Viktor Frankl on the modern phenomenon of the existentual vacuum, and how we can find meaning in seemingly hopeless situations.
If we possess our why of life we can put up with almost any how. Man does not strive after happiness; only the Englishman does that.
—Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
In February 1945, a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp had a strange dream. A voice told him that it could tell him anything he desired to know, that all he had to do was ask. He asked when the war would be over, when his sufferings would come to an end. “March thirtieth,” the voice replied.
As the days of March went by, it grew ever more apparent that the war would not be over by the prophesied date. Ten days before the date, the man fell ill. In a week, his condition became serious. By the morning of March thirty-first, he was dead. The cruel prophesy was true, the war was over, for him.
This is a story from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, his account of his time at several Nazi concentration camps. Frankl observed that it was not those who had the most physical endurance who survived the hardships of camp life, but those who had something to live for. They could escape the suffering of the camp by retreating into their own inner world. This also implies a terrible reversal: those who no longer had anything to live for would find their physical and mental strength annihilated.
Frankl’s experiences led to his creation of a new school of psychotherapy, one based on the pursuit of meaning, an overview of which he covers in the second part of the book.
Swines and Saints
Frankl called his psychotherapy school logotherapy, dubbed by some as “The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.” The name is derived from the Greek word logos, which Frankl translates as “meaning.” What differentiates logotherapy from other schools is that it assumes that human actions are guided by a “will to meaning” as opposed to a “will to pleasure” of Freudian psychoanalysis, or a “will to power” of Adlerian psychology.
The trouble with other schools, Frankl suggests, is that they reduce human values and the meaning we give our lives to mere “defense mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations.” Frankl’s experience in the Nazi concentration camps showed, however, that man is able to live—and die—for the sake of his ideals. Placed in a position of unavoidable suffering, man still retains the freedom to decide how he acts in response to his suffering, and it is his values and the meaning he gives his life that govern those actions.
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.
The 20th century brought with it a unique psychological phenomenon: the existential vacuum. Before modernity, man didn’t need to think about his purpose—it was either forced on him by his instinctual drives, or was passed down to him through tradition. Having severed himself from his animalistic instincts, and having dismantled centuries of traditions, man has achieved unparalleled freedom, but he has has also lost the two guiding forces of his life. He has created an existential vacuum, for he now has to find something towards which to orient his life, he must find his purpose.
Unable to do so, he follows others (conformism), or is forced to do so (totalitarianism). The lack of meaning then results in depression, aggression and addiction. Whereas before, he might have gone to voice his troubles to a priest, today he visits a doctor, who is all too quick to diagnose his symptoms as a disease and prescribe medications. While medications may be the right solution in certain cases, Frankl points out that “a man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.
Additionally, because contemporary psychotherapy is affected by contemporary nihilistic philosophy—a philosophy that reduces everything to basic drives—it becomes impossible for it to resolve the problem of meaning since it inadvertently teaches that man is merely a product of his conditions. Frankl, on the other hand, assumes that human values are also driving forces, and focuses on solving the source of the problem by helping us find purpose in our lives.
A human achievement
Depending on the cause, suffering might not be a symptom of neurosis. If is caused by existential frustration, it may even be “a human achievement.” The cause of such frustration is not psychological, but noölogical (noösbeing the Greek for mind, or intellect). Noölogical neuroses are therefore not a conflict of drives, but arise from an existential problem, a lack of meaning in one’s life.
Our modern value system assumes that we should all be happy, but this only makes us more unhappy about being unhappy. So we try to alleviate our unhappiness by seeking equilibrium, by trying to reach the tensionless state of “homeostasis.” Frankl suggests that this is a mistake, and that we should actually do the opposite: we should seek meaningful tension.
“If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together.” Likewise, inner tension is essential for mental health. We archive it by creating meaningful tension between two poles, one pole designating your current situation, the other being what you wish to become, or what you have already achieved and what you ought to achieve.
The inmates of the Nazi concentration camps who had a task waiting for them were more likely to survive. Frankl himself had finished a manuscript at the time of his imprisonment, which he hoped to publish. His manuscript was seized and he had no hope of ever seeing it again. But he was proud of his work, and he began to rewrite it on any scrap of paper he could find in the camp. This task gave him something to focus on beyond his hardship and thus provided him with the mental fortitude to endure the suffering of camp life.
The meaning of life not only differs from person to person, it also differs from day to day. What matters is the meaning for a particular person at a given moment in time. There’s no universal meaning that can be applied to everyone, rather, one’s current circumstances can assume a meaning:
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 being responsible.
Meaning is discovered in the world rather than within one’s own psyche, because it is not a closed system. The potential sources of meaning thus lie in our work, in meeting someone or experiencing something, and in our attitude towards unavoidable suffering. The last source is especially interesting because it gives us a way of dealing with the trials of misfortune.
The freedom to choose one’s attitude
You don’t need to suffer to find meaning, but unavoidable suffering can be meaningful. Sometimes terrible things happen to us which we cannot change, some affliction that’s not in our power to alleviate. It could be the loss of someone dear to us. It could be an incurable disease. It could be imprisonment in a ruthless, totalitarian state. In those times it seems that life ceases to be worth living as all that remains to us is suffering. But while we might not be able to change our condition, we can change how we view it, and it is possible to find meaning even in most hopeless situations.
For example, one of Frankl’s clients was a man who was deeply grieved by the loss of his wife. Frankl asked him what it would be like if the roles were reversed, i.e. if it was him who had died and his wife who had outlived him. The man said that his wife would have been terribly depressed. Frankl then suggested that by outliving his wife, the husband thus relieved her of this suffering. His current grief was the price he had to pay for his wife’s relief. Suffering thus “ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
In the concentration camp, Frankl was robbed of his freedoms. There was nothing he could do to change his circumstances, to escape his conditions. It was even very likely that he was going to die. But there was one freedom which he still retained, and that was how he acted in response to those conditions. Would he surrender to the suffering and the primal urge for survival and with that renounce his dignity, or would he choose to act as a human being despite the savagery around him and thus retain his sense of self worth? His captors could take away his life, but they could not take away his freedom to keep his dignity.
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.