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Viktor Frankl and the Search for Meaning

“…the man who regards his life as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life.” (Albert Einstein)

Other animals require adequate nourishment and shelter in order to survive. We need those things as well, but we also need meaning. We need to feel as if our life is worth living. What we crave is not knowledge of the Meaning of Life, or the purpose behind the existence of the universe (if there even is one), but the meaning of our own life – our “reason for being”.

“…the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” (Soren Kierkegaard)

Viktor Frankl, a 20th century psychotherapist, concentration camp survivor, and prolific author, based his life’s work around the idea that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life” (Viktor Frankl).

As a primary motivation, the search for meaning must be fulfilled for the sake of our psychological well-being. If we fail to find the meaning we’re looking for psychological disturbance follows in the form of apathy, depression, and even anger. This failure to find meaning, and the psychological disturbance that follows, is prominent in modern society. Many of us today have the means to live, but nothing to live for:

“More and more patients are crowding our clinics and consulting rooms complaining of an inner emptiness, a sense of total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives’. I coined the term ‘nothingness neurosis’ to describe this state.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl’s classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning, is a meditation on the importance of finding meaning in life, and the pathways we can follow in order to find it. A memoir of his 3 years spent in various Nazi concentration camps, Frankl experienced first-hand how the presence or lack of meaning can in certain circumstances literally be the difference between life and death:

“…what happens if one’s groping for a meaning has been in vain? This may well result in a fatal condition. Let us recall, for instance, what sometimes happened in ex- treme situations such as prisoner-of-war camps or concentration camps…as I was told by American soldiers, a behavior pattern crystallized to which they referred as “give-up-itis.” In the concentration camps, this behavior was paralleled by those who one morning, at five, refused to get up and go to work and instead stayed in the hut, on the straw wet with urine and faeces. Nothing – neither warnings nor threats – could induce them to change their minds. And then something typical occurred: they took out a cigarette from deep down in a pocket where they had hidden it and started smoking. At that moment we knew that for the next forty-eight hours or so we would watch them dying. Meaning orientation had subsided, and consequently the seeking of immediate pleasure had taken over.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

Subject to extreme hardships – physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual – within the concentration camp Frankl straddled a thin line between life and death on a daily basis. This forced him to search desperately for sources of meaning which would give him a reason to continue on, to keep fighting, and deny the impetus to lie down and simply give up.

His desperate search led him to discover 3 different paths to meaning, which he drew sustenance from to not only remain alive but morally and spiritually upright in the 3 years he spent on the brink of death.

These 3 pathways to meaning form the basis of logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy founded by Frankl after his liberation. We can find meaning, according to Frankl:

“(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

1. Finding Meaning in Creative Work

When we either discover or cultivate a passion for a project which requires time and creative effort to achieve, we orient our mind towards meaning. Encountering each day with a sense of joyous urgency, we instinctively seek stimulation and inspiration to help us move towards accomplishing our goal, and begin to find meaning in things and ideas we had previously cast off as insignificant. When we align ourselves towards a future goal we care deeply about, we’ll not only find life more meaningful, but develop the motivation to courageously endure present sufferings and hardships.

Even in the harsh environment of the concentration camp, Frankl found strength in thinking about his future as a psychotherapist – writing that in one particularly difficult situation he began imagining himself at some future moment lecturing on the “psychology of the concentration camp”. This helped him view his current suffering as meaningful in the light of some future important goal, and provided him with the strength to endure the hardships he was forced to face.

“Any attempt at fighting the camp’s psychopathological influence on the prisoner…had to aim at giving him inner strength by pointing out to him a future goal to which he could look forward. Instinctively some of the prisoners attempted to find one on their own. It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future – sub specie aeternitatis. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

2. Finding Meaning in Love

When we are engaged in an authentic relationship with another human being, and love that person unselfishly, we can use our love to find strength and meaning even in dark hours.

While in a particularly difficult moment – cold, wet, hungry, and weak, performing backbreaking manual labor while being whipped and yelled at – Frankl recounted what can only be called a spiritual experience, stimulated by the thought of the love he felt for his wife:

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – 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.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

3. Finding Meaning in Suffering

What happens if we find ourselves in a situation in which suffering is unavoidable? Does the presence of deep and inescapable suffering render our life meaningless? Since suffering is inevitable in life, Frankl reasoned that if “if there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.” If we can overcome the anger and grief we feel from being forced to endure deep pain and suffering, we can use such suffering to transform ourselves – for there is no greater impetus to change than the presence of a profound and abiding suffering:

“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

A Personal Meaning of Life

Although we can draw guidance from those who have reflected on the human need for meaning, ultimately we must conduct the search alone. Being a unique individual, a one time phenomena in the universe, we require a unique meaning; one suited to our individuality, goals, and interests in life:

“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 fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

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