Book review ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ by Viktor E. Frankl, Part 2 (final)

Last week, we made a start with a review of Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ and discussed what was dealt with in Part 1 of the book. Different aspects of finding meaning are the topic of Part 2 of the book, where logotherapy is discussed in a nutshell.

Logotherapy is sometimes called the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy. Where Sigmund Freud focused on ‘the will to pleasure’ (psychoanalysis) and Alfred Adler on ‘the will to power’ (individual psychology), Viktor Frankl focused on ‘the will to  meaning’ (logotherapy), as meaning in life turns out to be the primary motivational force for most people. This is also what the increasingly mainstream concept of Positive Health notices. Of its six dimensions (Bodily Functions, Mental Functions & Perceptions, Spiritual Dimension, Quality of life, Social & Societal Participation, and Daily Functioning) the spiritual aspects turn out to be most often mentioned as what really matters. People can have chronic health issues, but as long as those are fairly well dealt with and they have meaning and purpose in life, they generally consider themselves healthy. If physical health is overall good, but meaning is missing, people give much more despondent descriptions of how they are. The more meaning people can discern in their lives, the bigger the chances that health and happiness flow from that. Those are then not goals in themselves, but the consequence of having found meaning and purpose in life and of being able to contribute to something bigger than one’s own life. In Nietzsche’s words, quoted by Frankl: ‘He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how’ (p.109, author’s italics).

Without such a sense of meaning, Frankl writes, people can experience ‘existential frustration’. Not feeling challenged, but bored and useless, is understandably hard, he maintains, and deserves attention, instead of medication:

Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease. It may well be that interpreting the first in terms of the latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient’s existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs (p.108, author’s italics).

In other words: healthcare providers should take the worries of their patients seriously when it comes to them not seeing enough or even any meaning in life anymore. Frankl sees three different layers of meaning in life: ‘1) by creating a work or doing a deed (work); 2) by experiencing something or encountering someone (love); and 3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering (mental strength)’ (p.115). The sense of meaninglessness, ‘resulting from a frustration of our existential needs which (…) has become a universal phenomenon in our industrial societies’ (p.141) can create an ‘existential vacuum’, often more widespread in places where spiritual, ceremonial, professional and familial traditions have gone lost. This can lead people ‘to do what other people do (conformism) or (…) what other people wish [them] to do (totalitarianism)’ (p.111).
Logotherapy’s aim is ‘neither teaching nor preaching’ (p.114), but to help people broaden their views and find their own meaning in life and thus the logotherapist ‘will never permit the patient to pass to the doctor the responsibility of judging’. A beautiful explanation is this one: ‘A painter tries to convey to us a picture of the world as he sees it; an ophthalmologist tries to enable us to see the world as it really is’ (p.114,115). Logotherapy encourages clients to find the potential meaning of their life and Frankl terms this ‘the self-transcendence of human existence’. Only when we can truly feel and see this, we will be able to reach self-actualisation, ‘as a side-effect of self-transcendence’ (p. 115). This especially applies to difficult circumstances, when things look hopeless.

For what then [when fate cannot be changed] matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation (…) we are challenged to change ourselves (p.116).

We are called upon, however, to relieve suffering if possible, because to ‘suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic’ (p. 117). What is needed for this is to find the ‘super-meaning’, not ‘to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear [the] incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic’ (p.122, author’s italics).
We can never be fully free from difficult conditions, so true freedom, in Frankl’s view, is the ‘freedom to take a stand toward the conditions’ (p.132), a route towards self-determination. This is typically human, because: ‘Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary’ (p.133). If meaninglessness drives us crazy, it merely proves our humanness, Frankl says. This ties in with a quote from Krishnamurti’s work: ‘It is no sign of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’  That is not to say it is always easy. We can, for many different reasons, fall prey to ‘give-up-itis’ (p.141), losing all hope because we no longer focus on the remaining meaningfulness of life. Thus, we may lose all ability to deal with the suffering.
There is, however, a ‘difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness’ (p.152). Bearing whatever fate with dignity means rising above and growing beyond ourselves and thus increasing peace and wellbeing in the world.

That is hopeful, indeed. Compassionately exploring with people who grieve and suffer, the things that still make their life worthwhile may support them in finding the way back to their purpose and happiness. Seeing all this so impressively well laid-out by someone with a history like Frankl’s, is a humbling read.

Posted in Book and movie reviews.