Viktor Frankl’s search for meaning (2)

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The real meaning lies in the world, argues Frankl. It is wrong to think of man as a closed system. Being human actually means being open to the world with other human beings to encounter and meanings to fulfill. He calls this “the self-transcendence of human existence”. In other words, man is always focused on something other than himself, be it a meaning to be fulfilled or another human being.

The more a person forgets himself – giving himself to something he serves or another human being he loves – the more he is human and the more he actualizes himself, Frankl says. In other words, “self-actualization is only possible as a phenomenon of self-transcendence.”

Find meaning in practice: the method of logotherapy

According to logotherapy, meaning of life can be found in three different ways:

  1. by creating a work or doing a deed
  2. by experiencing something or meeting someone; by experiencing beauty, goodness or truth – by experiencing nature or culture or meeting another human being in its uniqueness

Frankl thinks that love is seeing another human being to the core of his or her personality. Nobody can become wholly aware of the essence of another human being if he or she does not love him.

3. attitude which we take towards inevitable suffering

When we can no longer change a situation, Frankl argues, when suffering is inevitable – then we can change ourselves. This attitude is similar to the teachings of Zen Buddhism towards the acceptance of pain and suffering.

Frankl describes a situation in the concentration camp, for example. He received clothes from a certain prisoner who was sent to the gas chamber. In the pocket, instead of his own text which was taken from him, he found a piece of paper on which Jewish prayer was written, Shema Yisrael. How could he understand that differently than as a challenge to live his own thoughts in actual life, in practice, instead of on paper?

Some persons who lost their meaning in life were asked by Frankl to look at their life as if they were looking it from their death bed. When they looked at it that way, suddenly they noticed that they have done something in their life, that they brought happiness to someone, took care of someone, made a difference for someone…A new horizon of meaning was opened for them, a horizon they did not see before.

Literature: Man’s search for meaning, Viktor Frankl, Washington Square Press, 1984.