Someone who concluded that from a terrible experience in the most extreme circumstances is Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1905-1997).
Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor, which included the Auschwitz camp. He became known when he analysed and described his experiences in the concentration camps.
As a fellow inmate in these camps with a professional eye, Frankl experienced all kinds of different people in an extreme and hopeless situation.
Even in those circumstances, he discovered that life is meaningful and, in addition, that it is crucial to find a higher purpose. In the concentration camps, he saw that that made the difference in who was going to make it and who was not.
Besides the forced labour he had to perform, he also practised his profession as a psychiatrist – to the best of his ability – and helped with spiritual care for fellow prisoners suffering from melancholy and suicidal thoughts in the inhuman situation.
He developed his experiences into a method that amounts to finding meaning in life, even in the most extreme circumstances, like the concentration camps he had been into.
That meaning gives a reason and a purpose to live for.
The way Frankl sees it, life is about a search for meaning and actualising it. Unlike Sigmund Freud, whom he knew personally, he does not reduce life to a quest for pleasure. Nor, like Nietzsche, to a quest for power.
Frankl thinks this only happens when a person no longer finds meaning for his life. With this, the deepest problems in life are philosophical and existential, rather than psychological and medical, according to Frankl.
With the suffering he endured as an experiencer of the concentration camps and continuously saw up close, he concluded that – even in the most absurd, painful, utterly inhumane, unimaginable to us so horrific the situations – life is potentially meaningful.
The crux of this is in finding meaning in your life. You have to ‘aim higher’ than your life today and everyday life.
If you are not aiming for a higher goal, you won’t end up higher either, and then you very easily wander off as a human being. You shortchange yourself and confuse your life with a quest for externals or reduce it to ‘having fun’.
Of course that is important, but for those for whom that is the only goal, they can quickly go astray and such a life is not satisfying in the long run.
According to Frankl, the one who recognises in fellow human beings the search for meaning is thereby the one who transcends frustration.
Frankl also pointed out the emptiness people can feel at the end of the working week. In fact, an escape into work, away from the search for meaning in their lives.
How often do we see this around us? The people who fear confronting themselves, and life, or finitude, by permanently shying away from that search for meaning like an ostrich with its head in the sand.
Fleeing into safe havens called work, distraction and noise. Until something happens in their lives that shuts them down.
Fleeing is no longer possible.
It’s better to get ahead of that moment.
Life is uncertain, we can be sure of that.
All kinds of unplanned and untimely events will happen. But when we have found meaning – knowing why we are there – that will be our guide and our footing throughout life’s journey full of unexpected matters.
Julian van der Wouden – Vita Florentis
3 Kierkegaard (1845), 2011, p.101.
4 Kierkegaard (1845), 2011, p.101.
5 Kierkegaard (1845), 2011, p.101.