Frankl Finds Meaning Outside Self

Vicktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

Frankl Finds Meaning Outside Self

Viktor E. Frankl. 2008. Man’s Search for Meaning: A Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust (Orig Pub 1946).[1] Translated by Ilse Lasch. London: Rider.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What is the meaning of life? “To glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever.”[2] Reminding ourselves of the centrality of God in our lives is a good theme for Holy Week.

For unbelievers, life is a bit more complicated, kind of like the mathematics of planetary motion for people who still believe the universe revolves around the earth. The mathematics of planetary motion became so much easier after Copernicus demonstrated that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa.

Introduction

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl shares both his concentration camp experiences during the holocaust and his observations as a logotherapist (meaning therapist) on the meaning of life. (104) His purpose in writing, as stated in his preface, is that: “I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.” (12)

Problem of Despair

This purpose statement is a massive understatement, as we later learn from Frankl’s own summary of the predicament of our times, when he writes:

“Every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to copy with it. The existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as a contention that being has no meaning.” (31)

Neurosis can be defined as an “excessive and irrational anxiety or obsession”[3] while an existential vacuum (lack of meaning in life) “manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom” which afflicts 25 percent of European students and about 60 percent of American students, according to Frankl’s own statistics. (110) As a parent, I used to say that the two most dangerous words in the teenage vocabulary were “I’m bored”; apparently, Frankl would agree.

Meaning of Life

In reading Frankl’s work, we can surmise that Frank’s life work as a logotherapist arose immediately out of his experience during the Holocaust, but we are never explicitly told. What is remarkable is that Frankl, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was offered the opportunity to immigrate to America before such opportunities went away, but stayed in Vienna to look after his parents who were not offered this opportunity (13).

Why link meaning in life to experiences in a concentration camp? Viktor again does not explicitly tell us, but he does explain how he managed to survive the Holocaust when 27/28 camp inmates did not. Frankl busied himself in the camps contemplating the lectures that he would give after the war on the psychology of the concentration camp! (82) In other words, this book was the therapy that he administered to himself in the camps—outlining what he would write in this book. Contemplating the meaning of life in the camps gave life meaning, as he spent his days laying railroad tracks and, later, caring for inmates dying of typhoid.

Surviving in the Camps

Frankl offers numerous tips to prospective concentration camp inmates on how to survive. Among his observations are:

  • Don’t draw attention to yourself from sadistic guards.
  • Shave daily, walk briskly, and stand up straight to look healthy enough for work.
  • Applaud profusely when sadistic guards read poetry.
  • In walking in formation, stay in the middle or the front to avoid those that stumble and the beatings that follow.
  • Offer free psychiatric counseling to guards in need of it.

Short timers, who have given up on life, ignore these rules and smoke cigarettes that might otherwise be traded for food.

Critical Role of Meaning

A critical point in all this craziness is that, according to Frankl, survival depended on finding meaning in suffering. Frankl reports that the death rates in the camps days after Christmas in 1945 rose dramatically, not because of any external deprivation, but simply because inmates who had hoped to be released by Christmas gave up the will to live in the days thereafter. (84) When life hangs by a thread, small changes in attitude make a difference. Frankl writes:

“Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost…we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” (85)

So Frankl learned that inmates needed to live for other people who depended on them and to live to finish unfinished tasks, like the book he was to write. (87, 109) In other words, meaning comes not from looking inside one’s self, but from transcending one’s self.(131)

Assessment

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is an unusually fascinating book. Frankl does not dwell on the horrors of the camps, but develops lessons from it for daily life in a postmodern world. When he discusses his survival tips, my mind immediately jumped to office situations where the same tips would be pertinent, suggesting not an opportunity for dark humor but that the camp experiences helped Frankl strip away the thin veil of the civilized world to see more fundamental truths. This is a book that you will want to read and, perhaps, return to occasionally for reference.

Footnotes

[1]Ein Psycholog ergebt das Konzentrationslager (A Psychiatrist’s Experience of the Concentration Camp).

[2]“The Larger Catechism” (7.111) The Book of Confessions. Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Part 1. 2004. Louisville: Office of the General Assembly.

[3]https://www.google.com/#q=neurosis&*

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Why We Care About Epistemology

Our concern with epistemology is simple: faith is a lifesaver and, when faith is undermined, people suffer.

To see why faith is a lifesaver, let us return to our earlier discussion of the scientific method, when we consider the steps—problem definition, observations, analysis, decision, action, and responsibility bearing—the key step typically is the first one: problem definition. Glenn Johnson (1986), a friend and former professor, used to talk about how researchers would get stuck on a pre-step in problem definition—having a felt need—which does not mature into an actionable, problem definition. A good problem definition requires insight in the problem and creativity that is frequently absent.

Viktor Frankl offers an interesting problem definition in reflecting on faith and the meaning of life. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl shares both his concentration camp experiences during the Holocaust and his observations as a logotherapist (meaning therapist) on the meaning of life. He observes:

“Every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to copy with it. The existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as a contention that being has no meaning.” (Frankl 2008, 31)

He defines neurosis as an “excessive and irrational anxiety or obsession”[1] while an existential vacuum (lack of meaning in life) “manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom” which afflicts 25 percent of European students and about 60 percent of American students, according to Frankl’s own statistics. He concludes that meaning comes not from looking inside one’s self, but from transcending one’s self (Frankl 2009, 110,131). In his book, he repeatedly associates this existential vacuum with despair and suicide, based on his experience both as a concentration camp survivor and a professional psychiatrist.

If our culture obsesses about individual freedoms, encourages individuals to look within themselves for meaning, and rejects faith out of hand,[2] then Frankl suggests that we should observe epidemic levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide, as we observe. Lucado (2009, 5) puts it most succinctly: “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.” Frankl and Lucado’s observations about the emotional state of a society are hard to quantify in a statistical sense, but the New York Times recently reported that suicide rates in the United States had reached a thirty-year high.[3]

How did we reach this point?

Part of this story is one of a stagnant economy where about half of all Americans have seen no increase in real income since about 1980. Families under economic pressure have increasingly both spouses working full time which implies both smaller families and fewer economic and emotional reserves, especially for those with only a college degree or less. When both spouses work, it is harder to set aside Sundays for family and church, reducing spiritual reserves. When a family crisis emerges for families already stretched to the limit, the absence of reserves—economic, emotional, and spiritual—can be stressful. Remove faith from this mix, the absence of reserves can be devastating.

Faith is more than a spiritual reserve, but it is certainly no less. If faith functions as a reserve, then its removal leaves the family more prone to stress. We accordingly care about maintaining the vitality of our faith at least as much as our economic and emotional vitality. If our faith informs our work ethic and our devotion to marriage, as indeed it does, then the vitality of our faith is actually more important than our economic and emotional vitality because it is more primal. Attacks then on our faith are the most basic threats to our life both here and now, and eternally. So we care about epistemology because our lives depend on maintaining our faith.

Reference

Frankl, Viktor E. 2008. Man’s Search for Meaning: A Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust (Orig Pub 1946). Translated by Ilse Lasch. London: Rider.

Lucado, Max. 2009. Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

[1] https://www.google.com/#q=neurosis&*.

[2] Guinness (2003, 145) describes prevailing attitude when he was a philosophy student during the 1960s as ABC—anything but Christian.

[3] Most surprising, the largest increase among men aged 45-64 (Tavernise 2016).

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Head and Heart

Head_and_heart_11132013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In early 2008, the French investment bank, Société Générale, announced that a single trader fraudulently lost over $7 billion making it the world’s largest rogue trader incident. The loss led France into recession.  Later that spring at a risk managers’ conference in Chicago, I overheard chief risk officers in the halls quietly shaking their heads and saying that rogue traders simply could not exist because of standard corporate checks and balances.  Basically, the trader had made so much money prior to the losses that other staff simply looked the other way when the imprudent risks were being taken.

Working as a chaplain intern in an emergency room (ER) in a Washington hospital in 2011, I noticed a disturbing link among the patients.  More than half of all patients admitted to the ER had problems stemming from relational problems and poor life-style choices.  Overweight patients came in with diabetes, asthma, joint problems, and cardiac problems.  Men passed out on the street from excessive drinking or other drug abuses.  Elderly patients were dropped off by relatives late on Saturday afternoon—too late to find a ride home over the weekend.  Young men and women fearful of contracting AIDS came in to be tested.  Among psyche patients the link was even more pronounced.  For the most part, the doctors treated the presenting diagnosis and released them.

The common denominator in each of these examples is that the bankers and the patients did what felt good at the time, as psychologists would predict.  Behavioral psychology teaches that even an amoeba will response to a positive stimulus by repeating the behavior that evoked the positive stimulus and doing less of the behavior associated with a negative stimulus.   This is the standard behavioral learning model.  In this respect, the Apostle Paul lamented:  For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out (Romans 7:18 ESV).

Matthew Elliott[1] (141) asks an interesting question:  how can Jesus command us to love one another (Mark 12:30-31) if love is simply an emotion found in the heart?  How can I obey this commandment if my emotions are just a product of who I am?  Elliott’s answer:  If emotions are merely physiological impulses, they can be ignored, controlled or trivialized, while, if they have as their essential element thinking and judgment, they are an essential part of almost everything that we think and do (31).  In other words, what we think affects how we feel—especially over time.  We get emotional about the things that are important to us[2].

If we accept Elliott’s cognitive thesis of how emotions work, then emotions are a poor guide for behavior when our theology is wrong or weakly held.  If my life centers on the great ME instead of the great I AM, then my emotions will naturally reinforce my theology.  In other words, bad theology leads to bad emotions, which, in turn, leads to bad behavior.  Jesus said:  the tree is known by its fruit (Matthew 12:33 ESV).

Sadly, inattention to theology leads to the same result.  The story of Hannah Arendt’s coverage for the New Yorker of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 is instructive[3].  Arendt was a German Jew, student of philosopher Martin Heidegger who wrote her dissertation on Augustine, and a holocaust survivor who escaped from the death camps.  Arendt went to the Eichmann trial thinking that, because he was the architect of Hitler’s final solution, she would meet a hate-mongering, fire breathing Nazi.  Instead, what she found was a petty bureaucrat who was unable to think for himself.  She was dumbfounded and devoted the rest of her life to a study of evil.  What was the conclusion of her study?  Wickedness may be caused by an absence of thought[4].  When we refuse to think for ourselves, we find ourselves doing things we are later not proud of and hanging with the wrong people[5]The tree is known by its fruit (Matthew 12:33 ESV).

At one point, a colleague that I had counseled thanked me for saving his marriage.  What had I done?  Very little–we talked for only 5 minutes.  We prayed together and I asked him to pray for his wife.  He did.  He later reported that he could not remain angry with his wife after praying for her.  In other words, feelings of love followed actions of love.  So when Jesus commands us to love our neighbors he is talking about actions—practiced theology.  Hopefully, the feelings will follow.


[1]Matthew A. Elliott.  Faithful Feelings:  Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.  Grand Rapids:  Kregel Publications, 2006.

[2]Andrew D. Lester.  Anger:  Discovering Your Spiritual Ally.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, page 29.

[3]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Eichmann. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannah_Arendt.

[4]Hannah Arendt.  The Life of the Mind. New York:  Harcount, Inc, 1977, page 13.

[5]Eichmann was sentenced to death by a civilian court in Israel and was hung for crimes against humanity in May 31, 1962.

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