Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Man's Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl

link to book

Personal events of the past week have yet again brought this book off my shelf and I realized that I have never directly reviewed it in the blog.

Dr Victor Frankl, trained as a psychiatrist before suffering years of life in the brutal concentration camps of Nazi Germany where he lost his young wife, parents and of course millions of others (including many more of his friends and associates), has a level of authority that is hard to ignore.

Beyond his experience in the horror of the camps, he founded a school of psychotherapy called "Logotherapy", derived from the Greek "logos" or "meaning". It is considered the 3rd school of Viennese psychotherapy, contrasted with Freud's "will to pleasure", and the Adler/Nietzsche "will to power", it talks of a "will to meaning" in the existential manner similar to Kierkegaard.

Logotherapy speaks of "existential frustration", where the term "existential" has 3 related meanings:
  1. Existence itself in the way that humans experience it.
  2. The MEANING of existence
  3. The PERSONAL SEARCH for that meaning
Where Freud, and largely the American Founders thought that "happiness" or "pleasure" is what is to be pursued, Frankl believes that life provides each of us a task that is specific and unique for each person. Every human has value because each has a unique task that will likely fall under one or more of three headings:

1). The completing of a "work" -- art, innovation, a family, ideas, business, etc ...

2). Experiencing or encountering someone or some thing -- the love of your life, care for the poor, the elderly, the sick ... or maybe just "baseball", or "riding motorcycle"

3). Suffering -- facing inevitable suffering and turning it to triumph. Very much looked down on today where we tend to make people "ashamed for being unhappy". Note if the suffering CAN be removed, then that is what should be done, but if it is a terminal painful condition, or someone close to you is lost -- or if you are in a concentration camp, then human suffering CAN have dignity.

A well known quote from Nietzsche comes up a couple times in the book "He who has a why can bear with almost any how." The message of the book is that it is meaning that is primary (the why). Happiness is a RESULT not the immediate objective, and in fact, the pursuit of happiness as a primary goal is often destructive as it fails to realize that RESPONSIBILITY ... inescapable responsibility to answer the question that life asks us, is the natural human state and it REQUIRES tension ... effort, risk, loss, pain.

The idea that happiness is a worthy "pursuit" and some would even say "a right" is a sham, because of what Frankl calls "the tragic triad" that is part of each of our lives:

Pain, Guilt, and Death. 

Part of each of our "question" is how do we say yes to life in the face of Pain, Guilt, and Death. His basic answer is "A human being is not one in pursuit of happiness, but rather in search of a reason to become happy".

I'm going to include his "imperative", even though it is one that does not speak to me as well as much of the book does:
 "Live life as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now". 
To try to give readers a chance to follow this better than possibly I do, I will quote a bit more:
" In fact, the opportunities to act properly, the potentialities to fulfill a meaning, are affected by the irreversibility of our lives. But also the potentialities alone are so affected. For as soon as we have used an opportunity and have actualized a potential meaning, we have done so once and for all. We have rescued it into the past wherein it as been safely delivered and deposited. In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness, but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past which they have brought into the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity." 
My belief is that the reason this does not speak to me to the same extent is that I did not suffer in a concentration camp, nor lose a young wife that I loved, all my family and most of my friends to the Holocaust. To Frankl, his life prior to, and even the experience of the horror of the camps is so much a part of his soul that he has had to integrate that as "treasure", somewhat in order to live, but possibly more so in order to honor and keep alive the memories of those he knew and loved that were lost so early in his life.

The book is not directly a "religious book", although to believe that "life" asks each a meaningful question, there is only a short step from "life" to "God". If one has Christian Faith, much in the book is quite easily to translate to that context.

Needless to say, I highly recommend the book, ESPECIALLY for those suffering ... and in human life, eventually, that includes all of us.

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