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Posts Tagged ‘Viktor Frankl’

I finished reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning today.

First of all, if you haven’t read it, I very highly recommend it, particularly if you are interested in philosophy, psychology, or the triumph of the human spirit. About two-thirds of it is a first person account of Dr. Frankl’s experiences in concentration camps during World War II. It is difficult and grim reading, of course, but also deeply inspirational and very well written. This is followed by a section detailing his doctrine of logotherapy and a postscript: “The Case for a Tragic Optimism.”

I’ve written about some of Frankl’s thoughts before, but after reading this book, I would like to revisit his philosophy.

Meaning, Frankl tells us, is both paramount and personal. He repeatedly quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” And each person must embark upon a quest for meaning for themselves; one person’s meaning will not necessarily be the same as someone else’s. Therefore, the ultimate existential question becomes not “What is the meaning of life,” but rather “What is my meaning in life?”

While no two paths to meaning may look exactly alike, Frankl believed we could discover the meaning in our lives through three different avenues:

  1. Creating a work or doing a deed. In other words, we can find meaning through achievement and accomplishment.
  2. Experiencing something or encountering someone. This includes experiences of art and culture, of travel, and of nature. It also includes the social experiences of feeling love and being part of a community.
  3. The attitude we choose when we face unavoidable suffering.

It is this third method towards meaning that is a primary focus of Frankl’s account of his time in the concentration camps, perhaps because it is both the hardest to grasp and the hardest to implement.

Frankl firmly believed suffering was an opportunity: “Most important…is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”

(It is also worth noting Frankl didn’t believe suffering is inherently necessary to discover meaning and explicitly stated the meaningful thing to do when suffering is avoidable is to remove its cause rather than continue suffering for suffering’s sake.)

When I think of what I know of unavoidable suffering, I think of when I was young, still a child, and surrounded by suffering. I could not escape it; it was truly unavoidable. There was little if anything I could do to affect the situation in which I found myself. So I watched the tragedies of those around me, and I did my best to learn from them, and I told myself, with a fierceness that has not lessened in the intervening years: “This will not be me. I will not let my own suffering overcome me. I. Will. Not.”

The indomitable human spirit. Or something. :)

The indomitable human spirit. Or something. 🙂

And that is when I learned that even when faced with suffering we cannot change, we get to decide who we are. We can choose to continue to search for meaning, even when the world around us is dark and full of terrors. We can cultivate a “tragic optimism;” that is, an optimism that does not shy away from suffering and other difficult truths but lives on regardless, saying, “Yes, yes, there is suffering, and yes, it is challenging and awful. But even so, here I am and I will make what I can from the circumstances in which I find myself.”

This ability, this tragic optimism, is one of the abiding lights of humanity. We all suffer, yes, but we are also all granted the privilege of transforming our suffering into meaning.

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I’ve been thinking about the cliché about how it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination.

I completely believe this. And for me, the fact this is true brings much of my happiness and enjoyment of life.

I’ve been trying to think of what in my life it has ever actually been about the destination, and I am drawing a blank. Even when I travel, it’s not so much about getting to a place as it is about what I do in that place once I’m there. In other words, it’s about the experience of the travel and the location and what I learn while there, not just the achievement of checking it off my list.

This kitten totally agrees with me and wants to take a journey himself.

This kitten totally agrees with me and wants to take a journey himself.

University? Of course getting the diploma has been helpful (although less so than I would have thought), but that’s not what I think of first when I think of my college years. I think of getting to immersively study music, I think of all the life skills I learned, I think about moving away from my family for the first time, I think of my friends and my professors and the university environment.

Career and artistic aspirations? In a writing career, there are various milestones, and I take goal-setting seriously. But each of those milestones is only a blip on the radar, and then everything continues on, and I keep writing. Finish a draft? Great, keep writing. Sell a story? Great, now write another one. It is the enchantment I have with writing that keeps making it worthwhile. And that is all about the process.

Romantic relationships? Well, now that I’ve achieved Girlfriend Status(™), I can cross this off my list of priorities. Haha. But again, this is mostly not about having a significant other or being married or whatever step you’re at. It’s about building something meaningful over time. There is no checking out just because you’ve reached a specific status.

Friendships? Amazing pets? Etc? Same as above.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy reaching a goal or celebrating a milestone. And sometimes, usually when it involves something really unpleasant, all I can really focus on is the end result as I push through the work to achieve it.

But most of life isn’t spent celebrating milestones. Most of life isn’t checking off big accomplishments. Most of life is in the moments in between.

So it behooves us to find a way to make those moments something precious.

It’s no accident that Viktor Frankl’s three criteria for a meaningful life have little to do with materialistic metrics for success. Having work or a project that you find meaningful, having and maintaining personal connections with people and/or communities, and having a positive perspective on suffering and life in general: these three things are all focused on the moments between. They are ongoing. They revolve around fostering a general sense of purpose rather than centering on very specific goals. And, I think, they allow for greater resilience in the face of adversity.

So yes, I care the most about the journey. I care about the hours I spend writing that rough draft, and I care about the time I spend with the people I love. I care about the two weeks I spent in Bali, not just my ability to say I’ve been there. I care about improving at things and learning new things. I care about the regular Thursday night dance and having ice cream and struggling to practice singing as much as I’d like. I care about taking a walk with Nala every day.

And when I reach a destination, I try to stop and appreciate it, but ultimately it is never long before I’m thinking about my next steps. And I’m glad that’s true.

To me, the next steps are happiness.

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