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"Why" is the Secret to "How" - Lessons from Viktor Frankl

Updated on May 7, 2011

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him. ~ Viktor Frankl

In the movie "Sleepless in Seattle," Sam (Tom Hanks) feeling guilt from his little son's insistence, gets on the phone with a talk show host who asks him about life after his wife's death:

Doctor Marcia Fieldstone: People who truly loved once are far more likely to love again. Sam, do you think there's someone out there you could love as much as your wife?

Sam Baldwin: Well, Dr. Marcia Fieldstone, that's hard to imagine.

Doctor Marcia Fieldstone: What are you going to do?

Sam Baldwin: Well, I'm gonna get out of bed every morning... breath in and out all day long. Then, after a while I won't have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breath in and out... and, then after a while, I won't have to think about how I had it great and perfect for a while.

Doctor Marcia Fieldstone: Tell me what was so special about your wife?

Sam Baldwin: Well, how long is your program? Well, it was a million tiny little things that, when you added them all up, they meant we were supposed to be together... and I knew it. I knew it the very first time I touched her. It was like coming home... only to no home I'd ever known... I was just taking her hand to help her out of a car and I knew. It was like... magic.

Viktor Frankl Photo by Katharina Vesely 1994
Viktor Frankl Photo by Katharina Vesely 1994

He who has a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how' ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Viktor E. Frankl was one of the great motivators/psychotherapists of this century. He survived the Holocaust, even though he was in four Nazi death camps including Auschwitz from 1942-45. He spent almost all his life in Vienna--born there in 1905 and died there in 1997. Frankl was on the staff of Rothschild Hospital when he was taken prisoner. Frankl's first book in English, Man's Search For Meaning was written while in a Nazi prison camp during World War II. (According to United States Library of Congress poll, the book is one of the ten most influential books in America.)

Frankl could have left the country before being arrested but after praying for a sign from God, he found a piece of his bombed synagogue which said "Honor your father and mother..." and decided to stay with his parents. While they perished in the camps, Frankl held on because of his intense sense of purpose. Through his experiences in the camps, he developed a revolutionary approach to psychotherapy known as logotherapy.

At the core of his theory is the belief that humanity's primary motivational force is the search for meaning. Even in the degradation and misery of the concentration camps, Frankl was able to exercise the most important freedom of all: the freedom to determine one's own attitude and spiritual well-being.

According to Frankl, only the prisoners who recognized a meaning to their lives and looked forward to fulfilling it were able to sustain the abuse, demoralization and unhealthy conditions of the concentration camps. These people had a reason to live and a reason to overcome the ruthless abuse and horrendous living conditions.

Life is meaningless only if we allow it to be. Each of us has the power to give life meaning, to make our time and our bodies and our words into instruments of love and hope. ~ Tom Head

Frankl refers to life without meaning as an existential vacuum in which life becomes boring and is often dictated by the desires or demands of others. Depression is likely to set in and aggressive or addictive behavior is likely to ensue. People who are stuck in this vacuum tend to fill the void by seeking power, money or pleasure, and will eventually come to the inevitable conclusion that these temporary forms of superficial satisfaction will never provide the deep fulfillment that results from living a meaningful life.

Frankl attributes true meaning to three sources.

  • Accomplishments and creative activities such as solving a problem or creating an invention
  • Experiencing something or someone inspiring such as the beauty of nature, the love for a spouse or family member, or the value of a close friend
  • Identifying value in unavoidable suffering

Humans are not merely products of their genes or their environment, they are ultimately self-determining. Frankl wrote, "In the concentration camp, we witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself: which one is actualized depends on decisions not on conditions. Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers and he is also that being who entered the gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."

It was Frankl's contention that the pleasure principle of Freud is self-defeating. The more one aims for pleasure, the more his aim is missed. The very "pursuit of happiness" is what thwarts it and this self-defeating quality of pleasure-seeking accounts for many sexual problems. If your goal is to achieve a high level of sexual pleasure, often you are too stressed trying to perform that you miss out entirely. When you focus on your partner and the love you have for them, the pleasure comes naturally.

Striving for superiority has a similar negative result if that is your aim. If you have a goal of serving your fellowman, you often find that excellence is a happy by-product. If there is a reason for happiness, happiness comes automatically and spontaneously. Neither happiness nor success can substitute for fulfillment and meaning. Man is pushed by drives but pulled by meaning. Fulfillment always implies decision-making rather than a drive to meaning.

Man is responsible for the fulfillment of the specific meaning of his personal life. He is also responsible before something, or to something, be it society, or humanity, or God, or his own conscience. Many people interpret their existence not just in terms of being responsible in general terms but rather to someone, namely God.

I don't want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well. ~ Diane Ackerman

The existential vacuum is often experienced as a state of boredom or depression when people become aware of the lack of content and meaning in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.

The existential vacuum can lead you to seek meaning in your life or through fear of responsibility and the tendency to escape from freedom lead you to a kind of nihilism that considers that life is meaningless. Responsibility to others and the freedom to choose how you live your life is a big part of the spirituality of man. We have freedom in spite of our instincts, inherited disposition, and environment to find meaning by deciding to pursue our dreams and passions to make a difference in the world.

Frankl describes it like this "... In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen...People who were used to a rich intellectual life...were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom...(It is an) apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy makeup often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature."

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Frankl illustrates by an account of being driven each morning to their work site: "We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.

There were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

We who lived, in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.

It is not the magnitude of our actions but the amount of love that is put into them that matters. I try to give to the poor people for love what the rich could get for money. No, I wouldn't touch a leper for a thousand pounds; yet I willingly cure him for the love of God.~ Mother Teresa


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