Searching for Meaning

Published: November 20, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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APTOPIX France Paris Attacks

Since the attacks in Paris last Friday, like many, I have been struggling to understand why some people are so consumed by hate that it leads them to commit monstrous acts.

I remembered a book I’ve had since college, Man’s Search for Meaning, by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

In the book’s preface, psychologist Gordon Allport writes, “As a longtime prisoner in bestial concentrations camps, he found himself stripped to naked existence. His father, mother, brother, and his wife died in camps or were sent to the gas ovens, so that, excepting for his sister, his entire family perished in these camps. How could he – every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger, cold and brutality, hourly expecting extermination – how could he find life worth preserving?

“A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity,” Allport says, “is a psychiatrist worth listening to. He, if anyone, should be able to view our human condition wisely and with compassion. … If there is a purpose in life at all,  there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying. But no man can tell another what this purpose is. Each must find out for himself, and must accept responsibility that his answer prescribes. If he succeeds, he will continue to grow in spite of all indignities. Frankl is fond of quoting Nietzsche, ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.’ ”

Skimming the pages, I found a chapter in which Frankl talks about “ ‘a tragic optimism.’ In brief, it means that one is, and remains, optimistic in spite of … pain, guilt, and death. … We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves. …

“Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression,” Frankl writes. “He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had love above all else. Now, how could I help him? What should I tell him?

“Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the 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 was you have spared her this suffering – to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.’ He said no word, but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

“Of course,” Frankl adds, “this was no therapy in the proper sense since, first, his despair was no disease; and second, I could not change his fate; I could not revive his wife. But in that moment I did succeed in changing his attitude toward his unalterable fate inasmuch as from that time on he could at least see a meaning in his suffering. …

“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.”


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