The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 23 'Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered.'3 minute read

Victor Frankl Man's Search for Meaning

Today’s pages (p119-125) begin, strangely enough, with something of a lament for the loss of clergymen as a professional resource for treating a loss of meaning in life. Today, instead, people turn to psychiatrists (and are frequently mistreated for neurosis, is Frankl’s implication).

After making the point that life’s duration has no bearing on its relative meaning, Frankl turns to the troublesome (for a scientific mind) metaphysics of what he calls ‘super-meaning’. He begins by posing a reasonable question:

Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?

The only reasonable answers that a man of either science or religion can make to these questions is: ‘No’ and ‘Yes’. However, although Frankl is a religious man, logotherapy does not depend on religion. It depends merely an acceptance of mystery so that we may avoid the Existentialist alternative of surrendering to the meaninglessness and absurdity of life.

Because Frankl’s ultimate meaning ‘necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man’, all logotherapy asks of us is that we are able to accept our ‘incapacity to grasp [life’s] unconditional meaninfulness in rational terms’.

Frankl openly admits that this acceptance, and thus the full power of logotherapy, comes much more easily to his religious patients. The ambiguity of the super-meaning will be more or less of a problem depending on your own religious and scientific proclivities.

Today’s section ends with a fine discussion of aging and the transitory nature of our existence. For Frankl, our aging and death makes our lives far from meaningless – so long as we take responsibility.

[T]he only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualised, … they are saved and delivered into the past, … [where] nothing is irretrievably lost but everything irrevocably stored.

It’s a remarkable claim – that the actions we take in our lives are stored like memories on the hard-drive of the world – but it’s one that stands up to reason. The consequences of our actions might be imperceptible to us, but no one can deny that they each have some bearing on the course of the universe. Even if we simply doze the afternoon away, we are still actively not doing a million other things and a million potential futures vanish.

At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence.

This could sound like a very heavy existence indeed, but its gravity or levity depends more on how one carries oneself. And from this perspective, aging becomes a comfort, not a cause for existential angst.

The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day.

On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back.

He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest.

(Is it coincidence that this optimist sounds a lot like a psychiatrist, filing notes?) No matter – Frankl imagines that optimist looking back from old age:

“Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are the things that cannot inspire envy.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the worldview of logotherapy.

What do you think?

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