[Article updated on 17 September 2017]
Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for. —Victor Frankl
In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and neurologist Victor Frankl (1905-1997) wrote about his ordeal as a concentration camp inmate during the Second World War. Interestingly, he found that those who survived longest in concentration camps were not those who were physically strong, but those who retained a sense of control over their environment.
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 human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.
Frankl’s message is ultimately one of hope: even in the most absurd, painful, and dispiriting of circumstances, life can be given a meaning, and so too can suffering. Life in the concentration camp taught Frankl that our main drive or motivation in life is neither pleasure, as Freud had believed, nor power, as Adler had believed, but meaning.
After his release, Frankl founded the school of logotherapy (from the Greek logos, meaning ‘reason’ or ‘principle’), which is sometimes referred to as the ‘Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy’ for coming after those of Freud and Adler. The aim of logotherapy is to carry out an existential analysis of the person, and, in so doing, to help him uncover or discover meaning for his life.
According to Frankl, meaning can be found through:
- Experiencing reality by interacting authentically with the environment and with others,
- Giving something back to the world through creativity and self-expression, and
- Changing our attitude when faced with a situation or circumstance that we cannot change.
Frankl is credited with coining the term ‘Sunday neurosis’ to refer to the dejection that many people feel at the end of the working week when at last they have the time to realize just how empty and meaningless their life has become. This existential vacuum may open the door on all sorts of excesses and compensations such as neurotic anxiety, avoidance, binge eating, drinking, overworking, and overspending. In the short-term, these excesses and compensations carpet over the existential vacuum, but in the longer term they prevent action from being taken and meaning from being found.
For Frankl, depression results when the gap between what a person is and what he ought to be, or once wished to be, becomes so large that it can no longer be carpeted over. The person’s goals seem far out of reach and he can no longer envisage a future. As in Psalm 41, abyssus abyssum invocat—‘hell brings forth hell’, or, in an alternative translation, ‘the deep calls unto the deep.’
Thus depression is our way of telling ourselves that something is seriously wrong and needs working through and changing. Unless change can be made, there will continue to be a mismatch between our lived experience and our desired experience, between the meaninglessness of everyday life and the innate drive to find meaning, to self-actualize, to be all that we can be. From an existential standpoint, the experience of depression obliges us to become aware of our mortality and freedom, and challenges us to exercise the latter within the framework of the former. By meeting this ultimate challenge, we can break out of the cast that has been imposed upon us, discover who we truly are, and, in so doing, begin to give deep meaning to our life.
Top 10 Victor Frankl quotations
1. Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude.
2. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
3. But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.
4. In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.
5. The meaning of life is to give life meaning.
6. Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.
7. Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.
8. Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.
9. The point is not what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us.
10. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.
Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, and other books.
Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook
Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl Essay
1208 Words5 Pages
Life was consumed by constant orders, labor, malnutrition, disease, and murder in the concentration camps. Yet somehow the human psyche in many individuals was able to endure throughout these imprisonments. Men and women were almost completely dehumanized during this genocide, but their psyche survived it. People had to find little things to keep themselves content and to nurture their psyche. “Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation” (63). Humor allows a person to escape a situation and rise above it, even if only for a short time. Humor can never be taken away from anyone because it is naturally within us. Humor within the concentration camps allowed people, for even a split second, to feel like they…show more content…
I interpret the first one as being the best person I can be to others and me, choosing to do just the next right thing. The second one, attitude towards unavoidable suffering, is something I have accepted a long time ago. I do not bother with things I cannot control and try to make the best of every situation. “The last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (86). This relates to being an optimist. My attitude is things will always get better down the road of life despite unavoidable suffering. Realizing every person is fighting a great battle in his or her life has changed my worldview. I realize everyone is trying to find meaning and dealing with suffering in one form or another. “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us” (98). Most people try, in one way or another, to follow this mindset in life. This allows me to be more understanding of why people make decisions and act on them. When anything goes wrong or bad in my life, my family is always there for me. Whenever my family goes through something bad, I am there for him/her. I believe we are in this life together and this belief deepens my sense of meaning. Personal suffering is a