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By Mark Lundegren
I have been reading Viktor Frankl this past month, including his famous book, Man’s Search For Meaning. Perhaps you will read this thin but provocative book in the month ahead, or re-read it. If you do, you will almost certainly find the time well spent, as I did, time that is perspective altering and perhaps life changing.
Frankl was a Viennese psychiatrist and neurologist before World War II, and then a Nazi concentration camp prisoner and survivor. His extraordinary prison experiences deepened his understanding of our self, allowing him to advance new and revolutionary ideas about human well-being. After the war, Frankl founded the Logotherapeutic school of psychology to embody and transmit these learnings.
Frankl’s Logotherapy is often viewed as a counterpoint to two other influential twentieth century Viennese schools of psychology: Psychoanalysis, led by Sigmund Freud, and Individual Psychology, founded by Alfred Adler. The word “logo” in Logotherapy comes from ancient Greek, meaning reason or principle. In Logotherapy, the therapist or practitioner aims at finding and cultivating authentic meaning in one’s life, using the voice of conscience as a guide. This quest for greater personal meaning can be in response to a specific neurosis, or simply to enrich our lives us as we face the ambiguities and uncertainties of modern life.
Freudian therapists are apt to interpret our feelings and outlook as a result of the competing demands of our biological instincts and early upbringing, followers of Adler as the interplay of past and present social inequities on our sense of identity and personal worth. In both of these approaches, practitioners look beyond our feelings and lived experience to elements outside of experience – broadly, to aspects of nature and nurture – interpreting our feelings through these external elements. Since the elements are taken as determinants of experience, they are implicitly viewed as deeper and more important than experience, more rightly the proper focus of psychology and psychotherapy. The result, in both cases, are conceptual models of the self that guide the thinking and therapies of their practitioners and adherents. Freud’s famous “Id-Ego-Super Ego” construct is of course now known by most high school children, as an example.
A counterpoint to Freud and Alder, and to most other conceptual schools of psychology, Viktor Frankl and his Logotherapy begins by reconsidering all theoretical models of the self, all notions that psychotherapy should look beyond our feelings and seek to recast experience in a conceptual framework. The main thrust of Frankl’s approach is to consider an alternative premise: that our feelings and experiences can and should be taken at face value, as they appear to us in conscious life. This alternative premise challenges the assumption that our self must be decomposed into components and interpreted through concepts. It proposes the idea that lived experience can be explored directly and holistically as a medium of inquiry. The result is a return to and regrounding of psychology and psychotherapy in lived personal experience. This may seem esoteric at first, but the change in fact leads almost immediately to startlingly different ideas about the human self and radically different proposals for achieving success and happiness.
In truth, conceptual schools of psychology do propose that we are “really” something other than our selves, that our feelings and experiences are primarily the product of mechanisms working below or beyond the surface of consciousness. Or that consciousness is too amorphic to be observed and measured, and therefore impossible to be made into a medium of inquiry. Frankl and others advocating experiential analysis emphatically ask us to reconsider this idea, suggesting that we really are as we are. They recommend that we can and should examine ourselves as we are, and suggest that we will find a new perspective on experiences through this examination, one with enormous implications for our lives and approaches to therapy.
In my own experience, I have found such differences of method and perspective to be much more than hair-splitting, as we will see. Conceptual and experiential approaches to psychology lead to two different basic conclusions about both the nature of the self and appropriate prescriptions for individual life mastery, professional counseling, and even public policy. For many people, finding limits to conceptual thinking, Frankl’s call for a return to lived experience opens the door to wholly new life strategies that prove far more open-ended, fluid, humane, and powerful than more conceptually-based doctrines and ideas of the self.
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Based on his professional practice and personal observations before and during World War II, Viktor Frankl proposed ideas that were in stark contrast to many of his contemporaries, as I have suggested, but his ideas were also in close sympathy with others of his time. Frankl was, in fact, part of an important counter-movement in mid-century European art and science called existentialism.
If I may cite from Wikipedia, existentialism can be defined as a philosophical movement which proposes that individuals create the meaning and essence of their lives, as opposed to it being created for them by deities or authorities, or defined for them by philosophical or theological doctrines. The philosopher Walter Kaufmann once described existentialism as “The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life.”
With these ideas around him, Frankl worked before the war and his internment with a great many suicidal patients. Through the use of experiential or existential analysis, he was struck by their common sense of meaninglessness and pointlessness, by their frequent path of descent into existential voids (life experiences lacking coherence) which ultimately made life unbearable for them. In his practice, Frankl explored this phenomenon and validated therapeutic approaches to assist his suicidal and depressive patients in re-creating meaning and purpose in their lives, restoring them to health and well-being. Frankl’s observations, of course, where not confined to his most distraught patients. Before World War II, he had developed a general theory of the importance of meaning to our health and believed strongly that the active creation of meaning was an imperative for all people, but particularly people living in the decline of traditional values that is modernity.
Amidst Frankl’s developing practice and alternative therapies came war, and with war, his internment and imprisonment by the Nazis. In his harsh concentration camp experiences, Frankl saw the same pattern of devolving meaning in society at large repeated and greatly accelerated by the brutality under which people were compelled to live, including the prospect of summary execution at any moment. Even in these extraordinary conditions within Nazi concentration camps, however, Frankl found that he was able to help others find and sustain personal meaning, and thereby endure amidst the inhuman suffering and hardship around them. Frankl’s therapies to strengthen meaning and climb out of existential voids were thus tested under the harshest and most extraordinary circumstances imaginable, and creating or rebuilding meaning became his principal concern and, later, the essence of his Logotherapeutic techniques.
Logotherapy argues that most schools of psychology fail to examine the nature of lived experience carefully enough, and make a basic error of method when they discount or move look experience to advance or focus on conceptual models of the self. Frankl believed these models generally simplified, misconstrued, and even trivialized the human being, robbing us of the richness of our humanity and inhibiting our full range of our experiential capacities. Importantly, Logotherapists criticized Freud, Alder, and others for expressly portraying people as dependent on the circumstances of our biology and environment – in other words, on things external to us as individuals. Frankl argued that these conceptual models both began and ended with the unsubstantiated idea that we are each ultimately dependent and unfree in the world, with the implication that we are never fully responsible for our attitude and conduct.
Grounded in the very passionate existentialist movement of his time, Frankl and Logotherapy approach the human condition and psyche very differently than conceptual schools of psychology. They work primarily from and with lived experience, including their own observations and the reported thoughts and feelings of others. From these observations, Logotherapists argue that the nature of the human self is one principally of control, not dependency as conceptual psychologists suggest. They base this alternative conclusion on our ability to consciously formulate and chose among options in all circumstances, even among options that may be shocking and abhorrent to us. Thus, the same phenomenon, human life, is transformed though this new perspective into a condition of freedom, and the barriers to free life that conceptual psychologists propose are recast as limitations implicit in their method (limits to reason and scientific inquiry broadly).
From their observations of lived experience, Frankl and Logotherapy propose that we are all, in fact, completely free and therefore responsible in the most important domains of life – and that we can and must create meaning in and with our lives if we are to fulfill and realize our distinctly human qualities. For Frankl, experiential or existentialist analysis leads inevitably to the conclusion people possess a “will to meaning,” much in the way the conceptual approaches of Adler leads to a “will to power” and Freud to a “will to pleasure.” This facet of human existence may have been exposed by modernity’s destruction of traditional values and authority, but was viewed by Frankl as an eternal truth of advanced life.
Much of the subsequent work of Logotherapy by Frankl and others has been the development of a general method and specific techniques to help us in the task of creating meaningful life, thereby challenging other forms of psychology through the successes of the Logotherapeutic approach in practice. We will come back to Frankl’s general method in a moment, allowing you to begin exploring opportunities for greater meaning in your life (and validate Frankl’s ideas on your own).
For context, it is worth considering that the regression or turning from lived experience toward conceptual models we have discussed is hardly limited to Freud and Adler, or even to modern psychology. This trend is, in fact, a widespread and longstanding one, going back at least to the beginnings of civilization (some would say to the beginnings of human intelligence). I bring this up because the conceptualization of experience is now quite pervasive and even accelerating today. It is an important and often unappreciated consequence of all theories of the human psyche and philosophies of the world generally.
Approaching the world and our lives through the vehicle of concept has important practical consequences. On the positive side, it may make us more functional in the world or in specific forms of society, but these potential benefits do not come without risks. After all, if we are trained to believe and accept that the world around us is not as it is, if we think the world really exists as a specific framework of laws and concepts, then we can become alienated from the natural world and disempowered in our lives in important ways. We can become less apt to approach life directly, on its terms and ours, and may well thus miss the richness of lived experience and incalculable opportunities each day to lead a more powerful life. I should add that this risk is as real today with scientific concepts and rational frameworks as it was a thousand years ago when religious concepts dominated our minds. Both work to distort lived experience and inhibit our thinking and opportunities for choice and action, in perhaps functional ways but invariably in constraining ones too.
As an example of this, consider the idea that you and I are each reducible to and guided by underlying or external entities (ids or devils, super egos or angels, take your pick). The implication is that, as individuals, we are dependant and consequential entities, superficial and weak entities, possibly illusionary ones and perhaps even anti-social ones. Through the force of concept, we can be made to think of ourselves as the products of deeper and more controlling facts of the world, guiding and limiting our natural freedom and power of choice. If this is our mindset, we may be apt to become increasingly inattentive to experience and the world around us, and may increasingly work our way into self-reinforcing stereotypes about ourselves and the world generally.
Once we are made to think of ourselves and experiences as secondary to laws and schema beyond our control, we can become narrowed, diminished, and disempowered in our lives. We may end as untrustworthy entities to be led and coerced by strong beliefs and social institutions. Most important for our discussion of Logotherapy, this reduction of the self and experience into conceptual frameworks can make us into entities who feel we are ultimately not free and responsible, for our attitudes and actions or for our lives more generally and the meanings we make in and with them. Lost in the process of conceptualization is our natural experience of the world, the self, and the self in the world, including the opportunity we all have to perceive and create firsthand what the nature of our own self is.
Frankl and his Logotherapists argue that proponents of Freud, Adler, and other theoretical approaches to psychology, without deliberately intending to, inevitably abstract and depersonalize us in their quest to understand us. Reflecting this abstraction, these theories in fact do generally lead to various counterintuitive and even absurd conclusions about the nature of human beings (for example, that young boys typically have adult sexual feelings toward their mothers). In practice, however, such counterintuitive ideas and conclusions have not stopped advocates of conceptual psychology from successfully extending their ideas to form or foster sympathetic ideologies and public policies, particularly where traditional religious concepts have most definitively faltered. The result of the rise of conceptual psychology has thus been self-fulfilling in large measure, proposing limited human freedom and responsibility and promoting the modern custodial state in turn.
For Frankl and other existential psychologists, all such conceptual approaches to psychotherapy and life philosophy miss the richness of our individual experiences and potential for creative action in the world. To complete this part of our discussion, I should add that these conceptual theorists and practitioners do this, as do most advocates beholden to conceptual frameworks in the arts and sciences, despite the fact that all such theories of the self, inevitably, are considered by the self that is scrutinized and reduced to models – in the first person and as, and only as, lived experience. Ironically, all theories of the self inevitably live only in the very selves they may negate as dependent and reducible to more reliable components, just as all theories of the world exist only in the physical fact of nature.
This is hardly a small point, in both principle and practice. An important and basic conflict between all theories of the self and the self, much like all theories of the physical world and the physical world itself, are in fact the basis of a spiritual crisis in the world today that you may or not be aware of or perceive yourself. This crisis most certainly involves the theme of depersonalization I introduced before.
Today, many believe that a general desensitization to lived experience and a reduction in our relationship with the natural world is occurring. Its principal result is a decline in the richness of human life and emotionality. This degeneration is fairly well understood and comes amidst the rise of industrialization and machine dependent life. It is no doubt driven by industrial prosperity and materialism, and the rise of mass culture and more invasive forms of communication media.
At bottom though, my personal view is that modern depersonalization and alienation from the environment are likely most directly related to the general indoctrination of people into the highly conceptual modes of thinking that have come with the general explosion of human knowledge in our time. We are gradually becoming more rational and calculating, more overwhelmed with the weight of what is known, and ever more estranged from our natural experiences, our natural emotions, and the intimacy of human life directly in experience. In this process, life is often made far less meaningful and compelling. We may turn to artists to remind us of what it is to feel deeply, or simply to novelty to amuse us, a theme I will return to.
This crisis of depersonalization is with us today in earnest. It is in full force, influencing our built environment, social values, and personal freedoms, but it did not begin overnight. It was, in fact, predicted by a number of thoughtful people, who saw this trend emerging during the end of traditional culture and beginning of industrial society in the late eighteenth century. Their ideas and writings grew and coalesced throughout the nineteenth century and ultimately culminated in the existentialist movement of the early twentieth century, of which Viktor Frankl is a member and an important contributor.
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Amidst the transformation in human knowledge and conceptual thinking over the last two centuries, existentialism emerged as a countermovement, arguing for the urgency and deeper truths waiting for us in a modern assertion of the primacy of lived experience over other forms of knowledge (beliefs, theories, and conceptions of the world). In this radical call for a return to and renewed focus on subjective life, for a deeper embrace of individual human experience, existentialists argue against many of the dominant trends of our time. Paramount in this the belief that deeper knowledge and richer human life wait for us in a careful exploration of lived experience, rather reliance on the conceptual frameworks and objects of comfort that increasingly surround us.
As I have outlined, existentialists assert that far greater opportunities for personal freedom and empowerment in the world emerge when we engage the world directly and transcend life tethered to either ancient beliefs or modernist concepts. The principal fetters we face today, they argue, come not from nature or our human nature, but from the constraints of life made rigid by mental constructs and categorical thinking. Their proposal is to instead to affirm the centrality of lived experience, and with this individual accountability for and creativity with our lives. Through this change, existentialists like Viktor Frankl believe much that is essential to the truth of human life and to successful human life is waiting to be discovered.
While existentialism has had an impact, Freudian, Adlerian, and other conceptual models of the human psyche have been and remain far more influential icons and influences in our time. Their ideas have permeated not just psychology and psychotherapy, but many other intellectual and cultural domains as well. In fact, their central frameworks and underlying premises – that that we are not really ourselves as we appear, and that we are not in control of our lives – are basic assumptions and themes in our society today, as they has been throughout much our human history, though in very different guises before our time. In study after study, people of our time report feeling they do not have control over the central areas of their lives. Many report a strong sense of personal apathy and low self-esteem, of living with the idea that they cannot hope to exert strong control over their attitudes, personality, and behavior. This feeling no doubt contributes to the conformist and disaffected lifestyles that are all-too-common today, among people of all socioeconomic strata.
Owing to an amalgam of traditional and modernist upbringings, a majority of us today may live from a premise of disempowerment and disengagement, and with a gnawing sense irresponsibility and impotence, and from this, cynicism and hostility. This familiar modern attitude of course likely self-selects and perpetuates, driving a general consensus that this is the correct worldview, that this is the common sense. As important as this general mood of our time is, many if not most of our modern social policies, and governmental and philanthropic programs, begin equally from these generally accepted and therefore generally unexamined ideas about our human nature and human existence. As a consequence, we live in a time that is far more like the past than it might be, and most certainly than it should be, since in truth most of us live axiomatically amidst untapped opportunities for personal and community empowerment each day and minute of our lives.
In this very important sense, Frankl and other existentialists argue that Freud, Alder, and other modern conceptual thinkers did not break the new ground they are often credited with, despite their celebrity and influence. Instead of liberating people, they can be seen as simply giving new form to ancient, disempowering notions that we are unfree and ruled from without, notions that surface inevitably once we lose sight of or are taught to fear the rich, portentous nature of lived experience. From an existentialist perspective, our most popular schools of psychology can be seen to have merely created large and elaborate models to substantiate and perpetuate the status quo. They have brought us new and abstract vocabularies to rationalize why we do not and cannot take bolder steps to assert our personal values in our lives and the world around us – why we cannot fulfill what may be the most natural and highest need of ours as advanced beings: to create meaningful life.
Our most popular theories of the modern self can been seen as bringing us no closer to deciphering the code for liberating and enriching our lives than the constraining religious beliefs and dogmas they replaced. Some argue they actually took us father from this potential for control than we had been before, filling the modern void created by the collapse of our traditions with a cynical, defeated, and dispassionate worldview. This worldview is one that drives us toward the new and curious at all costs for solace, in a vicious cycle of novel content and modern imperatives to consume this content that ultimately prove uninspiring and unliberating. We then demand more and newer forms of this meaningless stuff, and the wheels of industry whir.
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As I have suggested, Viktor Frankl begins and proceeds very differently than most of his contemporary psychologists, and I will again suggest that these differences are fundamental and potentially life-changing for people unfamiliar with experiential analysis. As an existentialist, Frankl begins by focusing first on lived human experience, on the reality of human life as it occurs to us at a personal and moment-by-moment level. Beginning from this more direct and decidedly anti-theoretical method, one that is available to us all, Frankl comes to remarkably different conclusions about human life than his fellow psychiatrists. Like other existentialists of his time, he even uncovers an eternal truth regarding the nature of individual life and our individual life experiences, one that for many may be reminiscent of the ancient Stoic philosophers of an earlier age (who also lived in a time of declining traditional values and beliefs).
Looking at lived experience from the streets and hospitals of pre-war Vienna, and then amidst the barracks and crematoria of more than one Nazi death camp, Frankl concluded there is a critically important truth about our individual life experience that does not change with our outward circumstances, a truth that is simply not discernable through conceptual theorizing about the self. He describes this truth in terms of a continuum, one that we all can experience firsthand and explore and know intimately. Simply put, this continuum is our individual potential, moment by moment, to have an existence that ranges from one that is deeply meaningful to one that is chaotic and devoid of form and meaning. Our lives can be emotionally and spiritually rich and purposeful, in other words, or we can descend into existential voids that are meaningless and engender despair.
In any moment, Frankl proposes, we each take our conduct and choices to be either more or less meaningful, more or less in harmony with the inner voice of our conscience. From the vantage of lived experience, the ultimate quality of our life is thus directly a function of the depth of meaning we achieve or create through our conduct, choices, and attitudes – again, for Frankl, regardless of the external successes or hardships that befall us, including our inevitable death. Our individual place on this continuum of meaning, our fulfillment of our “will to meaning,” in the moments that form the stream of our lives is metaphorically, Frankl proposes, the ultimate measure of the quality of our life.
For Frankl, our meanings reflect the choices we make and attitudes we adopt, and these choices and attitudes form our essence as people (the basic premise of existentialism – we are what we do). As lived experience, and therefore as knowledge perceivable only as lived experience, the relative meaningfulness of our lives can be known and judged by and only by each of us individually. Through this basic fact of our human existence, Frankl believes we are thereby each empowered to create and judge, as only we can, the quality of our lives. As creators and judges, we are each also able and compelled to take ultimate responsibility for the direction, conduct, and meaning of our lives, as we face various circumstances that we either can or cannot control.
This existentialist perspective and renewed focus on lived experience was, and still is, a revolution in Western thinking. It is a revolution, in truth, that today lies waiting and generally unappreciated by people of our time, even as our lives cleansed of traditional meaning, year by year. Still, the existentialist viewpoint is supremely accessible to people of our time, especially as we must confront the growing lapses in meaning that modern life can, but need not, hold for us.
In truth, a return to lived experience always has been and may always remain a waiting revolution for free thinking and feeling beings of all times and places. Its effect is to return us to ourselves, to deconceptualize the world around us and return our life experiences and control of our lives to us – in the vivid wholeness and sensual primacy that is our re-discovered experience. The existentialist shift opens us to and challenges us with the task of creating original and authentic meaning with and within our lives. It is strengthening and humbling, confronting and inspiring us with the eternal and invariable truth that only we can create and judge our meaning for ourselves (and therefore must or risk devolution as people).
Once embraced, the existentialist viewpoint is an arousing and passionate one. It can help us to shed centuries of conceptual baggage, old and new, and wake up differently each day – as ourselves, in our lives, and with the possibility of and need for control over the most important elements of our lives. For Frankl and others, existentialism rightly demands a much higher personal involvement in our lives than we may have known before. It can be a break from thousands of years of human life from within the limiting and ultimately indefensible confines of religious, conformist, totalitarian, and other received conceptions of life, all notions that cannot be validated in experience and through the reflective conscience. Once one sees one’s own lived existence firsthand, primal and real and full of potentiality, one is made free and immediately presented with perhaps infinite possibilities for choice and action, even within the narrow physical confines of that is our individual life.
While many historical figures have argued that we are obviously powerless against external forces, and thus ultimately impotent and unfree, existentialism and Logotherapy counter that such external events beyond our control are of secondary importance. They may limit the length and circumstances of our lives, but not the fact of our opportunity for choice and meaningful life at all times. Our potential for free choice is viewed as absolute at all times and thus each of us is seen as ultimately free in the domain of life that matters most – control of our meaning and essence as people. We each can live a resolute life in truth to ourselves and contributing to meaning in the world, even in the face of suffering and death. Such thinking, I will say again, is a revolution, a Copernican shift in the way each of us can approach our lives each day. It is the realization of our vast potential for free and creative choice within our lives.
Viktor Frankl’s special contribution to existentialism involves his extraordinary mid-life experience of war and imprisonment, his own personal rebirth during confinement and narrow escapes with death, and his enduring insight that rich, meaningful life is possible for each of us at any time, through individual responsibility and conscious choice. In this sense, Frankl cheated death and found new life. He suspected, and then validated for himself, the possibility that meaningful life can always exist, regardless of our past or present life circumstances. He argued that the potential for meaning exists even amidst the profound suffering of a concentration camp or a terminal illness, even in the face of an imminent and outwardly humiliating death. Like other existentialists, Frankl’s proposal is a profoundly humanistic and personalized view of life, a radical new approach to life for most people that implies fundamentally new priorities than are popular today.
Of course, in this affluent and generally peaceful time of ours, most of us today have the opportunity to do more than suffer in good conscience. Once we realize our potential and need for choice and the creation of meaning in each moment of our lives, the world and our own lives are remade and laid open to us as never before. Frankl, in particular, argued that there is an opportunity and, in truth, a necessity for clear conscience, for each of us to conduct our own search for meaning amidst the circumstances of our lives, amidst the uncertainties and opportunities of modernity – even that we must conduct our lives as quests to create authentic and lasting meaning in and from our lives. He believed we needed to do this not just once, or once in the while, but each day and literally with each choice we make. In a poignant passage, Frankl wrote, “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.”
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Viktor Frankl’s remarkable life and ground-breaking ideas call on us to take responsibility for our choices, for making our lives rich and meaningful, and to never cede control of our lives to biology, society, history, or ideology. Frankl felt this need for human responsibility was always true, in all times and places, but especially so with the decline of traditional systems of meaning in the modern world. It was Frankl, in fact, who first suggested that the United States build a Statue of Responsibility on its west coast, as an essential and transcendent counterpoint to the Statue of Liberty in New York.
It was also Frankl who argued for the rehumanization of psychotherapy and our world view generally, for us to consider that the voice of our human conscience is the most authentic thing in the world and the only path to true human meaning and fulfillment. Throughout his long life, he counseled an increasingly materialist and rationalist society to consider the difference between “means and meanings,” between that which gratifies our most basic needs and is merely entertaining or amusing, and that which more deeply engages us and satisfies our higher human imperative for meaningful life. An existentialist, he did not propose a formula and rule so that we might clearly know the difference, but instead challenged us to consider that the difference is always knowable or discoverable to us as individuals, in our individual lives and circumstances. All that is required, Frankl felt, was honesty and curiosity with ourselves. With honesty and curiosity, he thought that everything important was possible.
It is of course ironic and poignant that this deeply humanistic, uplifting, and liberating philosophy of life was born out of the delusion of Nazi racism and the surreal hardships of war. Like other mid-century existentialists, Frankl asserted that large portions of our population were now caught in existential voids of various sorts, alienated from traditional community and received sources of meaning. He believed that this existential void was and would remain the principle challenge of our age and challenged us to consciously examine our priorities, to move away from pointless and insipid activity aimed at masking meaninglessness, and to be aware of our potential for careless lapses into passivity and despair in the face of ambiguity and change. He challenged us to separate the search for content – novelty and distraction to fill empty time or blot out feelings of meaninglessness – from the search for truly meaningful life, for the creation of genuine satisfaction in our hearts.
From this perspective, so much of our modern life today can be seen as an escape from or descent into ever more meaningless life experiences, especially as we mature and need new forms of growth in our lives. How many of the people we know, or how many of us ourselves, have lives characterized by the definitive and sustained progression toward authentic meaning and purpose? Looking at the typical life patterns of our modern civilization, I might cite individualism, consumerism, careerism, and traditionalism all as present-day attempts to counter or hide from the reality of pointlessness amidst the increasingly depersonalized and incoherent world that is much of modernity today. Perhaps you can sense intuitively that these life pursuits are inherently self-defeating, simply because they provide only fleeting content that does not endure or resolve itself into lasting meaning. They provide content that must continually be replaced or trumped to provide continuity and solace. All of this content, however, on its own fails to create enduring purpose and authentic life meaning, which is to say satisfying existence, for us as individuals and for the communities we live within.
If this is the case, if insipidness and banality are pressing in around us, we must consider the idea that true life satisfaction lies in another realm. Frankl prods us to consider that this realm is both far simpler and far more accessible than the many contrived and costly pursuits of modernity, but also one where we cannot fain happiness and still live honestly. This realm is of course our lived experience, a realm where there is only ourselves, the “others” in our lives (the people, ideas, causes or values we are committed to), and the force of conscience that works to unite the two. If we are honest and candid with ourselves, if we are true to ourselves and what is within us, Frankl felt that we come to see firsthand that the truth of our conscience is the truth of our lives, our path to meaningful and satisfying life.
Though simply described, such a path of conscience leading to personal fulfillment is hardly formulaic, and is a task entirely in the hands and life experience of the practitioner. It requires each of us to think for ourselves, to be both bold and careful enough to let go of received ideas about who we are and what we should think and do. In the realm of lived experience, there is only the truth of ourselves, or the lies we allow into our lives and must live with uncomfortably. There is no one else we can turn towards to experience our own heart, no where to run to know what is within us. As Frankl writes, “Meaning must be found and cannot be given.” He thus both enables and demands a new personal empowerment for each of us.
While we are each inevitably alone and intimately alive with ourselves in our search for personal meaning, Frankl and other existentialists conclude that meaningful life inevitably involves our life in the world, and especially our relationships to others and other things. Meaning, for Frankl, requires a focus beyond ourselves, to the actual or potential impacts we can have on others. Thus, the search for personal meaning is ultimately, for Frankl, about our meanings in the world. It is foremost a self-transcendent search, a process of subsuming and revealing the self through its meanings in the world, and only then act of self-fulfillment (through this process of meanings revealed or arrived at).
For Frankl, meaningful life is possible through three principal means: 1) the achievement of new experiences in and learnings about ourselves and the world, 2) purposeful action in the world, directed at things we value beyond our most immediate needs, 3) the attitudes we adopt or project in our life circumstances, whatever they may be. Through our inherent ability as humans to experience, act, and project in varied, insightful, and creative ways, Frankl believed we each have the opportunity to live completely, fully, and meaningfully, regardless of our external fate in the world.
His prescription for us is that we are each inherently free and potentially self-fulfilling through this three-part capacity for self-transcendence, through our capacity to create meanings greater than our individual lives. Little else is needed to accomplish this outside of our choices and, as such, this truth of human life can be seen as an eternal and unconditional one. As a start, you might consider your plans for the remainder of the day, and what alternatives might be more compelling, more meaningful, to you personally. From there, you might develop form of reflection as a habit, gradually training yourself, as I said before, to wake up differently each day and find the nearly unlimited opportunities for new choices, to be different and to make a difference. Certainly, one choice would be to read Viktor Frankl for yourself.
Frankl’s existential perspective will be a basic challenge to many people and to all of our most established value systems today. It questions the necessity of so much that is around us and in our lives early in this new century, things and ideas aimed at the creation of happiness but that can be seen as superfluous to the pursuit of engaged and meaningful life that Frank describes and recommends. In truth, our modern world and modern lives are often filled with empty and useless content and conduct, unnecessary and even barriers to the truer and more heartfelt life that is waiting for us all, in all times and places Our challenge, always, is to live from our heart, to live directly and purposefully from ourselves, in a way I will call heavy and light at the same time.
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With these ideas in mind, Frankl’s Logotherapy and existentialist orientation offer much to our spiritually ailing, early twenty-first century world; to people and communities stripped of their past and traditions, and forced to stand unclothed before ourselves, before our present as it is, and before our future as it might be.
After all, except for the most conservative and reverent among us, isn’t it true that we must now as people create our future authentically, in this brave new world where little is revered and held as sacred, or allow ourselves to live inauthentically and pointlessly. In this unprecedented and increasingly limitless world of our time – with rapidly diminishing social and economic constraints for most of us, but with the ever growing lure of attractive and distracting content, and the greater potential for insipid superficiality and self-indulgence – it is our individual imperatives and the choices we make relative to them that become the currency of our lives and our communities.
Our choices form the meaning we either will or will not create and have for ourselves in our time, as it has always been but never more obviously than now. We can choose to live lives full of content but weak in plot and meaning, or more meaningful lives with perhaps far less content, and perhaps far more freedom to explore and fulfill still new and more compelling meanings. In truth, the existentialist perspective and truths in engenders is as compelling today as it was a century ago. It is a choice between received content and created meaning, Frankl’s “means and meanings.” Much has changed and yet perhaps nothing really has. Such a choice of paths seems to remain unmoving as the world ceaselessly moves.
A contrarian to his time and ours, Frankl challenges us to begin or redouble our own search for meaning in our lives, our personal quest for that which must be found or created, and cannot be given or bought. From his unique personal history, Frankl asks us to consider that we can and must take responsibility for our lives and life choices, each day and even each minute, over the course of our lives, if we are to be truly free and modern in the best sense of this word, if we are to be inspired and inspiring, fulfilled and true to our humanity.
Frankl calls on us to return to our lives, to live directly in our lives, free of imperatives that we do not feel and find authentic. He asks us to live from our hearts, and to create and renew ourselves and the world around us with our most heartfelt choices – with those principles and values, with that logos, we consciously and personally chose as most meaningful. In this simple but often revolutionary way of life, he proposes we have the opportunity to remake ourselves and the world. We have the chance to live without fear, without looking back, and with confidence that we will adapt successfully and live meaningfully in every new circumstance, whatever it may be. We can live a strong, heartfelt life, and be a beacon to others around us to live in this way. Imagine a world like this – it is a quiet, unspoken revolution.
In our modern world long divorced from wild nature, our world largely caught up in materialism and mass media, one that often defensively belittles individual and unconventional life, a world some would argue is already patently escapist and nihilistic, Frankl’s call for personal responsibility and conscious choice is a patient and strident counterpoint to all that we are led to and can easily accept and yield to in our time.
I would recommend Viktor Frankl to you as perhaps the most important writer you will read this year, and next year too, and perhaps for many years. He offers ideas that remain with you, and form a challenge that calls you to return to it, and in this calling, to return to yourself and what is most real and tangible in your own life. It is a return to the experience of life as it is, and to you as you are, free and able to make extraordinary choices and become extraordinary through them.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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