Today’s pages (p139-144) open the final part of Man’s Search for Meaning, written as a postscript to the book in 1984: ‘The Case for Tragic Optimism’.
An attitude of ‘tragic optimism’ means to remain optimistic in spite of life’s ‘tragic triad’ of pain, guilt and death. Or, alternatively:
How … can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects?
Frankl’s answer is hidden in the etymology of the word ‘optimism’, which is derived from the Latin ‘optimum’ meaning ‘the best’.
To be optimistic, therefore, is not to be deliriously blind to one’s circumstances, but rather to make ‘the best’ one can of any given situation.
With regard to the ‘tragic triad’ of pain, guilt and death, this attitude of optimism means:
- turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment;
- deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better;
- deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.
Frankl notes that tragic optimism is not the same as happiness.
An attitude of tragic optimism – making the best of our circumstances – can be consciously pursued and attained; happiness cannot be commanded in the same way.
[H]appiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy’. Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically.
You can’t force yourself to laugh; you must have a good reason.
In just such a manner, happiness itself is not a worthwhile aim. Identifying meaning and purpose in our lives makes us happy as a side-effect.
And so Frankl returns to the modern mental health crisis that emerges from an absence of meaning, in what he calls an ‘existential vacuum’.
[P]eople have enough to live by but nothing to life for; they have the means but no meaning.
This existential vacuum manifests itself in three extremely damaging symptoms: depression, aggression and addiction, and Frankl deals with these in turn.
Frankl acknowledges that not every case of depression and suicide is rooted in a feeling of meaninglessness, but he also suggests that such depressive thoughts may ‘have been overcome had he been aware of some meaning and purpose worth living for’.
The job of the logotherapist is to help their client find that purpose.
In his treatment of suicidal cases in Austria, Frankl observed many survivors who were eventually grateful that their suicide attempts had been unsuccessful.
These cases became the model for his treatment of others:
Even if things only take such a good turn in one of a thousand cases … who can guarantee that in your case it will not happen one day, sooner or later?
But in the first place, you have to live to see the day on which it may happen, so you have to survive in order to see that day dawn, and from now on the responsibility for survival does not leave you.
Frankl presents the famous Robber’s Cave study by Carolyn Wood Sherif as evidence that aggression is also assuaged by the discovery of shared meaning between the belligerent parties.
Meanwhile, the third symptom of the existential vacuum, addiction, is overwhelmingly accompanied by an ‘abysmal feeling of meaningless’.
Having put forward his case for the importance of developing an attitude of tragic optimism, Frankl turns next to ‘the question of meaning itself’.
But that’s for next time…