SIGMUND FREUD’S PIONEERING WORK in psychoanalysis was based on the idea that human beings are primarily motivated by the desire for pleasure.
Freud’s contemporary, Alfred Adler, argued that pleasure isn’t the root of motivation at all—power is what we really seek.
Then came the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and a perspective born from the depths of adversity: Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, said Viktor Frankl, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.
The one thing necessary
Our most important need, argued Frankl, is not to please ourselves or to rule over others, but to uncover the true meaning of life—to know why we live and what we should do. And the path to discovering that meaning is to listen to what life is asking of us.
Both pleasure and power lose their grip when one discovers a “reason why.”
To his Nazi captors, Viktor Frankl was known only as Prisoner #119104. To those who suffered with him in the concentration camps, though, he was a steady source of encouragement and a reassuring voice of wisdom.
Many of Frankl’s fellow prisoners harbored bitterness and hatred against those who had imprisoned them for the “crime” of being Jews. But Viktor Frankl decided early on to keep his mind off the daily struggles of his untenable situation. Rather, Frankl endeavored to treat his plight as an “interesting psycho-scientific experiment.”
He determined to view himself, not as an unfortunate victim of circumstance, but as a doctor with a front-row seat to events most people would only hear about after the fact. He was a participant in something incredible and significant.
How to tell when someone will soon be dead
“Why is it,” Frankl asked himself, “that one person perseveres and makes it through—despite the indignation and brutality—when a stronger and younger person may not?”
By observing his fellow prisoners closely, he discovered how to predict who would be the next to die. None of the men were the picture of physical wellness; they all lived hungry and tired—yet there was one thing that distinguished those who would die from those who would live. Frankl saw a common factor emerge in the mindset of the doomed: They abandoned hope and gave in to despair.
The will to meaning
In Man’s Search for Meaning, the book he later wrote to chronicle his experiences in the concentration camps, Frankl made a poignant pronouncement:
In the final analysis, everything can be taken from us—everything—but for one thing … we always retain the right to choose what we think about what is happening. We can never be forced to relinquish the most precious possession of all—our own mental attitude.
The person who is able to find meaning in life—the person who sees obstacles as an inevitable part of life rather than as an end to life—is able to transcend even the most difficult circumstance to find a reason to go on living.
Agreeing with an earlier maxim of Fredrich Nietzsche, Frankl wrote, “Those who have a why to live, can bear with almost any how.”
An attitude of survival
The original (German) title of Man’s Search For Meaning was Trotzdem ja zum Leben sagen, or “Still say Yes to Life.” When we say “Yes” to life, in spite of what life brings, we affirm that life is worth living, and we affirm that—in the end—the meaning of life trumps the tragedy of life.
To lose hope is to deny meaning. It is to say the opposite—that life is not worth living—and, according to Frankl’s observations, those who maintain that line of thought are treading a sure path to an early death.
What about you and me? Are we strong enough to reach down and hold on to the best of life, even during those black times when the worst of life is our portion?
Trouble comes to all. Struggles come to all. It is our response, rather than the situation, that determines both our present and our future.
By holding on to meaning, Frankl found a way to benefit from the unthinkable, to make sweet wine from sour grapes and to grow stronger through adversity.
What is your “Reason why”? What is your “Yes” to life?
If we don’t know and remember our answers to those questions, we may be hard-pressed to keep going when life seems cruel and unfair.
And it will. For all of us.