Exisitencialism, emptyness, constant boredom… all signs of the XXI century man struggling to find a meaning to his life. A struggle for meaning that only seems to be getting harder decade after decade, generation after generation. Capitalism tells us its money, Goverment tells us its work, Religion tells us its God, Hollywood tells us its pleasure… the list of meanings goes on and on… and so does the number of people that feel their existence is meaningless, that they have no control over their lives.
But what if there was a a way to find meaning to our lives… what if the reason we are not finding that meaning is because we are not looking in the right places. Here is where Viktor Frankl’s theory of logotherapy comes in. Frankl was a jew with a loving family, a prominent career as psicologist/neurologist, a pregnant wife and unpublished book. Then came 1942. His family was put on a train. His dad died in his arms. His mother was sent to the gas chambers. His wife was forced to abortion and sent to another camp. His unpublished book was ripped to shreds. Everything he loved… gone in the blink of an eye.
So there he was standing in front of Auschwitz’s electric fence. With every right to want jump… end his life… escape the suffering. But right then, another prisoner touched his shoulder and said “Don’t, wait till to tomorrow”. And thus he waited. Waited 3 years in 3 different concentration camps before finally being liberated in 1945. What keep him alive? His willingness to reunite with his wife and rewrite his lost book.
His experiences in the camps taught him a lot about the human being. It showed him that even in the most miserable, inhuman conditions where a people were reduced to numbers: humans retained the ability to choose. Even in Auschwitz, prisoners could still to retain some dignity. “The pigs were unmasked. And so were the saints. Hunger revealed them” It’s this experience and his own professional formation that motivated Frankl to elaborate his theory of logotherapy.
Logotherapy focuses on the meaning of life and man´s search for that meaning. Not an abstract/universal meaning that applies for all, but rather, a concrete personal meaning that life holds for everyone. Instead of dwelling in the past, logotherapy encourages us to look at the future. A personal meaning that has to found in the world outside, not inside.
According to Frankl there a 3 different ways of discovering/carrying out the meaning of life:
1. Meaning of action: having a goal, a mission in life. Wanting to write, create or achieve something that one can later look at and be genuinely proud of.
2. Meaning of love: being able to accept and love that which sorrounds you. Being able to enjoy nature, art, company, friends and family.
3. Meaning of suffering: when one faces an inescapable destiny (terminal disease, death), life offers one the opportunity of carrying out a supreme value: accepting the suffering. Valor resides not in the suffering itself, but in the attitude in which one faces that suffering. By accepting the challenge of suffering, life maintains its meaning to the last instant, all the way to the very end.
Frankl admits that the our meaning of life can change with the passing of time, but the important thing its that never ceases to exist. In summary, what his experience in the concentration camp taught him was this: “The human being is not just an object among’st objects; things determine other things, but men, at the last instance, determines himself.”
Even Nietzsche, a devout existencialist, once said: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”. The trick is in finding that “why”.
Quoting the last words of Viktor Frankl’s short book Man’s Search for Meaning (which I highly recommend)
“We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s prayer or the Shema Yisreal on his lips”