Logotherapy (first lecture) Kenneth Woodroofe

Finding Meaning in Life

One of the books that has influenced me very deeply is a little volume I picked up in San Francisco about twenty years ago bearing the lurid title, "From Death Camp to Existentialism" written by an Austrian psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl. At that time I had never heard of him but since then he has become internationally famous as the exponent of a psychological theory known as logotherapy. What fascinated me at that time was his account of the way in which he personally faced the devastating experience of being a prisoner in a German concentration camp and managed to continue to find life meaningful and worthwhile.

Frankl was virtually stripped of everything. His father, mother, brother and his wife died in camps or were sent to gas ovens. Excepting for his sister, his entire family perished. As Professor Gordon Allport, of Harvard University. asked in his preface to Frankl's book, "How could he - every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger, cold and brutality, hourly facing extermination - how could he find life worth preserving? A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to." And so I have found him to be.

A visit to Tokyo by Mr. Joseph Fabry, a student of Frankl's and executive director of the Institute of Logotherapy in Berkeley, California, rekindled my interest in Frankl's philosophy and has inspired me to refer to him in my talk today.

Frankl's experience in the German concentration camp proved a testing ground for the philosophy of life he had already formulated before he was imprisoned, a philosophy and psychological theory which as I have already mentioned, he designated logotherapy, a term based on the Greek word logos, which he translated as meaning. The essence of his point of view is that what man needs above all is a sense that his life has meaning. As a matter of fact the book entitled "From Death Camp to Existentialism" was subsequently published under the title of "Man's Search for Meaning." I suspect that that was Frankl's original title and that the more sensational title was chosen by the publisher as he thought it would attract wider attention among the general public!

In his own experience and in that of his comrades in the concentration camp Frankl found ample confirmation of his deep conviction. In his book he describes how "under the influence of a world which no longer recognised the value of human life and human dignity, which had robbed man of his will and had made him an object ot be exterminated 'having planned, however, to make full use of him first - to the last ounce of his physical resources) - under this influence the personal ego finally suffered a loss of value --." A man's character became involved to the point that he was caught in a mental turmoil which threatened all the values he held and into doubt."

In such a situation, as Frankl observed, many a man simply gave up. Usually this happened quite suddenly. "We all feared this moment - not for ourselves which would have been pointless, but for our friends," Frankl said, "Usually it began with the prisoner refusing one morning to get dressed and wash or to go out on the parade grounds. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect. He just lay there hardly moving. If this crisis was brought about by an illness, he refused to be taken to the sick bay or do anything to keep himself. He simply gave up." Such is the close connection between body and mind that it was not long before the man died.

Occurrences of such as this provided negative confirmation of Frankl's conviction that man mu7st find a meaning in his life. As a doctor and a psychiatrist, he was face with the problem of how to save men from psychological and spiritual collapse. He recalled Nietzche's words: "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how," which so aptly summarised his own philosophy of life and which he has said could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic efforts regarding prisoners. "Whenever there was an opportunity for it," he says, "one had to give them a why - an aim - for their lives in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was 'I have nothing to expect from life any more.'"

"What sort of an answer can be given to that?" asks Frankl. In his book he tells us the answer that he found. "What was really needed," he says "was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves, and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, 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 to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned bu life - daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in riht action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual."

Frankl recognises that these tasks, and therefore the meaning of life differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. Life does not mean something vague but something very real and concrete, just as life's tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man's destiny which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny.

It is Frankl's conviction that human life under any circumstances never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death. In fact, his system of logotherapy is based on three tenets:

  1. Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
  2. Every persoon has an innate desire to find meaning and this will to meaning is man's principal motivation for living.
  3. Every person has the freedom to find meaning.

According to Frankl, life can be meaningful in three ways.

First, trough what we give to the world in and through what we do, what we contribute, what we add to life, what we create. These Frankl calls creative values.

Secondly, through what we take from life and what life gives us, what we experience. These are realised in receptivity toward the world - for example, in surrender to the beauty of nature or art, and above all in experiencing human beings in their uniqueness for to experience a human being in his uniqueness is to love him. These Frankl calls experiential values.

But what of those who are deprived of the opportunity to find meaning in a deed, or in work, or in love, and are faced with an unalterable fate (such as the situation in the concentration camp or an incurable disease, or going to blind, for example)? A third doorway of meaning is open to them in the attitude they take towards their situation, one choice remains that no one can take away from us - the choice of our attitude toward it. Frankl quotes, Goethe as saying: "There is no predicament that we cannot ennoble either by doing or enduring." And he has also cited a statement of Yehudi Bacon, a man who as a boy was imprisoned in Auschwitz and loft it when he was still a boy. Bacon declared "Suffering can have a meaning if it changes you for the better." In this way, as Frankl has said, life can have meaning to the last breath.

A Jewish Rabbi, Rabbi Easl A. Grollman has described bow he once received a call from a woman dying of an incurable disease. "How can I meet the thought and reality of death?" she asked. The rabbi introduced many of the concepts of immortality found in their faith and as an afterthought he also mentioned the attitudinal value concept of Frankl. "Much of the theological discussion made little impression upon her," the rabbi said, "but attitudinal values invited her curiosity - especially she learned that the founder of the concept was a psychiatrist who was incarcerated in concentration camp. This man and his teaching captured her imagination for he knew more than just the theoretical application of suffering. She resolved them and there if she could not avoid the inescapable suffering, she would determine the manner and mode in which she would meet the illness. She became a tower of strength to these around her, whose hearts were lacerated with pain. At first it was a 'bravado' but with passage of time the act became invested with purpose. She confided in me. "Perhaps my single act of immortality might be the way I face this adversity. Even though my pain at times is unbearable, I have achieved an inner peace and contentment that I had never known before. She died in dignity and is remembered in our community for her indomitable courage."

Frankl's philosophy has not only meaning for those in concentration camps or for those faced with unalterable situations. He has a message for all of us.

As he has said, the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day, from hour to hour. What matters is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of the moment in and through the demands of the moment. Frankl would agree with the assertion of Carlyle: "The situation that has not its duty, its ideal, was never yet occupied by man. Yes, here, in this poor miserable, hampered, despicable actual, wherin thou even now standest, here or nowhere is thy ideal. Work it out therefrom and working believe, live, be free."