Viktor Frankl – Suffering & Meaning

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So encourages Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), an Austrian author-psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor and founder of logotherapy. Logotherapy is a meaning oriented therapy that was put to the ultimate test in Auschwitz where Viktor Frankl found himself stripped to naked existence. In his international bestseller “Man’s Search for Meaning” from 1946 he tells of his experiences in Auschwitz and lays out the basic tenets of logotherapy.

Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.

Experiences in a Concentration Camp

In “Man’s Search for Meaning” Viktor Frankl describes a daily life of terror, deprivation of all normality and with death always looming. Be it from exhaustion, sickness, an ill-tempered guard or chance. At any moment death could strike.

And, yet, at times it was not the physical blows in themselves that hurt the most. It was the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.

To endure this terror with no end in sight the prisoners needed something to live for and to look forward to. As Viktor Frankl puts it:

“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 to mental and physical decay.”

Thus, in the cruelest of ways KZ camp life taught every prisoner that “it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.”

The Meaning of Suffering

When considering meaning Viktor Frankl distinguishes between three different types of meaning.

An active life, he says, serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords man the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature.

But, Viktor Frankl stresses, “there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior; namely, in man’s attitude to his existence … If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”

And so, while Viktor Frankl’s fellow prisoners worried ‘will we survive the camp, for if not, all this suffering has no meaning,’ Viktor Frankl’s concern was; “Has all this suffering, this dying around us a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance – as whether one escapes or not – ultimately would not be worth living at all.”

One may claim this is a radical stance. How can one be expected to find meaning in a suffering as brutal and unjustified as that of a KZ-camp prisoner?! Viktor Frankl answers in earnest that in man’s struggle with suffering he may “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 worthy of his sufferings or not.”

Viktor Frankl adds;

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their 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 choose one’s own way … It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

Surviving the KZ horrors

Throughout the book Viktor Frankl gives a harrowing account of different aspects of the human psyche and how it plays out under unimaginable distress. Humor, for instance, though only the faint trace of one, rare and brief, was present and in those few seconds would afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above the situation. And so Viktor Frankl would try to make it a daily habit to make a fellow prisoner (a doctor) smile by asking him to imagine scenarios after their liberation where the doctor would pick up on habits from their time as KZ prisoners. Say, if he was operating and the senior surgeon would suddenly rush into the operating room and shout “action, action!”

Echoing Søren Kierkegaard’s sentiment to ‘the repetition‘ Viktor Frankl also tells us how the prisoner’s imagination, when given free rein, played with past events, often minor happenings and trifling things. Says Viktor Frankl: “His nostalgic memory glorified them and they assumed a strange character. Their world and their existence seemed very distant and the spirit reached out for them longingly: In my mind I took bus rides, unlocked the door of my apartment, answered my telephone, switched on the electric lights. Our thoughts often centered on such details, and these memories could move one to tears.”

One especially grueling day Viktor Frankl became disgusted with the state of affairs. To get relief he forced himself to turn to another subject and suddenly saw himself in a warm auditorium lecturing an attentive audience on the psychology of the concentration camp: “All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment and I observed them as if they were already of the past. Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psycho-scientific study undertaken by myself.”

It was techniques such as these that were required to endure the terror. For at other times, life outside the camp could appear almost as it might appear for a dead man who looked at it from another world. But Viktor Frankl warns that “in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist.” When existence seemed provisional this in itself could be an “important factor in causing the prisoner to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.”

Viktor Frankl adds that “Nietzsche’s words ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psycho-hygienic efforts regarding prisoners. When a person no more saw sense in his life, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on he was soon lost.”

Hence any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal to which he could look forward. Says Viktor Frankl: “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future … And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.”

The Penetrability of Love

Tilly and Viktor Frankl, 1941

Perhaps one of the most beautiful passages in the book is Viktor Frankl’s account of marching to work one cold morning. In the bitter cold an image of his wife came to mind and “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. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, ‘The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory’.”

Frankl continues: “Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.” Frankl did not know whether his wife was still alive but “at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. ‘Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death’.”

Suffering as an Ineradicable Part of Existence and the Meaning of Life

Viktor Frankl’s message is that suffering is unavoidable and that we better accept this sooner rather than later because “in accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end … 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.”

Adds Viktor Frankl; “For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that could be of help to us. They kept us from despair … Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naïve query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.”

Viktor Frankl also emphasizes that there is empirical evidence that the general population has more admiration for the one that knows how to suffer rather than with the great creator. Says Viktor Frankl: “Austrian public-opinion pollsters recently reported that those held in highest esteem by most of the people interviewed are neither the great artists nor the great scientists, neither the great statesmen nor the great sports figures, but those who master a hard lot with their heads held high.”

Logotherapy in a Nutshell

A poor farmer in Thailand with his son graduating from university

Logotherapy focuses on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in the future. It does so because it firmly believes that the striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. Hence, it is imperative to identify the why in order to endure the how.

This is especially relevant in modern times where many people complain of a feeling of total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives. They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves; they are caught in what Viktor Frankl calls the ‘existential vacuum.’

The Existential Vacuum

The existential vacuum, writes Viktor Frankl, is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century possibly. Today no instincts tells man what he has to do, and no tradition tells man what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either succumbs to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).

The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom, says Viktor Frankl. Not a few cases of suicide, for instance, can be traced back to ‘Sunday neurosis,’ when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within people themselves becomes manifest.

“Moreover, there are various masks and guises under which the existential vacuum appears. Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money. In other cases, the place of frustrated will to meaning is taken by the will to pleasure. That is why existential frustration often eventuates in sexual compensation.”

The Meaning of Life

So how does one ascertain the meaning of one’s life and work out what to strive for?

First of all, Viktor Frankl stresses, the question of the meaning of life cannot meaningfully be put in general terms. That is the equivalent of asking a chess champion what the best move in the world is. Says Viktor Frankl:

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 can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. Rather, 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. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.

As such, logotherapy tries to make the patient fully aware of his own responsibleness; to leave to him the option for what, to what, or to whom he understands himself to be responsible. Figuratively speaking, the logotherapist is an eye specialist helping the patient to see rather that a painter trying to convey a picture of the world.

At the same time, Viktor Frankl stresses that

The true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world … 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. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

With those words ends this introduction to Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” that I heartily recommend. Any person that has endured the terrors Viktor Frankl lived through is worth listening to. Especially when offered by a profund thinker and humanist.

For another article regarding the question meaning you may follow this link to Irvin Yalom and his consideration of meaninglessness.

The Skeleton-Man Show Death: The High Price of Living

In my new show Death: The High Price of Living I introduce the audience to the existential tradition. You can find more information about the show here that is specifically targeted educational institutions and companies, for instance, as a fun and engaging event at the yearly company art club assembly.

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