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The Work of Viktor Frankl

Meaning and purpose: the work of viktor frankl

The Work of Viktor Frankl

This is the second part of a five part year end series of blogs about what is meant by finding a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life and no article on this topic would be complete without mentioning the work of Viktor Frankl.

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.”           “Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist who was interned, along with many members of his family, in the Auschwitz concentration camp. His parents, brother and beloved wife Tilly all died in the camps, but Viktor survived. He went on to write about and teach others what he had learned about how to survive the most appalling life circumstances by finding meaning in all situations, even in suffering. He went on to later establish a new school of existential therapy called logotherapy, based on the premise that man’s underlying motivator in life is a “will to meaning,” even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” written in 1946 chronicles his experiences during his period of captivity. He pointed to research indicating a strong relationship between “meaninglessness” and criminal behaviours, addictions and depression. Without meaning, people fill the void with empty pleasures and distractions, power, materialism, hatred, boredom, or neurotic obsessions and compulsions. He said that some may also strive for what he called “supra-meaning”, the ultimate meaning in life, a spiritual kind of meaning that depends solely on a greater power outside of personal or external control.

in the pursuit of meaning, he recommends three different courses of action: through deeds, the experience of values through some kind of medium (beauty through art, love through a relationship, etc.) or through suffering (he felt that suffering became an option through which to find meaning and experience values in life in the absence of the other two opportunities).

He also said that humour, more than anything else in the human make-up, can give us the ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. Even living in a concentration camp, he taught himself to see things in a humorous light whenever he could.

Joy as a by-product of finding meaning in your life

He said that joy is never an end to itself, but is an important by-product of finding meaning in life. And illustrated this with a stirring example of how his feelings for his wife gave him a sense of meaning:

“We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet” — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.”

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