Finding Frankl’s meaning in times of COVID

How to find meaning in times of COVID pandemics? The situation we are currently subjected to can bring feelings of fear and anxiety. Viktor Frankl’s teachings can help us in finding meaning.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist, constructed his logotherapy within terrible circumstances which later became the formation of his “psychology of survival”.  During the Second World War, he ended up in Auschwitz, a concentration camp in which he was on a daily basis exposed to brutal violence against his own psyche, body, and spirit. Physical torture, starvation, humiliation, and the uncertain horror of a situation in which it was not known which day someone would face death, made people completely lose all principles, value, and hope, observed Frankl.

He also noticed that what helped people to find a reason to live was finding a meaning. He noticed that a reason to live, something to look forward to or something to be oriented towards, contributed to helping people to find the strength to endure these everyday horrors. This reason for living was something outside of them, something that transcended the situation, like meeting a loved one or some act they could or want to do in the future that had a personal meaning for them.

In a similar manner, Frankl found his meaning in the orientation towards completing the manuscript that he had brought with him to the concentration camp. In times of struggle, he envisioned finishing the manuscript. When he was finally able to leave the concentration camp he did finish it -and it became a book “Man’s search for meaning” and an introduction to logotherapy, a new branch of existential therapy that helps in one’s search for meaning.

Frankl’s story can be an inspiration in times of COVID. Within it, there is embodied wisdom of existential tradition which teaches us how to confront situations in life that are inevitable, such as illness, death, anxiety, or freedom. It also gives us the wisdom to confront those situations such as current COVID pandemics which are a collective crisis of meaning on a social level.

Frankl teaches us that what primarily gives us a sense of hope, something to survive for – is meaning. He sees meaning as a primary motivator for the human will to survive.

How to find meaning?

Meaning is found so that in a particular situation we ask ourselves what has the greatest value for us and then try to orient our action in accordance with that. It is also useful to ask what this situation asks of us, Frankl would say.

He would invite us to transfer our thoughts from „why me?“ position to the „what is this situation asking of me?

What can we orient ourselves towards, something that is in-the-world, that is beyond our own existence, something or someone that has meaning for us?

This is not only a pure theory. For Frankl, existence has the character of an answer. The situation with COVID thus asks something from us very concretely. It asks that we embody this answer within our actions.

As Croatian existentialist dr. Milan Košuta proposes: “One can always complain when something difficult comes down. And it may, and that seems to me what life is about, use bad experiences to discover ever newer and finer parts of oneself.

Paradoxically, it is precisely what can help us find meaning in this situation. As Viktor Frankl noted, “When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Viktor Frankl turned his horrific experiences into a gift for humanity. Let us not waste our opportunity to turn these extremely challenging circumstances into something meaningful. Let us ask ourselves what it is that we personally can pass on towards someone or something that is meaningful to us.