“Typically, if a book has one passage, one idea with the power to change a person’s life, that alone justifies reading it, rereading it, and finding room for it on one’s shelves. This book has several such passages.” – Harold S. Kushner in the Forward to Man’s Search for Meaning (1992 Edition)
If you were to conduct a Google search with the terms “life changing books” or “books everyone should read”, Viktor Frankl’s indispensable psychological treatise Mans Search for Meaning wold no doubt appear repeatedly. In my experience, it is surely both. Written by Austrian psychiatrist, neurologist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997), Man’s Search for Meaning continues to influence generations, having sold over 10 million copies in 24 languages.
First and foremost, Man’s Search for Meaning is a tale of survival, chronicling Frankl’s harrowing experience in several Nazi concentration camps throughout the course of the Second World War. But this is less the tale of one man’s survival than it is a depiction of the triumph of the human spirit, as Frankl concerns himself not with the question of why some men died in the camps, but what it was that helped others to survive. The second half of this most important of books is a manifesto of Frankl’s personal brand of psychotherapy, known as logotherapy, in which he argues that to find a meaning to live for is the primary motivational force within human being, a drive which represents a powerful capacity for personal transformation.
Logotherapy translates to “therapy through meaning”, and is sometimes referred to as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy” after Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler’s individual psychology. Even prior to his experiences throughout the holocaust Frankl was opposed to the Freudian will to pleasure and the Adlerian will to power, arguing that the greatest task in every man’s life was not the pursuit of pleasure or power, but the will to meaning, the quest to discover the meaning of his life. Inspired by the writings of Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Frankl developed his method of logotherapy, the work of which it was to assist patients in uncovering the inherent meaning in life. As opposed to the typical psychotherapy of the time, psychoanalysis – the primary goal of which it is to uncover repressed material and drives harboured in the subconscious – logotherapy was a method less retrospective and less introspective. It was instead a forward thinking outrospective therapy, focusing on the meaning to be discovered and fulfilled by the patient in his future. Frankl described this process as one in which the patient is “confronted with and reoriented toward the meaning of his life”, a process which Frankl believed greatly contributed to the overcoming of neuroses.
“Logotherapy is neither teaching nor preaching. It is as far removed from logical reasoning as it is from moral exhortation. To put it figuratively, the role played by a logotherapist is that of an eye specialist rather than that of a painter. A painter tries to convey to us a picture of the world as he sees it; an ophthalmologist tries to enable us to see the world as it really is. The logotherapist’s role consists of widening and broadening the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible to him.”
Frankl believed that psychological disturbance – from your run of the mill blues to a fully blown depression – emerged from a condition known as the existential vacuum: a stale state of ultimate meaninglessness, characterized by emptiness, alienation, boredom and anomie. Frankl used the term existential frustration to refer to the condition in which man lacked an awareness of a meaning in life worth living for. This condition arose from a twofold loss: namely the diminishment of animal instincts associated with evolution to human-hood, and the inadequate guidance provided to individuals in society.
“At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behavior is imbedded and by which it is secured. Such security, like Paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. In addition to this, however, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).”
Free will (or the illusion of it) it generally considered a good thing, but for an ever growing number of us some form of guidance, or existential therapy, is required for man to make any decent use of his time.
Frankl saw the existential vacuum as the mass affliction of his generation, arguing that more often than not patients presented to the psychiatrist’s office out of boredom rather than despair or any legitimate psychological afflictions. Indeed, the frustration of the will to meaning and the subsequent descent into the existential vacuum most frequently manifest as a state of boredom rather than distress, argues Frankl. This is the case of the aptly named “Sunday neurosis”, in which many a working man falls into a transient depression when presented with the lack of content in his life at the end of the working week, but many are not so lucky, developing what Frankl termed noogenic neuroses. These are psychological disturbances arising from the specifically human (or spiritual) dimension of existence. Noogenic neuroses are not those created by conflict between the conscious and unconscious mind (as in psychoanalysis), but from a frustration of the will to meaning, a lack of awareness of one’s purpose in life. Time for leisure can rapidly become too much of a good thing, a fact many unemployed have no doubt experienced first-hand.
It is now 70 years since the release of Man’s Search for Meaning, and I believe this view remains as apt a description of my generation as ever. Adopting the worldview of the logotherapist, such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction seemingly appear nothing more than the logical progression of our way of life. We might even be tempted to attribute the success of Netflix to existential frustration (one might use the term Netflix neurosis), whereas in other cases the vacuum is compensated for by the acquisition of goods, money, or sexual conquests. To this end, Frankl makes a particularly poignant observation in the preface to the 1992 edition:
“I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book an achievement and accomplishment on my part but rather an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.”
Inasmuch as logotherapy attempts to reorient the patient towards the source of life’s meaning, it is a process which “tries to make the patient aware of what he actually longs for in the depths of his being.” This process is one which is likely to arouse a degree of psychological tension, at least initially, rather than equilibrium. But it is precisely this tension which is indispensable for future mental health, providing the meaning of one’s life is elucidated in the process.
“Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic; some amount of conflict is normal and healthy. In a similar sense suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon; rather than being a symptom of neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration. I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease. It may well be that interpreting the first in terms of the latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient’s existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs. It is his task, rather, to pilot the patient through his existential crises of growth and development.”
Frankl views some degree of psychic tension as an undeniable prerequisite for human growth, for it is only through suffering that we are spurred to make change in our lives. Some are lucky, from a young age being entirely certain of their meaning in life, but for the majority of us mere mortals some psychic friction is an unavoidable part of the process.
“Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.”
We should not hesitate to provoke tension within ourselves when necessary, for it is only through such provocation that our life’s true meaning is to be aroused from its state of latency.
We are reminded of celebrated psychotherapist Carl Rogers, who echoed Frankl’s sentiments in his own practice and writings. Just as Frankl argued that to consider equilibrium essential for mental health was a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene, Rogers argued that a tensionless state, one of homeostasis, was not at all characteristic of the “fully functioning person”. What man actually needs is the struggling and striving for a worthwhile goal. But such a goal cannot, for the most part, be uncovered in the absence of tension. This is true in my own experience, whereby it was only by listening to the negative thoughts associated with my depression that I was able to discover what I truly wanted in life. The depressive rumination, as it turned out, was absolutely necessary for me to discover, however negatively, what I didn’t want in life. And it was only when I learned to bear the brunt of my depression, rather than attempting to suppress it, block out negative thoughts, or bury it under a heap of alcohol and marijuana, that I was finally able to discover what I really wanted with my own life, and deal with my own existential crises. In Frankl’s case, it was the desire to rewrite the manuscript containing his life’s work which kept him alive.
“As for myself, when I was taken to the concentration camp of Auschwitz, a manuscript of mine ready for publication was confiscated. Certainly, my deep desire to write this manuscript anew helped me to survive the rigors of the camps I was in. For instance, when in a camp in Bavaria I fell ill with typhus fever, I jotted down on little scraps of paper many notes intended to enable me to rewrite the manuscript, should I live to the day of liberation. I am sure that this reconstruction of my lost manuscript in the dark barracks of a Bavarian concentration camp assisted me in overcoming the danger of cardiovascular collapse.”
According to Frankl, there is nothing which could so effectively help man to survive than the knowledge that he has a meaning to his life. Thus echoing the wisdom of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” But where exactly is this why to be found? The great wisdom of logotherapy is that it tells us not just that having a meaning in life is the answer to all of our existential frustrations, but that is helps us to find this meaning.
Given its role as a meaning-centred therapy, one might logically ask if logotherapy can provide us with an answer to the perennial question “What is the meaning of my life?”. To this, however, Frankl would retort that just as in a game of chess there is no single best move, only the move most appropriate to the given situation considering the particular characteristics of the both the individual and his opponent, in life there is no single answer to this question. To adopt the position of the logotherapist is to argue that there is no concrete meaning in life – say, for the glorification of God, or dedication to a greater good – there is only the specific meaning of the individual’s life at any given moment.
“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.”
The point is that the meaning of life never ceases to change, inevitably mutating with the ebb and flow of existence. But ultimately, meaning never ceases to exist. Meaning is there for the taking in every moment of life and through everything we do, we need only reach out and grasp it. For the sake of specificity Frankl contends that meaning can be encountered in a variety of ways: “(1) by creating work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
To take my own life as an example – a life which has been frequently plagued by bouts of existential frustration – there is an abundance of meaning presenting itself to me in the present moment. Firstly, with the writing of this article I am creating a work, contributing to a greater body of work (this blog), and at the same time attempting to hone my craft as a writer. Secondly, I have open on my Kindle Man’s Search for Meaning, and am listening to Russian Circles’ Memorial. By reading this book and listening to this album I am experiencing two great works, and appreciating them both also creates meaning in my life.
Thus the first source of meaning in logotherapy – the way of achievement or accomplishment – seems abundantly obvious. It is the source of meaning we access as children when we claim that we will become firemen or lawyers, doctors or philosophers, believing that by following such a career path our lives will be inherently meaningful. But as children we do not anticipate the hurdles – or perhaps more accurately mountains – along the way. At times there is simply very little that can be done to advance one towards more distant career prospects, we may not even be aware of our calling in life, and life often begins to seem meaningless. At such times the idea that meaning is also to be found in experiencing something – the beauty of nature, art, or culture – is not readily apparent. But we are, quite literally, the universe become self-aware, and to experience the world around us, to truly appreciate the quirks and flaws of life as they present themselves in the divine dance of existence we call the present moment is to create an infinite source of meaning. This is a philosophy which becomes increasingly apparent to those who practice the art of mindfulness meditation, or indeed becomes almost overwhelmingly obvious when under the influence of certain mind altering substances.
The greatest manifestation of the meaning inherent in experience is that of love, that “by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness” we are enabled to see the innermost essence of another human being. Through love, and indeed only through love, we are enabled to see not only those essential traits of the beloved person which make them themselves, but also the potential which lies dormant in our beloved. In this sense there is a spiritual quality to love, because through love we enable the beloved to actualize their potentialities. Love also gives us the strength through which we can endure all suffering. Frankl writes of his own experience:
“We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet” — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.”
Let us now consider the meaning of suffering, a source of meaning which we have all, at one time or another, been blind to. Suffering is possibly the greatest source of meaning available in life for the fact that it is unavoidable. Yet at precisely the time when we are confronted with a fate which cannot be changed we are provided with the opportunity to transcend our sufferings: “to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn ones predicament into a human achievement.” That all sounds lovely doesn’t it, and wouldn’t it be so nice if we could all turn our sufferings into triumph. I fear at this point that the more cynical reader might give up, thinking this is all too fluffy for his liking. But the cynic should remember that Frankl developed his doctrine of logotherapy in the midst of greatest source of human suffering ever inflicted, and thus it is more than fluff and rhetoric, it is a reality which saved this man’s life. It is at the moment that we can no longer change our situation that we are provided with the opportunity to change ourselves, and we would do well to keep such a philosophy in the forefront of our minds.
This is not to say that one should suffer in vain. In the event that suffering is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is of course to remove its cause, because “to suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.” But it is the unhealthy trend of our current culture that we view all suffering as a symptom of maladjustment. This only creates a vicious cycle – one which will I imagine any reader who has experienced the foul depths of depression will know intimately – in which suffering creates suffering, because we are unhappy about being unhappy. This is a uniquely human phenomenon, but so is the ability to transcend such suffering. It is one of the pillars of logotherapy that we have the freedom to find meaning in anything we do, not least in the freedom we have to choose our approach to unavoidable suffering. Indeed the attitude that we take towards our circumstances is the only real freedom we have, and Frankl argues this point at length: “everything can be taken from many but one thing… to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
“If there is a 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.
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not. … Such men are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.”
Thus we have seen that meaning is something that is discovered once the logotherapist has succeeded in “broadening the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible to him.” But Frankl argues that true meaning is not something to be found within man or his psyche – we are not closed systems – it is something that is discovered in the world. The fact remains that human meaning “always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself… the more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or a person to love – the more human he is an the more he actualizes himself.” Self-actualization, as it were, is then not a goal which one strives for. The more one strives to self-actualize, the more one misses the point, argues Frankl. Self-actualization is only possible as a side-effect of self-transcendence. Similarly we should not aim for success, for success is something which follows having lived life responsibly and in dedication to a cause greater than oneself.
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”
Thus Frankl urges us not to look to others in our search for meaning, but to look within ourselves and find a cause worth living for.
“As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, 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.”
This raises one final selling point in logotherapy, the idea that living responsibly is what creates meaning in our life. But what exactly does it mean to live responsibly? To live a responsible life, argues Frankl, is to “life as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” This is a powerful maxim, which captures both the finite nature of life and the finality of each moment. Just as the inevitability of suffering in life initially seems to take meaning away from life, rather than provide an opportunity to create it, so does the inevitability of death. “What is the point”, you may ask, “if I’m going to die at the end of all this anyway?”. Yet Frankl, as he so often does, skilfully turns this perspective on its head. Life is a transient phenomenon, yes, but the only real transitory aspects of life are its potentialities. As soon as the moment has passed, potential is rendered reality, delivered into the past and preserved in its finality. For “in the past, nothing is irretrievably lost but everything irrevocably stored.”
Our task in life is to live responsibly, towards our conscience and society as a whole. Upon the realization that everything hinges upon our decision to choose only one reality from a potentially infinite mass of potentialities, we are provided with the opportunity to live our lives more meaningfully. It may seem pessimistic to constantly remind ourselves of the inevitability of death, but this is a highly practical philosophy characteristic of many great thinkers: from the Buddha, to the Stoics, to the great existential philosophers.
“The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? “No, thank you,” he will think. “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.”
More than ever, there exists the pervasive belief that man is nothing more than the result of his biological, psychological and sociological circumstances, the product of his nature and nurture. Frankl, as a professor of psychiatry and neurology, was more acutely aware of the influence of these factors on man than most, but his critique of this so-called “pan-determinism” is as relevant today as ever.
Free will may or may not exist, but the fact remains that it feels like it does, and so for all intents and purposes I am free to choose my behaviour in any given circumstance. By adopting the view that man is determined entirely by his environment is to disregard the truth that each of us possesses within ourselves the ability to determine ourselves in each and every moment.
“Man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.”
It is true that we can make certain assumptions as to the future of individuals based on statistical probabilities, but this is only true on the level of the population. “One of the main features of human existence”, writes Frankl, “is the capacity to rise above such conditions.” Thus the individual personality remains essentially unpredictable. Driving home this point, Frankl cites the case of one Dr. J. He, also known as “the mass murderer of Steinhof”, a man responsible for one of the Nazi’s euthanasia programs. Yet Frankl later made the acquaintance of a man describing a reformed Dr. He as “the best friend I ever met”, a man who “showed himself to be the best comrade you can imagine!” Dr. He provides a wonderful example of the way in which man is uniquely self-determining, capable of change at any moment. We may predict the movements of an automaton, and even try to predict the mechanisms of the human psyche as we further develop our understanding of the human brain, “but man is more than psyche”, and thus we possess within us the ability to carry out our existence responsibly.
“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment – he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, 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 potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”