Guest Column: Thoughts about Viktor Frankl

by Edward Reid


Viktor Frankl survived a genocide, the Holocaust. He lost all his family; although he had an opportunity to leave Austria to save his life, he did not want to leave his parents. Frankl would also lose his wife, not knowing whether she was alive or dead. Through three different camps, he held out hope as though she was, envisioning her face every day.

“I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out (during all my prison life, there was no outgoing or incoming mail); but at that moment, it ceased to matter.”

Frankl wrote about his time at Auschwitz and his survival, the human experience, and suffering. His book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” is about finding purpose in the worst possible place, a concentration camp. This book, I would say, at least for me, is something to behold. We often see ourselves as victims in today’s world, but considering what Frankl went through and then what he advises, this is a hard pill to swallow.

Considering he lost everything and spent years suffering and witnessing death. He has the right to complain, condemn, and make that claim. Yet he hardly does. In his biography, he tells of his life growing up and speaks fondly of his family, then shares a bit about when the persecution began but didn’t point fingers.

He tells jokes about an SS man and a Jew, but nothing at all to what some of us would expect regarding the feelings that one would assume Jews would have towards Germans. Frankl writes, “I do not forget any good deed done to me, and I do not carry a grudge for a bad one.”

In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he writes in the same manner, I assume because he saw the worst of humanity amongst camp prisoners. A psychotherapist, a keen observer of human nature, knows we cannot blame all people for the crimes of some.

He is clear about this when observing the brutality of the Kapo and what they do…all were not simply members of a particular culture. Brutish behavior has no cultural demarcation. Survival and immersing yourself in a cause help eliminate the need to process your actions. Psychopathic behavior is but one example. No one is immune to cruelty, and he realizes this, just as no one is entirely immune to suffering and empathy.

Auschwitz Credit: Museum of Jewish Heritage

In all of this, one thing stands out, he can see that everything depends on one’s attitude, and often that was the difference between life and death. Frankl writes, “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.”

Of course, today, in my opinion, we also must consider mental health when assessing attitude. We need to know the impacts of conditions like clinical depression that may require medicine or therapy, the kind Frankl himself would later give. He would create his psychological treatment that he coined “Logotherapy.” Perhaps this could be more relevant than ever

“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 by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

As someone who spends much time philosophizing and writing about it, Frankl says we need to stop asking about the meaning of life and consider “right action,” Taking responsibility to find the correct answer to problems and fulfill tasks. He writes much about action as opposed to thinking, although in my opinion, he is one of our greatest thinkers; his thinking produces actions. Much like William James, another influential thinker. 

As for logotherapy, it is more than just “therapy.” It is a philosophy for the spiritually lost and education for those confused. It offers support in the face of suffering and healing for the sick (Guttmann, 2008).

Frankl viewed logotherapy to enhance existing therapies by emphasizing the “meaning-dimension” or the spiritual dimension of human beings. He included three philosophical and psychological concepts: freedom of will, will meaning, and meaning of life (Batthyany, 2019).

Freedom of will asserts that humans are free to decide and take a stance toward internal and external conditions. Freedom in this context is defined as a space to shape one’s own life within limits of specific possibilities.

This freedom provides the individual with room for autonomy in the face of bodily or psychological illness. In essence, we are free to choose our responses no matter our circumstances, as we did in the camp.

Here we see in our society where we could use this advice. We have choices in life, and now, too often, we are taught that we don’t. Rejoining the educational system and witnessing the current theory of thought and philosophy regarding teaching, I see we are dooming our children in some ways. I am not pleased; at least according to doctrine, Frankl would not agree either.

Will to meaning states that humans are free to achieve goals and purposes in life. Frustration, aggression, addiction, depression, and suicidality arise when individuals cannot realize their “will to meaning.” As humans, our primary motive is to search for meaning or purpose in our lives. We can surpass pleasure and supporting pain for a meaningful cause.

Think about a time in your life when you were suffering, but that suffering had a purpose? It wasn’t just a meaningless injury that was for no good. Perhaps someone is going to prison for a just cause or doing what is right; although there are negative consequences, sometimes we can endure because we know we suffer for a purpose. 

Meaning in life is based on the idea that meaning is an objective reality rather than an illusion or personal perception. Humans have both the freedom and responsibility to bring forth their best possible selves by realizing the moment’s meaning in every situation.

And meaning changes. As does what you choose to be your meaning or purpose. “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”

The freedom to change is a fact that may scare some people because change is uncomfortable, but it may be the right thing to do. Ultimately, that is up to the individual to decide what is right and what is wrong and if being right is worth being uncomfortable. Is being right and moral worth being killed? Some people chose this path, which they did in World War II. Rather than collaborate with the Germans and execute Jews, Polish police were murdered for not cooperating in this genocide. That was a choice.

I also think hopelessness is a terrifying spot to be in, and that is time to reach out for human contact. Humans were meant for other humans. Perhaps Frankl would not have survived after all if he could not assess other humans’ behavior in camp. That gave him purpose. Human connection is essential for our livelihood; in my opinion, we need that to thrive.

Can we find meaning under all circumstances, even unavoidable suffering? We can discover purpose in life through creative clues, experiential values, and attitudinal values (Lewis, 2011).

In reality, and my opinion, it is a challenge sometimes to live, but life is ultimately worth it, but we must find the value. No one will give that to us, and we cannot expect them too either. If we think we will be granted that, we will be let down.

We create our purpose; whether through a vocation, a child, working for others freely, some hobby, whatever that may be, we are the creators of our destiny. Frankl lectured to no one at Auschwitz, but he found a purpose by teaching. If you must lecture to no one to find purpose and stay alive, do it because you have meaning, you may not know what is now, but by hanging on, you will figure that out. 

Frankl wrote this profound message for us to consider, “So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Some added thoughts: Irvin Yalom, MD, psychiatrist and Professor emeritus at Stanford University in his substantial work on Existential Psychotherapy (1980) notes as part of his observations about Frankl, “Self-transcendence is the cardinal feature of Viktor Frankl’s approach to the question of meaning…”. Yalom later notes that challenge for some scholars is that Logotherapy “belongs neither to psychoanalytically parented schools, nor to psychiatry, nor to religious studies nor to behaviorally oriented academic psychology, nor to the “pop” personal growth movement.” Those views don’t devalue Frankl’s work.

There are other scholars that find Frankl’s method self-aggrandizing, reductionist, strident, his arguments appeal to emotions, and so forth. Regardless of these observations, (Yalom gives Frankl his due) his works struck a chord for so many people – for his works and life were focused on seeking the relationship meaning between pain and suffering. The role of meaning, especially from a religious /spiritual nature, was core to Frankl’s works. That set him apart.  

After reading his works and the search for meaning I must ask how would my life change if I honestly considered logotherapy and took it to heart and applied it to my life?