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ColumnistsPilgrim's NotesFinding meaning in life’s tests with help from Dr. Viktor Frankl

Finding meaning in life’s tests with help from Dr. Viktor Frankl


by Jack McLean

I am framing the following reflections by combining a skeletal outline of the thought and medical practice of Dr. Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) with the perspective of moral theology. Frankl was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, holocaust survivor and founder of logotherapy, the third school of Viennese psychiatry. The other two Viennese schools were Freud’s psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler’s individual psychology.

Loosely paraphrased, “logotherapy” means to heal through finding meaning. Meaning here does not refer to meditation or becoming philosophical, but rather to make a decision to change your life through positive psychology.

Frankl wrote 39 books, but his most famous work is Man’s Search for Meaning (1959). Still in print, this book is one of the most influential works in existential psychiatry published since Freud. Frankl observed after “working” for three years in the concentration camps, first as a physician and therapist, and later as a slave-labourer, that the inmates who best survived the horrific conditions of Auschwitz and Dachau were those who were capable of finding meaning in their suffering.

As a Jew and a physician, through his experiences of concentration camp life, Frankl came to discover a direct cause-effect relationship between finding meaning in one’s life as a prisoner, and psychological resilience and the chances for survival. Although he wrote that the best of prisoners never survived the camps because they gave their lives for others, he discovered that when he and his fellow-prisoners were able to practice empowering states of mind, they were able to combat, to endure and even to overcome depression and deep despair.

What do I mean by empowering states of mind? According to Frankl, they included: taking personal responsibility for preserving a positive, daily attitude; giving and receiving love; finding a  purpose in the harsh conditions of camp life; accepting adversity without grudgement; sacrificing for or serving others–and hardest of all–to attempt to understand the demonically irrational: to forgive the barbaric cruelty they witnessed every day.

Frankl discovered that while the Nazis could command their prisoners’ bodies, and although they attempted to strip inmates of their identity and to break their will, they could never imprison those who believed that their spirits could never be locked up. Nor could their dignity or self-worth be stolen from them, unless they allowed it. Stripped of everything but the clothes on their backs, subjected to daily brutality, hard-labour and death, some of the prisoners were still able to call on inner, emotional and spiritual resources to help them endure those traumatic years. For Dr. Frankl, this command of one’s inner state is the essence of freedom.

One morning at sunrise, Frankl experienced the transforming bliss of love, as his work-detail was force-marched along an icy road, aided by the butt-end of a guard’s rifle. During a conversation with the friend who walked beside him, as they remembered their former domestic lives with their wives, Frankl recalled the face of his beloved first wife Tilly.

A singular experience of cosmic-consciousness broke in on him as they trudged along, shivering and poorly clad, on that cold winter morning. The experience of recalling Tilly’s illumined face became more radiant and real to him than the rising sun. In that moment, Frankl transcended the suffering of body and mind.

Tilly later died in Bergen-Belsen; Frankl’s mother Elsa and his brother Walter died in Auschwitz. In 1947 Frankl married Eleonore Schwindt, a practising Catholic. Both agreed to respect and observe the other’s religious ceremonies and holy days. The Frankl-Schwindts celebrated both Hanukah and Christmas.

For the rest of us who do not have to endure conditions as traumatically harsh as a prisoner-of-war camp, what role do the tests of life play in our personal development?

Perhaps most importantly, an attitude of acceptance or acquiescence will help us in situations of adversity. “What you resist persists,” says the wise formula that has been attributed to the great psychologist/psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), founder of analytical psychology and proponent of universal archetypes and the collective unconscious. What you accept will begin to change.

Instead of begrudging our fate when when we are visited by situations of adversity or illness, it would be more helpful to remind ourselves that these situations contain in themselves seeds for learning and/or opportunities for developing psychological resilience. Affliction can become either a stumbling-block or a stepping-stone, depending on the attitude we adopt.

Those who became spiritual giants were actually able to rejoice in situations of adversity because they accepted them gladly as opportunities for growth and demonstrating steadfastness of faith. (I must admit that I haven’t reached that pinnacle!) I assume that they grew into such a condition because they were well-practiced in the tests of life. When we look at recent or ancient history, we discover that those who became great in their field were often schooled in adversity or illness.

Although it is normal for the human being, like any living organism, to recoil from distress and pain, whether of body or mind, pill-coddled, narcissistic North American culture has become positively resistant to any sort of psychological or physical distress. Withdrawal, isolation, over-protection and prescription, mood-altering drugs are not the best remedies to liberate us from ourselves and others. Some pain and distress, whether physical or psychological, are intrinsic to the human condition. Accustoming ourselves to face challenges and hardship are part of the disciplined ethic that leads to independent character formation.

Here, of course, I am proposing healthy-mindedness throughout; not abuse of self by self or others–not inhumane, violent practices or rites of passage that have been so often justified to achieve “discipline” or tough-mindedness.

To close with a deep thought of Dr. Frankl–“What gives light must endure burning.”




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