1946 in Vienna as “Ein Psycholog Erlebt das Konzentrationslager”, and later translated into many languages and sold in millions of copies. The English translation: Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning. (In this essay I reference the latest edition as MSM).
Today, after over half a century of that world tragedy, the holocaust, the tragedy that the human brain simply refuses to comprehend, thousands of accounts of people’s first encounter with the Nazi extermination machine are known. And yet, Viktor Frankl’s account is special. His is that of a scientist, a doctor, a soul healer: almost devoid of emotion but full of sober analysis and meaning.
The generation of Holocaust survivors is gradually leaving this earth, taking with them the agony of their memories. For us, who have never felt what it was to be jammed into a cattle car slowing down at an obscure place named “Auschwitz,” a semi-mad woman screaming: “Fire, I can see fire!” (Elie Wiesel, “Night”), there is only imagination. The gift of conscience that does not allow us to forget, that reminds us how fragile our civilization is and how thin is the layer of our humane culture. Frankl’s account is extremely important for us, who are distressed that that layer of humanity in our civilization is so thin. It is a source and a symbol of hope that we, the humans, can be superior beings, can challenge the animal in us, and thus win against all odds.
…The train, overloaded with humans about to lose their human identity in exchange for a tattooed number (if lucky enough not to turn into a burst of black smoke in the crematorium chimney); German shepherds and SS men with submachine-guns; the “selection”: those on the right will get their numbers and will live, and, at last, the real shower and striped “uniform,” whose previous owner does not exist any more… Frankl writes: “While we were waiting for the shower, our nakedness was brought home to us: we really had nothing except our bare bodies – even minus hair; all we possessed, literally was our naked existence. What else remained for us as a material link with our former lives? We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives” (MSM, pp. 33-34).
That is what Frankl writes in his autobiography: “I have never published what happened at the first selection at the Auschwitz train station. I have never published it, simply because I still am not sure whether I perhaps only imagined it. This was the situation: Dr. Mengele turned my shoulders not to the right, that is to the survivors, but to the left, to those destined for the gas chamber. Since I couldn’t make out anyone I knew who was sent left, but recognized a few young colleagues who were directed to the right, I walked behind Dr. Mengele’s back to the right. God knows where the idea came from and how I had the courage.” This episode has an almost mystical flavor: as if the MISSION Viktor Frankl was destined to fulfill had been secured and enforced.
Among the things that Frankl left behind, was the manuscript of his book on the foundations of logotherapy – his first book – hidden in the inner pocket of his coat, of all the material things the dearest to him. During the endless two and a half years of his imprisonment, page-by-page, chapter-by-chapter, he reconstructed his book in his memory. The book: Ÿrztlische Seelsorge (The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy) – I reference it as DAS – was published after the war, translated into nine languages and in 57 editions.
In the Introduction to the book Frankl writes: “Life is a task. The religious man differs from the apparently irreligious man only by experiencing his existence not simply as a task, but as a mission. That means that he is also aware of the taskmaster, the source of his mission. For thousands of years that source was called God”(ibid. p. xv). This feeling of an important mission to be fulfilled, of the responsibility before himself, his family (he did not know that he would never see his parents, brother, sister and wife again), and his fellow prisoners never left Frankl. This is that MISSION, that was with him all his life, till the very last breath. Viktor Frankl passed away in Vienna on September 2, 1997.
Our generation has come to know man as he really is: the being that has invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and also the being who entered those gas chambers upright, the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.
Viktor E. Frankl, “Psychotherapy and Existentialism.”
A Freudian man, having been put into conditions of endless suffering and deprivation would have had to turn into an animal, with the lowest possible instincts taking over the whatever “civilized” and humane had been implanted during the previous life. Too often that was the case in the Nazi concentration camps. People betrayed each others, or stole precious food from their comrades, even when that could hasten the unfortunate’s death – all the means were good if they helped to save their own lives. And yet, in his account of the psychology of the concentration camp (Man’s Search for Meaning, MSM) Viktor Frankl gives quite a few examples of human behavior that disprove Freud’s theory.
They do not, in fact, quite disprove. Those examples rather prove that one can elevate oneself, rise from that abyss of the animal to the heights of the human. “In the concentration camp, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentials within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions” (p. 157).
In his book Frankl again and again quotes Nietzsche’s words: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” If one understands the why of one’s existence, one will be able to cope with the how, no matter how impossible that would seem. Understanding the why simply meant that people could find a meaning in their sufferings, and even probable death. “It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful” (p. 87). If, on the other hand, people were unable to take that challenge, turning their lives into an inner triumph; if they believed that life was over, that all the real life opportunities had disappeared for good, then their days were numbered: they vegetated, progressively sliding down towards the imminent end.
“Under the influence of a world which no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity, which had robbed man of his will and had made him an object to be exterminated (having planned, however, to make use of him first – to the last ounce of his physical resources) – under this influence the personal ego finally suffered a loss of values. If the man in the concentration camp did not struggle against this in a last effort to save his self-respect, he lost the feeling of being an individual, a being with a mind, with inner freedom and personal value” (p. 70).
The understanding of the new “why” did not come easily to those people. Frankl recalls one of the first lessons, given to them, newcomers in Auschwitz, by an already “seasoned” inmate; “Don’t be afraid! Don’t fear the selections! But one thing I beg of you…shave daily, even if you have to use a piece of glass to do it…even if you have to give your last piece of bread for it. You will look younger and the scraping will make your cheek ruddier. If you want to stay alive, there is only one way: look fit for work” (p. 38). Those who could not find the inner strength to cope with the how became doomed.
That victory over inhuman suffering seems almost unbelievable today, half a century later, when entertainment and pleasure are the most important components of people’s lives. But it was a real triumph of human spirit, another proof of that which God made of us was good.
In my view, that Frankl’s book – at least those one hundred pages of the concentration camp chapter – must be read by everyone who is trying to understand the why of our so comfortable and safe life. In a new school curriculum, I would recommend this book for our teenagers as one of the most important textbooks.
…A long column of inmates, the walking skeletons, suffering from hunger, exhaustion, and, on the top of everything, edema of their legs and feet. Some do not have socks – their frostbitten and chilblain feet are so swollen, that there is no space for socks, even if they had them… Suddenly, the man marching next to Frankl whisper: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.” Frankl continues: “And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife” (p. 56).
Thoughts of their loved ones were an important component of that will to meaning that enabled people to survive. .îFor the first time in my life I saw the truth, as it is set into songs by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth is that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”(p. 57; italics by Frankl). In that marching column, and on hundreds of other occasions when Frankl and his comrades were uniting in thoughts with those they loved, they did not even know if they were alive. “I knew only one thing – which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved.”(p. 58).
This escape into the past from the emptiness, spiritual poverty and physical suffering of the inmates’ existence was possible only due to the enormous intensification of their inner life. Of much greater importance for acquiring a meaning, in comprehending the why of one’s existence, was one’s ability to find both hope and strength in the future, to find a goal to which one could look forward. “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject of mental and physical decay” (p.95). Frankl recalls, how, in the moments of frustration with the current situation, overwhelmed with thoughts of trivial things, like where to find a piece of wire to substitute for a rotten shoe lace, he forced himself into thoughts about his future after the liberation. He saw himself standing under bright lights in a lecture hall, before a friendly audience, and giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp. The manuscript of his first book on logotherapy, his new theory and method, had been lost with his coat upon arrival in Auschwitz. At the very first opportunity he began reconstructing the manuscript. He writes in his Autobiography (Recollections – RCL) “In my own mind, I am convinced that I owe my survival, among other things, to my resolve to reconstruct my manuscript. I started to work on it when I was sick with typhus and tried to keep awake, even at night, to prevent a vascular collapse. For my 40th birthday an inmate had given me a pencil stub and “organized” a few small SS-forms. On their empty backs, still having high fever, I scribbled shorthand notes which I hoped would help me reconstruct the Ÿrztlische Seelsorge.”
For a concentration camp inmate, to lose faith in the future was a tragedy, resulting in death. That happened quite suddenly, in the form of a crisis. Its symptoms were familiar to the inmates, and its consequences were unavoidable. People knew “who was going to be the next.”
By the end of war, the loss of faith in the future took an almost mystical form. Frankl recalls that a friend of his, a fairly well known composer and librettist, told him in February, 1945, that he had had a dream, in which a voice had told him the exact date of their liberation: March 30th. At that time the man was still full of hope, and believed that the prophecy was true. The promised day approached, but no signs of imminent liberation were seen. On March 29th, he developed a high fever. On the day of the prophecy, March 30th, he became delirious and lost consciousness. Next day he was dead. To Frankl, and to the camp doctor there was no doubt: he had died of typhus. “To those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man – his courage and hope, or lack of them – and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect. The ultimate cause of my friend’s death was that the expected liberation did not come and he was severely disappointed. This suddenly lowered his body’s resistance against the latent typhus infection. His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness – and thus the voice of his dream was right after all” (p. 97).
That case of an “unexplained” death was not a unique event. Between Christmas, 1944, and the New Year of 1945, the death rate in Frankl’s camp increased beyond all possible expectations: and this is against the background of no visible deterioration of either working or living conditions in the camp. “It was simply, that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naÔve hope that they would be home again by Christmas. As the time drew near and there was no encouraging news, the prisoners lost courage and disappointment overcame them. This had a dangerous influence on their powers of resistance and a great number of them died” (p. 97).
Both the past and the future of the prisoner were instrumental in his or her survival in a concentration camp. What about the present? The present was filled with suffering, both physical and spiritual. But for somebody who had already acquired the strength and inner freedom even that dreadful present became full of meaning.
Perhaps some of the prisoners who had been religious in their previous lives lost faith. But in those who had not lost the faith, or had even just acquired faith in the camp, religious feelings were “the most sincere imaginable. The depth and vigor of religious belief often surprised and moved a new arrival. Most impressive in this connection were improvised prayers or services in the corner of a hut, or in the darkness of the locked cattle truck in which we were brought back from a distant work site, tired, hungry and frozen in our ragged clothing” (p. 54). Years after the liberation, Frankl wrote (MSUM, p. 19): “The truth is that among those who actually went through the experience of Auschwitz, the number of those whose religious life was deepened – in spite of, not because of, this experience – by far exceeds the number of those who gave up their belief.”
Art existed in the camps. Tired, hungry, and frozen people composed music, drew pictures, and wrote poetry. There were even makeshift “concerts,” with good music, songs, and even humor.
Against all odds, the aesthetic feeling, the ability to see the beautiful in nature, had not disappeared. An exhausted man might draw the attention of a friend working next to him to a view of the setting sun through the trees of a winter forest. Frankl recalls: “One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate gray mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!'”(pp. 59-60; italics by Frankl).
But perhaps the most important feature of the present in the inhuman conditions of the concentration camp was the feeling of responsibility that was so strong in the inmates who had not lost their inner freedom: the responsibility for their future, their loved ones, and their fellow prisoners.
New regulations were issued by the camp authorities: death for any even petty violations of the regime that could be interpreted as sabotage. A few days before a semi-starving prisoner had stolen a few pounds of potatoes. Many prisoners knew who the “burglar” was. The authorities threatened that if the guilty man was not given up, the whole camp would starve for a day. “Naturally, 2,500 men preferred to fast.” It was not quite natural in those conditions. Just imagine: there was not a single man who decided to betray his comrade, although a reward – some benefits, perhaps extra food or easier work could have made a difference in the life-death race.
Frankl writes (MSM, p. 52): “Sigmund Freud once said, ‘Let us attempt to expose a number of most diverse people uniformly to hunger. With the increase of the imperative urge of hunger all individual differences will blur, and in their stead will appear the uniform expression of the one un-stilled urge.’ In the concentration camps, however, the reverse was true. People became more diverse. The beast was unmasked – and so was the saint. The hunger was the same but people were different. In truth, calories do not count.”
And, of course, the strong helped the weak. On quite a few occasions Frankl himself tried to do his utmost to strengthen his comrades’ resistance to the physical and moral decay and degeneration that the camp existence promulgated: from un-intrusive conversations to collective psychotherapeutic (in fact, logotherapeutic) sessions, at the outcome of which people thanked him with tears in their eyes. (pp. 103-105).
Although Frankl modestly notices that “…only too rarely had I the inner strength to make contact with my companions in suffering and that I must have missed many opportunities for doing so”(p. 105), he was doubtless one of those who “…walked through the huts comforting others, giving away the last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to chose one’s own way” (p. 86).
In order to prove that something is not, one has to prove that every possible example of that something is not. While, if one wants to prove that something is, just one example would be enough. Viktor Frankl’s account of his experience as a concentration camp prisoner gives these examples, and not just one, but many. The examples of people whose will for meaning was stronger than death.
There is a meaning in life, … it is available to everyone and, even more, … life retains its meaning under any conditions. It remains meaningful literally up to its last moment, up to one’s last breath.
Viktor E. Frankl, “The Unheard Cry For Meaning.
Meaning… What is it? In his Autobiography (RCL) Frankl writes: “As early as 1929 I developed the concept of three groups of values, three possibilities to find meaning in life – up to the last moment, the last breath. These three possibilities are: 1) a deed we do, a work we create, 2) an experience, a human encounter and love, and 3) when confronted with an unchangeable fate (such as an incurable disease, an inoperable cancer) a change of attitudes. In such cases we still can wrest meaning from life by becoming witness of the most human of all human capacities: the ability to turn suffering into human triumph.”
These three “possibilities” to find a meaning seem to be so simple and easy to understand. But a meaning cannot be learned or taught, or shared. As a matter of fact, there is no such a thing as a universal meaning for everyone. “Meaning” is always personal, the meaning. In other words, life gives the individual an assignment, and one has to learn what that assignment is. But what is important,” the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as if it were a closed system.”(MSM p. 133). Frankl stresses that finding a meaning in life inevitably requires what he calls “self transcendence” – rising above one’s own self: “being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter…. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve, or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.” In another book (PES, p. 24) Frankl writes: “What man is, he ultimately becomes through the cause which he has made his own.”
And here are the three possibilities:
“Work We Create”
We spend over a third of our time working. To most people a job is a necessary and unavoidable way of earning one’s living. Americans work hard. If you wish, it is an American tradition that began first with the colonists and then was taken over by the generations of immigrants, who came to America in search of a new and better life. The American Dream of affluence and success has been driving millions of people to work hard.
At the beginning of the 21st century, working hard, for most of the people, does not mean merely fighting for survival any more. The American middle class has emerged; the majority of Americans live in their own homes. Even the American “poor” are believed to be “the richest poor in the world.” In spite of accusations fired at each other by politicians, the living standard of an average American family is higher than that in Europe, although it is steadily going down.
Americans are still working hard, but their work has lost the original existential meaning of necessary effort for survival. Americans still believe that any work is good that brings in money – and the more, the better. But this belief is no longer valid. It has been destroyed by the boredom of a dull, unfulfilling job. And yet not many understand that only that job is good that is fulfilling. In addition, a job has become more and more difficult to find, and losing a job becomes a tragedy. But this boredom does not originate from the jobs themselves: it is a result of our attitude.
Being unemployed is a tragedy because a job is the only source of livelihood for most people. However, from the existential point of view, “The jobless man experiences the emptiness of his time as inner emptiness, as an emptiness of his conscience. He feels useless because he is unoccupied. Having no work, he thinks, life has no meaning” (DAS, p. 121). As a contrast to that feeling, in the same book Frankl quotes an ad in a London newspaper of a man for whom work is a mode of creative existence: “Unemployed. Brilliant mind offers its services completely free; the survival of the body must be provided for by adequate salary” (p. xviii)
Logotherapy claims that work, a process that takes so much time from our life, may be a source of meaning, direction, fulfillment, for many an important source of meaning, for some the only source.
The job becomes that well of meaning and fulfillment, if it is creative. The word itself means creating something new that did not exist before: not only in the sense of revolutionizing technologies, discovering new principles in science, or creating an art masterpiece, but most often just participating in a modest and unambitious process of gaining knowledge, trust, kindness, love… This quality is of a fundamentally subjective character. The job does not contain creativity in itself. A white-color job can be boring, and a job of a volunteer helping kids to cross the street fulfilling and exciting. The one who is doing the work can make it unique: creative and interesting, or dull and boring. It is only a matter of attitude.
For a job to be creative, one does not have to have a high IQ or to be highly educated. One has only to find the meaning in that job, make it a part of one’s personality. The only role that education plays in this process is facilitating the finding of this unique meaning. One’s horizons are wider, one’s understanding of the world is better, and oneís identification with society is deeper through education.
I spent a 1979-80 academic year in Germany doing research at a university. Every day, at about 5 P.M., I heard a knock on my office door and an elderly lady janitor entered with a broad smile and a “Guten Abend, Herr Professor.” Then she began her daily routine: cleaning my office. She knew that her job was extremely important, for without it, we, the “egg-heads” of the fifth floor, would perish in the dirt and disorder of our offices. She lifted every single sheet of paper on my desk and dusted beneath. Whatever papers were scattered around were carefully piled up and secured on the desk corner. I did not speak German, she did not speak English, but we both knew that what she was doing was important. Of course I could live without the daily dusting of my papers; she could not. And I agreed with her. From the existential point of view we – “the egg-heads” in the offices around, and herself – were equal: we each did the work we loved and believed to be important. And, whenever a party was held she was always a part of it: a loved and respected member of the fifth floor community…
This role of education is important. In my view, the main factor that has exacerbated our crisis is the degradation of our educational system. It simply has been failing to raise an individual above the level of immaturity. And maturity means meaningfulness. That is why a way out of the crisis, quite possibly the only way, is in a dramatic improvement in our educational system.
Today creative and fulfilling work is the destiny of only the few. To the rest it is an unpleasant and boring duty. 50 million Americans hate their jobs! Perhaps the most regretful aspect of our life is that we teach our children that a boring job is all right. We encourage them to start working as early as possible with the only purpose: learning how to make money. Approximately 4 to 5 million teenagers work part time during school year; I wonder if anybody studied if our working children were among those 50 million…
However, even a boring job has an important quality: it fills time. When even this dull and boring work is over (and the work may be difficult, requiring the concentration of both mental and physical energy) an individual feels lost. Frankl, in one of his books, describes a “Sunday neuroses” – people do not know how to kill time. Typically, two options are used: shopping and the reliable and never failing TV. Frankl writes (DAS, p. 127): “…people who know no goal in life are running the course of life at the highest possible speed so that they will not notice the aimlessness of it. They are at the same time trying to run away from themselves – but in vain. On Sunday, when the frantic race pauses for twenty-four hours, all the aimlessness, meaninglessness, and emptiness of their existence rises up before them once more.”
Of course, there are jobs that are very difficult to make “creative,” among them jobs requiring the monotonous repetition of a similar operation, such as a job at a conveyer belt. With the development of new computerized technologies and robotics, those jobs will gradually disappear, giving people virtually unlimited opportunities to realize their innate creativity. This, however, will require an educational level for which the American school today does not prepare.
With the advancement of technology, the amount of leisure time is increasing. This is both a curse and a blessing: It is a curse, if an individual does not have a task, a mission in his or her life. Then any means of killing that leisure time will be good: from meaningless TV watching and video and computer games to gambling and drugs. It will be a blessing if a mission does exist. Then it will require the concentration of all the individual’s abilities, and will need more time than one can normally afford: no time will be enough. A good education will give an individual the basis, the foundation for the future meaningful and happy life.
“Human Encounter and Love”
The basis of meaningfulness of human existence is one’s singularity, one’s uniqueness. But an individual can actualize the creative values of his/her personality only through the external world: through something done for people. In response, the world, “the community” confers meaning upon the individual’s uniqueness and singularity. In fact, the external world becomes an indispensable part of one’s personality.
It enters one’s personality in two ways: through the “impersonal” effect of Nature, Books, Music, Art and Culture in general (recall the role of these factors in strengthening the will to survive in the Nazi concentration camps!), and through encounters with people.
Martin Buber, a great Jewish religious philosopher, once said: “Behind every meeting, every encounter – responsibility.” To those who agree with Buber, there is only one answer to the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” – spewed by Cain in self defense: “Yes, I am the keeper of my brothers – all over the world!”
The fact that most people do not think that way does not mean that the idea of “global responsibility” is idealistic delirium and nonsense. Thousands and thousands of young men and women, in 1936-37, left their families and jobs and joined the International Brigades in Spain to fight Fascism. Too often those brave people were accused of being Communists. Not all of them were. George Orwell, the author of immortal “1984,” who hated all kinds of totalitarianism, fought in Spain. His book: “Homage to Catalonia” is a legacy of those years. The world was indifferent, but those people knew that Spain was just the beginning. They were right: the Second World War erupted just a couple of years later.
After Pearl Harbor, thousands upon thousands of young Americans volunteered for the Armed Forces to fight the Nazis, although they could have gone on with their studies or with their civilian work important for the military. And two decades later, thousands upon thousands of Americans of the next generation joined the “Peace Corps” to fight disease and illiteracy in the Third World.
In the everyday life of most people the idea of “global responsibility” – even if the individual does subscribe to it – is pushed off by small deeds and smaller responsibilities. And it is all right as far as the responsibilities exist. But too often the feeling of responsibility – in encounters with people – is frustrated. It is only partly to be blamed on the individual. Erich Fromm, one of the greatest psychologists of the 20th century, wrote in his immortal book “The Art of Loving:” “From birth to death, from Monday to Monday, from morning to evening – all activities are routinized, and prefabricated. How should a man caught in this net of routine not forget that he is a man, a unique individual, one who is given only this one chance of living, with hopes and disappointments, with sorrow and fear, with the longing for love and the dread of the nothing and of separateness?” (p. 14)
This is exactly the existential vacuum that Viktor Frankl is discussing in his books. But it is up to the individual to escape from this vacuum into the freedom of meaning. Then “the nothing” and “the separateness” will disappear, giving way to constructive and creative encounters with people, with their “hopes and disappointments, sorrow and fear.”
Love, the main object and concern of Erich Fromm’s book, is something that cannot be compared in its importance to any other existential category in human life, except, perhaps death. It has been the object of discussion and analysis of the greatest philosophers and scientists since the human race has distinguished itself from the animal horde. Human poetry is almost exclusively about love.
The great Sigmund Freud attempted to reduce love to elementary instincts originating from the Pleasure Principle. Viktor Frankl returns to love its human, existential character.
Discussing the meaning of love Frankl writes (DAS, p. 135): “Loving represents a coming to a relationship with another as a spiritual being. The close connection with spiritual aspects of the partner is the ultimate attainable form of partnership. The lover is no longer aroused in his own physical being, nor stirred in his own emotionality, but moved to the depths of his spiritual core, moved by the partner’s spiritual core. Love, then, is an entering into direct relationship with the personality of the beloved, with the beloved’s uniqueness and singularity.”
Frankl stresses that, although love is as primary a phenomenon as sex, normally sex is only a mode of expression for love, its culmination. “Sex is justified, even sanctified, as soon as, but only as long as, it is a vehicle of love. Thus love is not understood as a mere side-effect of sex: rather, sex is a way of expressing the experience of the ultimate togetherness which is called love.”(MSM, p. 134)
On the societal level, this confusion inevitably brings about a devaluation of sex: “Like any kind of inflation – e.g., that on the monetary market – sexual inflation is associated with a devaluation: sex is devaluated inasmuch as it is dehumanized. Thus we observe a trend to living a sexual life that is not integrated into one’s personal life, but rather is lived out for the sake of pleasure. Such a depersonalization of sex is a symptom of existential frustration: the frustration of man’s search for meaning.”(UCM, p. 93)
The confusion of sex for love in the psyche of millions of people, resulting in the degradation of love and proliferation of sex, both in America and throughout the world, is doubtless a manifestation of the frustration of meaning and the deep existential crisis. I discuss this problem at length also in other essays of this book.
By the way, logotherapy suggests a method of treating sexual neuroses based on the phenomenon called paradoxical intention. Logotherapy claims, “The more the man aims at pleasure by way of direct intention, the more he misses his aim”. (PAE, p. 21). This is true not only with regard to pleasure. Quite often, an achievement is just a “by-product” of an effort, not a directed objective of it. Thus, the opposite situation should somehow be explored. For example, if an individual stammers, rather than trying not to stammer, one should force oneself to stammer as strongly as possible! Frankl relates to many cases when a short paradoxical intention treatment cured people who had been suffering for years from stammering, perspiration phobias, sleeplessness, and impotence. But Frankl stresses, that as a method of treatment, “Logotherapy is ultimately education towards responsibility; the patient must push forward independently towards the concrete meaning of his own existence” (DAS, p. xvi).
“The Unchangeable Fate”
In his book “Psychotherapy and Existentialism” (PAE) Viktor Frankl writes: “We have seen that there exists not only a will to pleasure and a will to power but also a will to meaning. Now we see further: We have not only the possibility of giving a meaning to our life by creative acts and beyond that by the experience of Truth, Beauty, and Kindness, of Nature, Culture, and human beings in their uniqueness and individuality, and of love; we have not only the possibility of making life meaningful by creating and loving, but also by suffering – so that when we can no longer change our fate by action, what matters is the right attitude towards fate.”
This third avenue to meaning is, perhaps, the most important one. Too often we forget that suffering is an unavoidable and ineradicable part of human life. Without it, life could not be complete. Suffering – albeit in unequal degrees – accompanies us through all our lives, eventually terminating in death. Finding meaning in suffering is not as much the ability to cope with suffering and not letting it destroy oneself, but the possibility of “rising above oneself,” “growing beyond oneself,” and thus “changing oneself.” In “Man’s Search for Meaning” (MSM p. 88) Frankl writes: “Here lies a chance for a man either to make use or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.” And a few pages later: “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden” (p. 99) Frankl proves that a human being “may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”
It is usually believed that the main reason for the desire to commit suicide in terminally ill adults derives from physical suffering. Researchers studying the psychology of assisted suicide have discovered, however, that only a third of those contemplating suicide are motivated by this. In the majority of terminally ill patients the leading factors driving their desire to suicide are “fear of a loss of control or dignity, or being a burden, and of being dependent”(Peter Edelman, The Atlantic Monthly, March, 1977, p. 75). A human being can cope with severe pain; but it is the inability to comply with human standards that makes life unbearable and impossible…
The Nazi concentration camps witnessed thousands of examples of such human triumph that a Freudian man with his will to pleasure is incapable of. Our everyday life also gives us examples of this unbreakable will for meaning.
Among them professor of Cambridge University and perhaps the most distinguished theoretical physicist of our time, Dr. Stephen Hawking, a victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease, almost completely paralyzed, and unable to speak (a computer helps him communicate);
Stephen Hawking’s mother, Isobel Hawking writes: “He says himself that he wouldn’t have got where he is if he hadn’t been ill. And I think it is quite possible”
America is proud of Helen Keller. But not many remember another name: that of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Helen was able to overcome her handicaps ‚– she was blind, deaf and mute – to become an author and one of the most cultured people of her time. Her teacher Anne Sullivan herself semi-blind, has made the tremendously difficult, seemingly impossible task – that became her mission – of turning a frightened and angry little animal – seven-year-old Helen – into a human being. That mission filled all Anne Sullivan’s life, became her only objective. This is an almost mystical example of an individual who “had grown above herself,” who made the life of another human being more important than that of her own.
Another hero – also the one America will always be proud of – is its great president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose imprint on this country’s destiny simply cannot be overestimated. A disabled man, a tragic victim of polio that struck when his political career was only beginning, he, by inhuman willpower, was able to turn his disability into the most powerful stimulus of his life. When he, with the help of a body-guard or one of his sons, smiling broadly – as he always did – walked towards the podium, most of the nation did not know that he actually was unable to walk. It was an imitation, a pretense forced by FDR’s enormous physical and moral strength!
The list of people, who have turned their suffering into human triumph, is long, and each of them deserves a monument in the pantheon of Mankind. The examples above were just names from the books and magazines scattered on my desk while I was writing this essay.
I will never forget seeing a blind man skiing on a down-hill slope in New Hampshire (with an assistant skiing before him with a sign: “Attention, a blind person skiing!”), or a smiling and excited young woman with paralyzed legs, being helped by two volunteers in loading her sledge to a ski lift on Mt. Attitash; later I saw her “skiing” down a difficult slope. I am proud to belong to the same species as those two people and many thousands of others, who have won over their disability and turned tragedy into a human triumph.
But the inhuman ordeal of an extreme handicap is the fate of the relatively few, while the everyday sufferings of millions are the reality of “normal” life. In his books, Frankl gives quite a few examples of how people can “rise above themselves” and “grow beyond themselves.” He also shows how the ideas of logotherapy can help people to understand the why of their suffering and thus give them the how which enables them to cope with that why: from a personal tragedy of loss of loved ones, to a tragedy of a prison inmate whose life seems to be over.
Frankl relates his conversation with a patient, a physician, who could not overcome the loss of his wife, whom he loved above everything in the world. Two years had passed since the death, but the patient’s depression would not subside. Here is the conversation:
F.: “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?”
P.: “Oh, for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!”
F.: “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared of her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering – to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her,”
Frankl concludes: “He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of sacrifice” (MSM, p. 135)
In his book “The Unheard Cry For Meaning” (UCM), Frankl also quotes from two letters from inmates of American (Florida) prisons: “I have found true meaning in my existence even here, in prison. I find purpose in my life, and this time I have left is just a short wait for the opportunity to do better and to do more.” Another letter: “During the past several months a group of inmates has been sharing your books and your tapes. Yes, one of the greatest meanings we can be privileged to experience is suffering. I have just begun to live, and what a glorious feeling it is! I am constantly humbled by the tears of my brothers in our group when they can see that they are even now achieving meanings they never thought possible. The changes are truly miraculous. Lives which heretofore have been hopeless and helpless now have meaning. … From the barbed wire and chimney of Auschwitz rises the sun… My, what a new day must be in store.” (p. 47)
These are Frankl’s three possibilities of acquiring a meaning. But how can one acquire that meaning? Dr. Joseph Fabry devoted his book Guideposts to Meaning to the difficult task of step-by-step guiding the reader towards understanding what really matters in one’s life. Dr. Fabry suggests that one should involve oneself in a Socratic dialogues: – the dialogues inside oneself – that would facilitate finding the meaning.
Five guideposts should be probed, in the areas where the meaning is most likely to be found:
“1. Self-discovery. The more you find out about your real self behind all the masks you put on for self protection, the more meaning you will discover.
2. Choice. The more choices you see in your situation, the more meaning will become available.
3. Uniqueness. You will be most likely to find meaning in situations where you are not easily replaced by someone else.
4. Responsibility. Your life will be meaningful if you learn to take responsibility where you have freedom of choice, and if you learn not to feel responsible where you face an unalterable fate,
5. Self-transcendence. Meaning comes to you when you reach beyond your egocentricity towards others” (p. 10).
And yet, there is no easy and ready prescription for everyone. Viktor Frankl’s advice: listen carefully to what your life requires of you. Listen to your conscience. Think. Be patient, do not hurry. One day you will know. But this may be a long and difficult road till you have reached your destination…
The urge to have a meaning in one’s life, the will for meaning, is an indispensable quality of a “homo patiens” – “the suffering man, the man who knows how to suffer, how to mold even his sufferings into a human achievement” – the term coined by Frankl. He writes (UCM, p. 46): “Usually, man is seen as the homo sapiens, the clever man who has know-how, who knows how to be a success, how to be a successful businessman or a successful playboy, that is, how to be successful in making money or in making love. The homo sapiens moves between the positive extreme of success and its negative counterpart, failure.” But there is another dimension to human life. The homo patiens moves on an axis perpendicular to that of the Homo sapiens. It extends between the poles of fulfillment (“plus”) and despair (“minus”): the fulfillment of one’s self through the fulfillment of meaning, and the despair over the apparent meaninglessness of one’s life.
This visual interpretation of our existential stand (see the diagram below) is very helpful in understanding the real life situations. A wealthy individual who has achieved complete success in his/her life may find himself/herself in the extreme negative on the homo patiens scale, if that individual’s life is devoid of meaning and direction. It may be not only a rock-, or movie-, or athletic star, but also a successful medical doctor or a lawyer, or even an elected official.
On the other hand, a modest individual who can hardly exist on a meager salary or a pension – and is, of course, far from achieving “success” from the point of view accepted in our society, perhaps is even a “loser” – may be fully content and happy, doing work that is unique and important: as my modest janitor, the nameless hospital volunteers, the people giving their time to charity. An extreme case is of course a prison inmate who can find a new meaning in suffering.
The upper right-hand corner of Frankl’s diagram is not empty either. I have read of a successful lawyer who found time in his busy schedule to help out in the maternity ward of a hospital: they needed “human hands” – just to lull babies abandoned by their mothers in order that they might feel “mother’s warmth.” In 1995 a story made headlines in the Boston press: about a factory owner who, after his factory was destroyed by fire continued paying salaries to his workers until the factory began functioning again. Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft and a multi-billionaire, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting health care and education in Africa. And he is not alone: thousands of prominent leaders of industry, culture and sports selflessly give their money and their time to projects making the world better.
The lower left-hand corner of the diagram is occupied by the underclass who were unable to achieve either material success or meaning in their lives…
Where could American teenagers be placed on this diagram? They have not yet started moving along the Failure-Success continuum: They have no bank accounts, credit cards, or careers. They may be placed only at the vertical Fulfillment-Despair axis). Many American children will proudly occupy the Fulfillment part of the axis. Among those are teenagers doing volunteer work, or raising funds for humanitarian causes, or being active in their schools’ interest clubs, or just reading a lot – to name just a few spheres of life that bring children fulfillment. However, most of our youngsters already know what Despair is. They are slaves of the pop-culture: anti-intellectual, thoughtless, sex- and drugs- oriented and noisy. In fact, in these children’s lives the boredom triad (that has been already discussed) – depression, addiction, and aggression – is the everyday reality. These children may be placed only in the negative part of the Fulfillment-Despair axis, and often deep in the Despair area (remember the spread of teenagers’ depression and suicide). Their lives are boring and empty and devoid of meaning, they are abandoned by our society, they drift, creating their own ugly “culture,” and nobody is out there to help them…
It is always difficult to talk about the fundamental existential problems. They are too personal, even intimate. We rarely discuss them even with people who are really close to us. In our everyday life there is not much time that, left alone with our own soul, we can ask ourselves: “Where am I? What am I? What do I live for?” And yet, it is important to go on asking these questions again and again: even if only in order to prevent our souls from “falling asleep.”
For a skeptical reader who still believes that what Frankl is saying is just an “abstract philosophy,” which is difficult, if not impossible, to implement in everyday life, I would like to quote from an article published sometime in the middle 80s in a Boston North Shore newspaper. In my files I found one page: a Xerox copy of just some 50 lines (two short columns) from that article.
I do not know what newspaper it was published in; the author’s name is also missing. But I am deeply grateful to that individual for what he or she wrote, and I regret that I do not know the name, to be able to personally express my gratitude to that individual. That article was important to me at that time, for when I read it, I did not know of either Viktor Frankl or logotherapy. Perhaps, the article’s author did not know either. But that article is an excellent and thoughtful interpretation of Frankl’s ideas. Let me reproduce here the whole text as I have it on that Xerox page.
In television series LateNight America, I learned from experts that only 20 percent Americans are happy, which prompted me during the last year to talk about happiness with psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, religious leaders and many other successful Americans. All agree that happiness comes to us as a direct result of high self-esteem, a positive attitude and the way in which we relate to other people. It’s not as complicated as we make it out to be. But happiness may be different from what we think it is.
Happiness, I have learned, is a feeling of contentment and peace of mind. Life is a mixed bag of joy and sadness, laughter and tears, pain and growth. Happy people accept the whole package, realizing that happiness is only a part of life’s puzzle.
Unfortunately, too many Americans have swallowed a bill of goods which states that happiness can be achieved 24 hours a day and will be found in success, fame, possessions, and marrying or having a relationship with the right individual.
I’ve discovered that, to be happy, we must have something to do, someone or something to love, and something to hope for. Our work must give us a sense of pride and satisfaction, use of our special talents and abilities, and provide us with the opportunity for recognition and contribution. If we work only for money at a job we hate, we deny ourselves the chance to be happy.
To be happy we must live for something outside ourselves – another individual or people, a cause, a belief in God. To live only for ourselves is to exist in a world of one – and that brings misery. To be happy we must have hope, which is our commitment of time and energy to the future. We need to dream. To have no dream is to have no hope, and to have no hope is to have no reason to live.
The above may be, in essence, summarized as a formula of ultimate happiness. This is also the Frankl formula. Like any mathematical formula, which does not make sense unless some numbers are put into it, the formula of ultimate happiness, in order to work, requires the actions of a whole life. It is simple:
Live a life that multiplies good; so that when you are about to leave, the Earth is
better – even though just a little bit – than it was when you came to this world –
and this is because of the life you have lived! If, though only once in your life, you
saw tears of gratitude in the eyes of a stranger, whom you may never see again,
the formula worked!
Years ago, after a lecture at an American university, a student asked Viktor Frankl: “You talk so much about meaning. But what is the meaning in your life?” “What do you think the meaning in my life is?” – Frankl addressed a student standing next to him. “I believe the meaning in your life is to help people find meaning in theirs,” – was the answer.
And I would like to finish this essay with the words of Viktor Frankl (DAS, p. 139): “We must never be content with what has already been achieved. Life never ceases to put new questions to us, never permits us to come to rest. Only self-narcotization keeps us insensible to the eternal pricks with which life with its endless succession of demands stings our conscience. The man who stands still is passed by; the man who is smugly contented loses himself. Neither in creating nor experiencing may we rest content with achievement; every day, every hour makes deeds necessary and new experiences possible.”
References to Viktor Frankl’s books:
MSM: Viktor E. Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning, Washington Square Press, New York, 1985
UCM: Viktor E. Frankl The Unheard Cry for Meaning: Psychotherapy and Humanism, Washington Square Press, New York, 1985
PAE: Viktor E. Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism, Washington Square Press, New York, 1985,
DAS: Viktor E. Frankl The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy, Vintage Book, New York, 1973
RCL: Viktor E. Frankl, Recollections: An Autobiography (English translation by Joseph and Judith Fabry), Plenum Publishing House in London, 1997
MSUM: Viktor E. Frankl. Manís Search for Ultimate Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press. Plenum Press, New York
About the author:
Genrich L. Krasko is a retired physicist still affiliated with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. He lives in Peabody, MA with his wife Zeya. (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
* This essay is based on a chapter from the author’s currently published book: This Unbearable Boredom of Being: The Crisis of Meaning in America (http://web.mit.edu/gkrasko/www/SearchingForMeaning.html), iUniverse, 2004. Shortly before his death in 1997, Viktor Frankl wrote a Foreword for the book. A short version of this essay was previously published in the Spring-Summer, 1997, issue (vol. 5, No 1) of Journals des Viktor-Frankl-Instituts (Vienna, Austria), p. 82.
 Dr. Fabry is also the founder of the “Institute of Logotherapy” – a research and educational institution dedicated to promoting the meaning-oriented methods of Viktor Frankl and his followers. The current Institute’s address: Hardin Simmons University, P.O.Box 15211, Abilene, TX 79698. I deeply appreciate Dr. Fabry’s assistance: sending me the manuscript of Viktor Frankl’s Autobiography prior to its publication, and very helpful correspondence (the following quote is from one of Dr. Fabry’s letters).
 Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time: A Reader’s Companion, p. 110.
 See an excellent book: Dorothy Herrmann, Hellen Keller. A Life. The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
 Joseph Fabry, Guideposts to Meaning. Discovering What Really Matters. New Harbinger Pubns Inc, 1988.