Victor Frankl Man's Search for Meaning

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 27 'Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change ... may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.'3 minute read

Today’s pages (p145-149) address the question of the meaning of life itself. Finally – the promised land!

But rather than The Meaning Of Life As A Whole, Viktor Frankl has a smaller target in mind, at least at first:

[T]he logotherapist is concerned with the potential meaning inherent and dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout his or her life.

Frankl doesn’t deny that The Meaning Of Life As A Whole does exist, but that we can only fully understand it after having understood the meaning of each of the smaller moments leading up to the final moment of our death.

It’s like watching a film, Frankl says: the final meaning of the story as a whole can only be understood if you’ve understood the meaning of each preceding scene.

Doesn’t the final meaning of life, too, reveal itself, if at all, only at its end, on the verge of death?

And doesn’t this final meaning, too, depend on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been actualised to the best of the respective individual’s knowledge and belief?

So The Meaning Of Life As A Whole depends on, and is built up from the meanings we find in each moment of our lives.

The art of finding meaning in these individual moments is not complicated, but quite simply ‘becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation’.

Becoming aware

Frankl suggests two approaches to the awareness of meaning:

  • Biographical. Frankl quotes Charlotte Bühler: ‘study the lives of people who seem to have found their answers to the questions of what ultimately human life is about as against those who have not.’
  • Biological. Frankl suggests that we use our conscience as a prompter to indicate ‘the direction in which we have to move in a given life situation’.

Frankl calls this second approach ‘biological’ because he believes that our conscience is based on values that are hard-wired and have crystallised over millennia during our evolution as a species.

What can be done?

Now we have awareness, we come to what can be done.

Logotherapy has ‘three main avenues’ that lead us to meaning in life, and they are worth repeating:

  • Work. Creating a work or doing a deed: the external world of achievement.
  • Love. Experiencing something or encountering someone: the internal world of experience.
  • Suffering. Rising above and growing beyond personal tragedy: ‘even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change … may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph’.

It is worth stressing that these three are equals in the search for meaning. There is no hierarchy here: you either find meaning, or you don’t.

Finding meaning through work is not superior to finding meaning through love, despite everything your boss might say.

Likewise, although suffering may not be desirable, personal tragedy provides the opportunity for personal growth and meaning.

Having said that, Frankl does make it very clear that the suffering must be unavoidable. Masochism is not heroism.

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