Today’s pages are some of my favourite in the whole of Man’s Search for Meaning. I say that not lightly.
First, a (re-)definition of Frankl’s logotherapy:
[Logotherapy] considers man a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts.
This search for meaning, however, creates an inner tension on which good mental health is based. This goes against what Frankl calls the ‘dangerous misconception’ of many psychologists that a state of mental equilibrium is desirable.
Using his own experiences in Nazi concentration camps as an example, Frankl declares that:
[Good] mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.
This state of tension is perfectly natural to the human being and is, moreover, ‘indispensable to mental well-being’.
What this means is that, far from chasing mental equilibrium, we should not be afraid about challenging ourselves and others with the daunting search for meaning and a life of purpose.
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
This instruction, Frankl writes, applies – particularly applies – to people who are suffering from poor mental health.
If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together.
Unfortunately, tragically, many of us often face ‘the total and ultimate meaningless’ of our lives.
They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves; they are caught in that situation which I have called the ‘existential vacuum’.
Frankl is sympathetic. Since the demise of the church, man’s challenges are twofold: ‘No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do’. This bind leaves us open to two dangerous paths: conformism and totalitarianism.
The existential vacuum manifests itself in a state of boredom. To fill the void, many people succumb to ‘depression, aggression and addiction’, compensating by indulging primitive drives for power and money, or pleasure and sex.
Any psychological treatment must therefore consider how to fill the existential vacuum: ‘every therapy must in some way … be logotherapy’.