Victor Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist. He believed that finding meaning in our lives is our primary motivational force. He further believed that the nature of that meaning is different for each individual and changes with time and circumstances.
Frankl thus positioned himself in a very different place than the other two major Austrian thinkers about human motivation: Sigmund Freud who saw us as being driven by the need for pleasure, and Alfred Adler who saw us as being driven by the need for power.
He (Frankl) thought that the cause of much of the distress in people’s lives is due to a sense of meaninglessness, an inner emptiness, a lack of purpose. He pointed to “the crises of pensioners and aging people” as leading examples. People who had found meaning in their work, in child-rearing or in other ways became adrift when those responsibilities had passed because, in many cases, they did not know what to do with their newly acquired free time.
Frankl argued that in order to remain mentally healthy we need to seek out and understand the meaning in our lives. He noted that may result in some degree of tension, e.g. “between what one has already achieved and what one ought still to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.”
So, how do we discover this meaning in our lives? Frankl believed there were three ways to do this:
1) Through our achievements and accomplishments, e.g. work, parenting, teaching, volunteering, learning, creating and the like.
2) By experiencing something such as a work of nature or art, or by loving someone. Love in this sense is a way of grasping the inner essence, traits and features of the person being loved, seeing the potential in that person and helping enable the loved person to achieve that potential. Sex is a way of expressing the deep togetherness of love.
3) Through suffering. (On this point, please note that Frankl spent three years in Auschwitz and other Nazi prisons.) Frankl felt that when faced with an inescapable, unavoidable fate such as an incurable cancer or a death sentence in a concentration camp there is the opportunity to find meaning through the attitude we take toward the suffering. He provides the following example: “Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now how could I help him? What should I tell him? I refrained from telling him anything, but instead confronted him with a question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left the office.” Frankl noted that suffering should not be sought out as a means of finding meaning, but if suffering is inevitable, we can decide how that suffering has meaning.
So what might we reflect on from the teaching of Victor Frankl? Some thoughts:
• What is the meaning of our life at this time?
• How has it changed over time?
• What meaning do we aspire to?
• Who do we love and how do we love them?
• Do we love ourselves?
• What steps can we take to enhance the meaning of our lives?
Quoted portions from Man’s Search for Meaning (1963). New York, NY :Pocket Books
R. Kevin Price
© 2008-2009 R.K. Price