Viktor Frankl’s name was invoked three times this May by writers sharing thoughts for dealing with these challenging days. This motivated me to pull out and review a yellowed, heavily marked up copy of Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning, that I read many years ago.
Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who died in 1997. Personal Health columnist for The New York Times, Jane E. Brody, whom I quoted two weeks ago in my blog, wrote about Frankl’s recently translated book entitled, Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything. In her article, “How to Maintain Motivation During Dark Times,” Brody cited Frankl’s path to finding hope even in these dark times. She was referring to the pandemic but the lesson applies to recent social unrest as well.
Kristin Wong, a contributor to The New York Times – Smarter Living series, quoted Dr. Sarah Kate McGowan, professor at University of California medical school, in the April 29, 2020 article “Despite Uncertain Times, Choose Optimism.”
“I’ve been thinking frequently of the quote from Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning: ‘Those who have a “why” to live can bear with almost any how.’ … “We can choose to use this time to connect to ourselves and what’s important to us, our values, who we strive to be in the world.”
In last Sunday’s The Washington Post, Diane Cole, author of the memoir, After Great Pain; A New Life Emerges, provided a review of Frankl’s recently translated work,”In the midst of despair, he discovered a way to have hope.”
Cole begins by mourning the loss of a friend to the “corona virus” – while her friend was not infected by the disease, the pandemic caused her despair and unable to look forward to all the things she had planned. She committed suicide after seeing her life “crumbling into ruin.” Cole then shared Frankl’s uplifting story:
It’s the challenge posed by any crisis: How do we hang on to hope? It is the question that Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), the Viennese psychiatrist and author best known for his exploration of trauma and resilience, Man’s Search for Meaning, devoted the bulk of his career to answering.
Now, with the publication for the first time in English of Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, originally written as a series of lectures in 1946, we have the opportunity to read what amounts to a brief, early draft of the concepts he presented in more accessible form and in greater detail in his later classic. But in whichever version you encounter them, Frankl’s ideas bear particular consideration right now.
Frankl stressed the importance of what he called the will to meaning. He believed that having a sense of meaning or purpose or a goal in life drives us forward from one day to the next, even when we confront personal suffering, family tragedy or public calamity. That is the inner compass that gives us direction; when we lose it, we begin to drift and can become lost in, and to, despair.
Frankl had begun to develop his ideas about the pivotal role meaning plays in our lives before the Nazi regime deported him and his family to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942. As Jews, the Frankls were in Hitler’s crosshairs for annihilation.
But despite four years of being shuttled from one camp to another, suffering the ravages of typhus and starvation and the nonstop threat of being shot, beaten or gassed to death, Frankl endured. He held onto the hope that he would see his family after the war. He also set his sights on completing the unfinished manuscript describing his theories that the Nazis had seized and destroyed when they imprisoned him.
Those goals kept him focused on the possibility of a postwar future. He even jotted down brief notes on scraps of paper, which he hid in his threadbare uniform, about how his experience of life in extremis bore out his ideas. He observed that fellow inmates who were able to maintain an inner purpose were less likely to give up and give in to the futility of camp existence.
It did not matter what the goal was — whether to reunite with loved ones, to bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, to stay true to religious faith or to spite the enemy simply by staying alive. Just having a reason to live bolstered the will to live, to try to persevere, evade death, survive, even if just for another day and then the next, with each day holding the possibility of bringing the goal that much closer.
After the war, Frankl was devastated to learn that neither his parents nor his wife had made it out of the camps alive. But he did have his work, and he buried himself in it, reconstructing and in time completing the manuscript the Nazis had seized, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” as well as composing, less than a year after being freed from his hellish incarceration, the three public lectures that make up “Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything.”
How could survivors return to life if they did not believe that their lives held value? In the approach to psychotherapy he developed, which he called Logotherapy, Frankl proposed an antidote to giving in to such nihilism: taking hold, instead, of life’s meaning — and more precisely, the particular aim we set for ourselves. If we search, such a purpose can be found embedded in our values, beliefs, experiences, and capabilities, and in and through the different personal and professional interests, communities, and caring relationships we’ve created.
The fate Frankl confronted was the Holocaust. Our fate today is wrapped up in the coronavirus pandemic. Finding and sustaining meaning in the midst of crisis is not easy. I wish my friend had known about this strategy and had sought help that could have harnessed her back to life.