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Viktor Frankl: Life and Deeds

As early as 1946, when Viktor Frankl’s Man's Search for Meaning was first published in English, he saw clearly that “long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naïve query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value” (1997, p. 78). Frankl writes that “to look for the general meaning of man's life would be comparable to asking a chess player: 'What is the best move?' There is no such thing as 'the best move' apart from the one that is best within the context of a particular situation of a particular game” (1967, p. 57). What is meaningful for an individual, and worth seeking, is different from person to person, day by day, hour by hour, and situation by situation. This paper, by referring to the life and deeds of Viktor Frankl, analyzes the influence of faith and spirituality on building inner strength and forming unique perception of reality by this great psychologist.

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Meaningful living is to be contrasted not with negative meaning, or evil, but with boredom. Even negative versus positive meaning, can present us with something to overcome, to resist, to set out to destroy: in sum, it can provide us with a meaningful and worthwhile cause. Many individuals who have served well in the military, then find that everything that follows after those years of life- risking challenge is a let-down. If they could find something that engaged them as did the war, that spurred them to reach beyond their anticipated limits, presented new challenges, and encouraged them to enter into relationships as deep and genuine as those encountered in the trenches of war, then they would be able to achieve more than most in civilian life, for they would be people already shaped by the demands and hardships of war. Instead, what often happens is that apathy sets in. The civilian world is not as glamorous, nor does it necessarily challenge you. The assembly line is dull repetitive, and often characterized by avoidance rather than commitment. Much of work in our society is repetitive, monotonous, and for most people nearly devoid of creative expression and innovation. Frankl refers to this state of apathy as “the existential vacuum” (1967, p. 17).

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Frankl calls his school of psychotherapy ‘logotherapy’ because his profound and dreadful experiences as a death-camp prisoner in Nazi Germany convinced him that what kept people healthy and alive, even in such extreme and de-humanizing conditions, was both the continued experience of meaning and the anticipated meanings of a possible life after the death camps. The Greek word logos means a number of things in English, including reason, speech, account, definition, proportion, rationality, argument, thought, etc., but it also denotes meaning (Fabry 2003). Logotherapy is meaning therapy, and it is based on the assumption that there is a primal urge or fundamental need within us that is even stronger and more fundamental than the will to power or the will to pleasure -- namely, the need for meaning in our living and thinking. The will to meaning is our primary concern, our ultimate drive (Fabry 2003). Frankl rejects Freud's opinion that “the moment a man questions the meaning and value of life he is sick”. By contrast, Frankl contends that one who does question the meaning and value of life is “truly a human being” (1967, p. 20). The weight of argument passes from Freud's intellectual theory to Frankl's horrendous experiences in a death camp:

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the precept primum vivere, deinde philosophari -- first survive, then philosophize about it -- was invalidated. What was valid in the camp was rather the exact opposite of this precept, primum philosophari, deinde mori -- first philosophize, then die. This was the one valid thing (Frankl 1967, pp. 104-105).

The extreme conditions of the death camp taught Frankl that life can remain unconditionally meaningful even under the most extreme conditions, and that life “remains meaningful literally up to its last moment, up to one's last breath” (Fabry 2003). While logotherapy does not see itself as opposing to any of the more traditional forms of psychotherapy, it does identify itself with the existential movement. This is an important thing to note, for existentialism rejects the view that there is a single right perspective or horizon of understanding and emphasizes instead that each of us must find a meaningful and workable way of being in the world (Gadamer 1999). As humans we do not come into the world with a fated nature, except in a biologically limited sense, but create our nature in the very process of choosing, valuing, and living. We are fully responsible for who it is that we become. In the final analysis, there is no one else to blame. It is totally our own doing, and the blame we put on others for ‘making us what we are’ is erroneous.

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In everyday life we mask the felt meaninglessness of our existence. We find ways of papering over the despair and emptiness by means of diversions, spectacles, and entertainments, or through drugs or alcohol, or by exercising the will to power and/or the will to pleasure, in order to hide the existential vacuum, the boredom within. Some people flee from the void by drinking, taking drugs, or a round of cocktail parties, bridge parties, and so on, or to sexual fulfillment and relief from the dispassionate boredom of being at home alone. All of these masks are a retreat to the will to pleasure, and again the result is to gain some pleasure, to be sure, but at the expense of papering over the deeper need, that of understanding the will to meaning. Other masks that Frankl specifically identifies include our obsession with speed, with motorization that impresses others -- a Camero or a BMW may be imagined to confer on one a specific image or special status. If we believe the ads, certain products will also make us better, attractive to the opposite sex, and to be taken as successful, as having arrived.

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Frankl believed that the ultimate measure of meaning in life is the value accruing from the direct and immediate experience gained as a result of living. However complex the background of a so-called meaningful life, the meaning itself is directly experienced. And the ultimate ground or place of meaning arising is the individual human being, in the specific situations of his or her life. While the sources of meaning are almost predictably outside the individual self, the experiences of meaningfulness are necessarily someone's experiences.

Frankl has noted that logotherapy has been accused of hanging “close to authoritarianism” and of “taking over the patient's responsibility and diminishing him as a person” (Qtd in Fankl 1975, p. 121). Surely it is more often the case that traditional psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are more likely to operate in an authoritarian manner. Kisch and Kroll (1980) have effectively argued this point in an article entitled “Meaningfulness versus Effectiveness,” in which they maintain that psychotherapy has become an “emotional imperialism” through exploiting patients “by rendering them vulnerable to the needs of the therapist. The therapist is established in an emotionally superior position; the patient believes and accepts the notion that the therapist has answers derived from superior knowledge and greater emotional stability” (pp. 407-408). It is precisely such emotional power and authority that lead therapists as well as patients to accept interesting ideas as established truths. Because of the emphasis placed on such descriptions as normal, “able to function well in society,” and “exhibits socially acceptable behavior,” there is ever present the danger of confusing theory with ideology: “The ideological therapist is indoctrinating the patient into a world view that he or she believes to be a superior mode for personal living. In this respect therapy can degenerate into a form of brain washing. Frequently therapeutic method is determined by the therapist's adherence to a particular technique irrespective of the patient's presenting problem” (Kisch and Kroll 1980, pp. 407-408). The specific selection of methods of treatment and the interpretation of the nature of the problem, together with the end results preferred, are all expressions of the therapist's own school of thought and are imbedded in his or her overall world-view.

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By contrast, Frankl, in describing logotherapy, warns that “a doctor cannot give meanings to his patients” and that meaning arises out of “one's whole being -- one's life is itself the answer to the question of its meaning” (1975, pp. 120, 121). Even more to the point, Frankl writes that “it is never up to a therapist to convey to the patient a picture of the world as the therapist sees it; but rather, the therapist should enable the patient to see the world as it is,” or as the patient finds it reasonable and meaningful (Frankl 1967, p. 57). Questions about what is meaningful can only be answered by the patient, and the logotherapist is to interact with the patient in heightening and enhancing what is already latently meaningful to that person. You are responsible for your own meaning:

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If the patient's world-view alters, it will be because he or she has grown to see that a different world-view, or a modification of the previous world-view, yields more meaning in his or her life, or in the moral sense is the course to follow, or in the sense of what it is that s/he wishes to become ideally that this step is an important one to take. Frankl seeks to preserve the creative tension between the being or the "’is’ of a person and the ‘ought’ or the ideal that that person also posits for her or himself. Indeed, “if this tension is to be preserved, meaning has to be prevented from coinciding with being. I should say that it is the meaning of meaning to set the pace of being” (1975, p. 123-124).

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Part of what Frankl means to be a healthy person is to have goals or aspirations, or to do better with your human encounters, at your work, and so on. Both in and out of the death camps, those people who have something to work towards, to strive for, to achieve in the next minute, day, or decade, continue to find their lives meaningful, whereas those who have no such ideals confront the existential vacuum head on. Frankl suggests that “he who can cling to no end point, to no time in the future, to no point of support, is in danger of allowing himself to collapse inwardly” (1967, p. 97). The end point envisioned, and the imagined future will likely change in the process of living, but none the less point the way out of the existential vacuum. The individual remains the ultimate judge of what is, in fact, meaningful. What is required on the part of the therapist is the ability to deal with the patients who have a spiritual or philosophical knot to untie, or whose world-view is inconsistent, or woefully unexplored, or frightening, or appears to them to be sinful or immoral.











Frankl's emphasis on the philosophical is important, for it makes clear that any positions are seen to be imbedded in a wider perspective. All of us are in search of a philosophy of life. A neurotic world-view needs to be listened to, genuinely encountered, for it may in fact yield more meaning than another. But it may also be responsible for the patient's guilt, or psychic pain, or emotional and physical suffering, and so will have somehow to be altered or integrated with other factors in her/his life.

Such probing is typically philosophical and meaning-oriented, and it is evident that Frankl's writing and practice is saturated in what has historically been termed normative philosophical theorizing, or the search for a philosophy of life. Logotherapy is involved in assisting individual patients in the creation of a somewhat systematic and meaningful whole story that will serve to provide answers to the questions of importance in an individual's life and tangible directions for living. A person who is in despair, who is at the edge of suicide, is not, of course, in search of an entire philosophy of life at that very moment. Yet he will begin the journey back to fullness of living by providing at least one answer to the question “But why do you not commit suicide?”

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This powerful question is not meant to trigger the act, for it actually pulls in the opposite direction. The fact that the person has not yet tried kill himself indicates that he perceives, however dimly, some reason or reasons for going on. Frankl often rehearses the range of possibilities, and it is easy to imagine the list as reaching ahead indefinitely: you are not yet ready to give life up, for all of its pain, or you do not wish to leave forever someone whom you love, or you still have a hope that things will get better, or you cannot bear the thought of another spring arriving, with its birds in greening trees, without being around to enjoy it. Any single thread will suffice, for on it and around it will be woven a considerably larger and richer tapestry of meaning. Any reason for living is enough to get the process underway. What matters is that a cluster of meaning be found and not that the meaning coincide with the therapist's or anyone else's meaning-cluster: “What matters . . . is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment” (Frankl 1975, p. 110).

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Viktor Frankl has disagreed with the Freudian-implied claim that all therapy is therapy for psychological complexes. He has argued against behaviorism in rejecting the thesis of pan-determinism, the view that we are nothing more than the predictable result of the specific confluence of past events and purely physical inheritance. It is not doubted that we feel as though we were free, but it is denied that this feeling is anything more than an unfounded warm hope that makes us feel better about ourselves. The charge is a strong one, and must be rebutted.

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