Some of the most important principles in my life can be found in Dr. Viktor Frankl’s The Doctor and the Soul. Without them, I along with my efforts to do good in the world would be lost in cynicism and depression. The book is an answer to Ecclesiastes’ refrain, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The book is an answer of hope.
I have pitied certain people to the point of questioning how they could endure life. I think of the boy whose alcoholic father had poured gasoline over him while he was sleeping. His face and over 90% of his body had been burned and melted. He no longer has ears, lips, or a nose. This nine year old boy has 50 or 60 more years to live among us.
In this depressing context, Dr. Frankl’s mission in life was to help others realize meaning in their lives no matter their condition. The fundamental premise behind Frankl’s life work is that “whoever has a reason for living endures almost any mode of life – Nietzche” (p.54). One scene from Frankl’s autobiography, Man’s Search for Meaning, encapsulates this thought well.
One night when his fellow prisoners of a concentration camp had received word that they would all be gassed the next day, the people looked to the Viennese psychiatrist for solace. He in turn was able to help each person discover personal reasons to endure which carried them through that dark night with hope and dignity. For example, Frankl helped one person overcome despair by reaffirming the man’s fleeting hope that his suffering and death would somehow mean that his wife and family would be saved from such a fate. Instead of perceiving his situation as mere waste and tragedy, this man was enabled to convert his inescapable plight into a noble, heroic deed.
To be human, says Frankl, is to be conscious of one’s responsibility no matter the situation. What makes human existence always meaningful, even in a concentration camp or in a severely wrecked body from an accident, is at every moment in a person’s life he or she is being asked to fulfill a task. “It is life itself that asks questions of man. It is not up to man to question; rather, he should recognize that he is questioned, questioned by life.” (p. 62)
Frankl emphasizes two primary and related guides for hearing the questions that life puts to us: conscience and regret. Frankl offers the leading maxim, “Live as you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now” (p.64). Frankl goes on, “Once an individual really puts himself into this imagined situation, he will instantaneously become conscious of the full gravity of the responsibility that every man bears throughout every moment of his life: the responsibility for what he will make of the next hour, for how he will shape the next day.” (p.64-5)
But isn’t there some who simply cannot respond favorably to life’s questions due to great catastrophe or suffering like the boy who was burned? This is where the implications of Frankl’s thought reach their peak, and from such extreme heights we see that no one with far lesser struggles can have valid excuses. Even the inability to create something valuable or to experience beauty, the usual means of obtaining meaning in life, does not condemn a person to a tragically meaningless existence. One thing (the most important thing, according to Frankl) is always still left in tact, that is, the capacity to answer with attitudinal values. How one bears one’s cross can give meaning to life. Frankl offers one particularly poignant example (the book is filled with dozens of real life cases to prove his points).
“A young man lay in the hospital, suffering from an inoperable spinal tumor. Paralysis had handicapped his ability to work. There was for him therefore no longer any chance to realize creative values. But even in this state the realm of experiential values remained open to him. He devoted himself to reading good books, and especially to listening to good music on the radio. One day, however, he could no longer bear the pressure of the earphones, and his hands had become so paralyzed that he could no longer hold a book. He was forced to make the further retreat to attitudinal values. He now set himself the role of adviser to his fellow sufferers, and in every way strove to be an exemplar to them. He bore his own suffering bravely. The day before his death – which he foresaw – he knew that the doctor on duty had been ordered to give him an injection of morphine at night. What did the sick man do? When the doctor came to see him on his afternoon round, the patient asked him to give him the injection in the evening – so that the doctor would not have to interrupt his night’s rest just on his account.” (p.46)
In the same vain, Dostoevsky said that he only feared one thing: that he might not be worthy of his torment (p.114). Goethe said, “There is no predicament that we cannot ennoble either by doing or enduring” (p. 112). Thus a person faced with great suffering must not ask in futility and despair, “Why me?” or “Why God?”, but rather must understand that life itself, God Himself, has given him a task, has put the question to him, “Why you?”. The sufferer is expected to discover the reason for his current plight. God cannot take the sufferer’s test for him or her.
For one that may be to encourage other patients through one’s own brave suffering. Frankl tells the case of an 18 year old girl who was shot in a robbery and can only accomplish tasks by use of a mouthstick. “She feels the purpose of her life is quite clear. She watches the newspapers and television for stories of people in trouble and writes to them (typing with her mouthstick) to give them words of comfort and encouragement” (p. 300). For another the task of dying naked on a tree may be to demonstrate God’s love for sinners.
Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that looking into the mouth of the abyss of possibilities in how to answer life’s questions can by itself be paralyzing. Thus Frankl rejects the general question “What is the meaning of life?” as a meaningless question. “It reminds us of the question a reporter asked a grand master in chess. ‘And now tell me, maestro – what is the best move in chess?’ Neither question can be answered in a general fashion, but only in regard to a particular situation and person” (p.61). Otherwise we “would be tormented by eternal doubts and endless self-criticism, and would at best overstep the time limit and forfeit the game.”
Thus what one decides is not as significant as that one decides to respond to a given situation. Indecision – to sulk in a wheelchair in the face of “no good choices” – is to overstep one’s time limit and forfeit the game. At the other extreme, to commit suicide is to simply sweep the pieces off the chess board; it is forsaking the value of moving a piece regardless of how it may or may not affect the outcome of the game. For meaning derives from the opportunity and decision to make a move, and not from society’s conception of winning.
There are so many practical, applicable at this very minute insights in Frankl’s book. His chapter on the meaning of love by itself is worth the price of the book. His chapter on the meaning of work, how “our task is not our calling” (p. 124), equips one with a healthy perspective for the twists and turns in the real world. For example, Frankl relates:
“Several years ago a garbage collector received the order of merit from the German government. This man did his job to everyone’s satisfaction, but the special effort that gained him the award was this: He looks in the garbage cans for discarded toys, spends his evening hours repairing them, and gives them to poor children as presents. He adds magnificent meaning to his clean-up job.” (p.298)
Frankl’s other chapters on dealing with anxiety and obsessive behavior are priceless. For instance, if you are afraid of public speaking, you can apply Frankl’s ingenius method of paradoxical intention. That is, wish your fear. The moment you feel nervous and anxious, and your fear of sounding like a fool begins to rise, at that moment, think to yourself, “I’m going to try and make my voice quiver. I want to appear as the most nervous, incomprehensible person these people have ever heard.” And as you’re thinking this to yourself, actually try and intend to make this true. Instead of trying to suppress or resist your fears, wish, intend, make it your ambition to realize your worst fears the moment they begin to arise. And then, paradoxically, you’ll discover great relief from your fears.