Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (Meaning of Life)
I believe one of the most important books of the 20th Century is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s a book that has greatly enriched my life and the lives of many people in history.
Frankl’s book describes one intelligent man’s understanding of human nature as it arose in the most extreme and harshest of environments (the concentration camps of World War II). It is not an understanding of life formed in the sterile laboratory or serene office, but in the furnace of human suffering and loss.
Victor E. Frankl was a psychiatrist and neurologist who survived the Holocaust, but the book is much more than a description of those horrible events. It also explores the psychology of those involved and the choices that transformed them into animals, saints, or something in between. It is about the meaning of life and the sources of strength one needs to survive. It is full of psychological, philosophical, spiritual, and even medical insights that have enriched the lives of many people and may also enrich your life. In this video, I will explain ten important insights (or themes) from Frankl’s book.
Theme 1: Success, happiness, and pleasure ensue, they should not be pursued.
In the intro, Frankl writes, “Again and again, I therefore admonish my students both in Europe and in America: “Don’t aim at success-the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself” (XV).
This is a beautiful quote that reminds me of this poem:
I sought the bird of bliss and she flew away, I sought my neighbor’s good and bliss came my way.
One of my students was reminded of Hawthorne:
Happiness is like a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you sit down quietly may alight upon you.
Every wisdom tradition we will study says something similar. Each encourages you to restructure your mind so that you see yourself not merely as a pleasure seeking machine, rather you are a consciousness, a being, that can seek excellence, virtue, or love for themselves, not for the pleasure they may or may not bring. That is, you can seek excellence because you choose to be excellent; you can follow your conscience because it is right and not merely because it may benefit you in some way. The best forms of happiness and success come not when you pursue them, but instead pursue excellence, virtue, beauty, or, as Frankl says, “a cause greater than oneself.”
This theme permeates Frankl’s entire book. Each prisoner and guard had choices. They chose to reduce themselves merely to the drive for survival or they chose to become something else.
So, remind yourself each day that you are going to do the right thing, reduce suffering, be loving, discover truth, and be excellent- not because it might bring you happiness, pleasure, or success- but because that is who you are… that is your chosen meaning. Reorient your mind in this way and see what happens.
Discuss Hawthorne’s quote. According to Frankl, why shouldn’t I strive only for happiness? What is the difference between following your conscience and following your conscience because it will make you happy? What is the difference between creating an excellent work and creating one merely to be successful? Do you agree or disagree?
Theme 2: You always have free will
Frankl believes you always have some degree of freedom, and you can use this freedom to discover meaning for your life. On page 69, he writes, “that which was ultimately responsible for the state of the prisoner’s inner self was not so much the psychological causes as it was the result of a free decision.”
Let’s explore some of the historical events to better understand his idea of freedom. In the first pages of the book, Frankl describes his horrible experiences in the concentration camp. He describes prisoners called Capos who were willing to do anything for power and survival. They ratted on other prisoners and beat their fellow prisoners harder than any guard. The Capos did anything necessary to survive. Frankl writes, “Only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves” (5). Frankl then states “the best of us did not return.”
At first sight, the existence of Capos seems to fit well with those who believe it’s a dog eat dog world and humans will do whatever is necessary to survive. It seems to suggest that we do not really have free will. When the external environment becomes harsh, we regress, lose our morals, and merely seek survival. On the surface, it seems to support the idea that we are mere byproducts of our genes and environments, not free creatures.
But Frankl rejects these ideas. He believed we always have freedom, and he believed he knew this experientially, not simply from abstract argument. Frankl writes that there were “enough examples, often of a heroic nature, that proved apathy could be overcome and irritability suppressed” (65). He writes about the few men who walked in the camps comforting others and giving their last pieces of bread. He writes, “Anything can be taken from man, but the last thing: his freedom- to choose one’s attitude in any circumstance, to choose his meaning.”
Frankl’s experiences commit him to the existence of freedom even in the most extreme of environments. Even if you lose all external control, you still have an internal freedom to choose your attitude and your meaning. You are not a stimulus-response machine because there is a space between stimulus and response in which your being lives, breathes, and chooses. You may not be able to control the stimulus, but you can control the response.
I know some of you will disagree because you don’t believe in free will. That’s interesting, but notice this is not an abstract argument about free will, compatibilism, and hard determinism. As a philosopher, I have spent much time on these theoretical arguments… but Frankl is not dealing with these abstract arguments. He presents what he believes to be a truth discovered in the furnace of human suffering. It is an experiential truth. You are free, no clarification needed. Frankl writes:
“And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered an opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threated to rob you of your very self; your very freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate” (66).
No amount of abstract philosophical argument will change Frankl’s position on free will. It is derived from experience, reflection, and choices made in the furnace of human suffering.
Notice too that this theme is similar to stoicism. There are many things you cannot control, but you can control your reaction to them. When a person cuts me off in traffic, I choose to let it ruin my day or not. Nobody can make me angry, it is my choices and way of thinking that cause my anger.
This is not a perfect analogy, but free will is like light. I cannot make logical sense of light but I know it exists because I experience it (see it, feel it, nourished by it). No amount of abstract armchair or laboratory argument will convince me that light is not real. In a similar but not identical way, free will is real to Frankl. No need to construct Ptolemaic systems to try to defend it or critique it, experience verifies it.
So, how can you apply this? Well, each day, remind yourself that you are free and responsible for your life and for finding meaning in life. You can choose to pursue pleasure alone or you can choose to follow your conscience even if it doesn’t lead to pleasure. You are not governed by pleasure and pain. You can choose to cheat or not. You are not a victim to desire. You can choose to follow your culture blindly or reject parts of it. You are not a product of your culture. You can choose to be kind or to be a jerk. Your choices, not your environment, determine whether you do so.
While there are some things you cannot change (e.g. where you were born, being an opera singer… a good one), you are faced with many choices. Even if you are facing unavoidable suffering, you can choose your attitude. Every moment presents a choice. My free choice is a primary experiential datum, and so I should not blame my genetics, upbringing, religion, science, or ideology for who I am. No excuses! I make myself and I make and discover my meaning. Nobody can make you adopt the attitude you currently have.
This theme is very existential, but, as we shall see later, Frankl also disagrees with some existential themes.
Question: What choices do you have right now? What choices does a prisoner have? How much control do you have over your attitude? Is it true that some truths in life must be experienced, they cannot be thought about in a reductionist way?
Theme 3: Your primary motivation is the will to meaning; you are not merely a pleasure or power seeking organism (Logotherapy and antireductionism).
Frankl believes the main concern of humans is to fulfill meaning and actualize values. This means he disagrees with Freud, Adler, and many modern reductionists. He disagrees with Freud because he does not believe human behavior can be reduced to the pursuit of pleasure. Nor does he agree with Nietzsche because Frankl does not believe all human behavior can be reduced to the will to power (99). In fact, he says people settle for the pursuit of pleasure and power only when they fail to find meaning.
Frankl writes, “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. The meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone, only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning. Man is able to live and die for the sake of his ideals and values!” (99).
He continues, “Logotherapy deviates from psychoanalysis insofar as it considers man a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts, or in merely reconciling the conflicting claims” of internal desires (103). In a way, Frankl is saying the deepest problem is philosophical or existential, not psychological.
Some of you may not be convinced by Frankl. You may agree with Freud that we are pleasure seeking machines or with Nietzsche (or at least some interpreters of Nietzsche), that everyone consciously or subconsciously is driven by the will to power. This makes for good discussion.
I can only say that when you look at the Freudian or Nietzschean arguments, they are unfalsifiable and make questionable appeals to what motivates you at the subconscious level. Frankl, on the other hand, appeals to what occurs consciously and how we can choose to follow our values even when they go against strong desires. Even if I want to survive, I can choose to die for my values.
For now, take a moment to think about how to apply this. Each day, remind yourself that you do not have to pursue pleasure, happiness, power, acceptance, or what have you. You are not a machine, you are a being, a human being. When there is an input, you can often choose your output. You are not a computer, you are the empty and free being that lives between stimulus and response… between input and output. You can choose many of your actions and attitudes and, through such choices, find meaning.
Questions: Do people pursue pleasure, power, and happiness when they fail to find meaning? Can you give any examples?
Theme 4: Meaning of Life 1: Creating
Before exploring the first meaning of life, let me say that Frankl does not believe the meaning of life can be answered in general terms. He writes, “The meaning of life differs from man to man, day to day, and hour to hour” (108). Seeking a general meaning of life is like asking a chess champion, “What is the best move in chess?” There is simply no best move because it depends on the context and the thinking of the other chess player. The same is true for the human condition. Each person has a unique circumstance, and each has a unique purpose.” With that in mind, let’s turn to the first way to find meaning.
The first way to find meaning is through an active life in which you create a work or do a deed. This life serves “the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work” (67). For example, you may find meaning in writing a book, creating a film, discovering truths, perfecting a musical piece, using your resources to help others, and so on. You may find meaning by being excellent at your job.
The work you do contribute to something greater than yourself. For example, it may contribute to the community. Let’s say you are cleaning cars and going to school. You can find meaning in cleaning cars well at a fair price even while you go to school for a career where you believe you can better help yourself and others.
Questions: List some ways you can find meaning by creating or doing something. Does your creation or action have to be recognized to be a good creation? Check out Zen Sand Paintings as you consider this question. Do you agree with Frankl that this is one meaning of life?
Theme 5: Meaning of Life 2: Encountering, Seeing, Loving
Even though Frankl believes the third way of meaning is most important, I am fascinated by the second way. The second way to find meaning is through the passive life of enjoyment: This affords a person the “opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature” (67). It is a meaning that arises in encountering something or someone (111) that changes how you view reality.
Frankl seems to say that, at this moment, you are alive, it’s incredible…. and if you could somehow adjust the way you see, you would experience the incredible beauty, wonder, and mystery in now. You might be the type of person that can find meaning by sitting under a tree and enjoying it. Frankl suggests you can find meaning in this form of passive enjoyment.
At this moment, you can see through eyes of love… and Frankl says this second way of meaning is ultimately about love.
On love, Frankl writes, “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized” (111). So, you can find meaning in life by seeing everyone with eyes of love. If you can also take loving action, great. If you can’t, that’s ok as well. The seeing is enough.
Let’s get more specific about this type of seeing, being, and loving. In the story, Frankl describes how he was comforted in his suffering by imagining his beloved wife. He found meaning in simply remembering her in love. At that moment of remembrance, he realized that a person who has a why can bear any how. His why was his wife.
Interestingly, it was not simply the hope of seeing her that kept him alive, but the memory, which gave him a loving state of mind as he contemplated her. He writes that the memory of holding that love before his eyes was enough… even if he knew she was dead.
Again, this meaning of life is in a way of seeing, being or loving, not necessarily doing. Even if all hope of seeing his wife is gone, seeing through eyes of love is enough… it is a meaning. In this picture on the screen, the boy’s mind is changing. Even if that landscape is someday destroyed, he can still hold it in his mind and return to a way of seeing and being that is love.
Later, Frankl describes a sick woman who had lived a selfish life. On her death bed, she is grateful for the experience she is now having. Her experience is this: She has no one to talk to except a tree, but as she talks to the tree, she experiences something ineffable. She experiences meaning. The tree replies to her questions and says, “I am life, eternal life.” This is difficult to understand, but she found meaning in an ineffable and beautiful way of seeing that transcended self-interest. That is, she found meaning in the highest love, in perceiving reality with love.
The skeptic and reductionist in people might say she is just drugged, but, in my opinion, that is the same superficial voice that says love is simply a chemical reaction, an epiphenomena of the brain. So much is missing from this one dimensional view.
Again, she found meaning in a new way of seeing, in an encounter with the tree, an encounter with Being and Love. She did not succumb to despair, which usually arises when one seeks happiness, power, or pleasure. No, she chose to see in a different way; she allowed the experience of love to arise within her. You too can find meaning by seeing in a new way …not by doing, but just by being. The second way is not an active way, rather it is a form of surrender and letting go…. The highest love.
The second way is hard to describe because the western mind is an active one; the western mind seems to value acting instead of being. Perhaps then we can turn to the Eastern Traditions to better understand this more passive way of discovering meaning in life. These traditions speak of softness, emptiness, and the loss of self. These kinds of experiences then give you a subjective experience or mindset that is…the meaning of life (e.g. nirvana, satori, rebirth).
In this mindset, instead of writing a poem, the poem writes itself through you. Instead of playing a game, you lose yourself and the game plays the game using you as a conduit. You (the ego) gets out of the way and lets the light (e.g. the Tao, Logos, Spirit) permeate your mind, which is no longer your mind because there is no you. This is hard to explain because it is something that must be experienced. The bottom line is there is a way of being and seeing that constitutes another meaning of life, and this way is usually associated with the highest form of love.
So, the highest love is not a chemical reaction in the brain, nor is it an epiphenomenon of sexual drives and instincts. No, the highest love is a way of seeing that brings meaning to life; it is one of the passive ways to find meaning. You don’t have to do, just be.
So, how can you apply this? First, pray for others even if you don’t believe in god. Close your eyes and imagine people in your life, and say, “I wish you well being, may the light of love flow into you and heal your body, mind, and emotions.” No, this isn’t hokey pokey New Age Gobbly Gook… it’s focusing your thoughts and emotions on different targets. You are reorienting your mind and body in a new way; the way of love.
Second, practice some form of meditation. Every religion and culture has interesting forms. These will also reorient your mind by giving you distance from selfishness, selfhood, and many negative thoughts and emotions. And when you are free from those, your body will also change. It slowly helps you wade into the loving way of being.
Third, practice the first theme we explored. It seems to require a loving mindset to live according to the first theme in which you do things well or follow your conscience without regard for reward or punishment.
Fourth, write a journal about the difference between being and doing and why being a certain way is more important than doing.
Finally, remind yourself each day of this truth by Marcus Aurelius, “an emerald shines even if nobody speaks of it.” You too can, at this very moment, see anew and be complete in this way of seeing. Doing or Acting may arise, but it is not necessary. The being and seeing is enough.
Questions: Explain why this may be true: “there is not a single thing you need right now to be happy, all that you need to be happy is present with you now?” If you think you need a person to be happy, how does your relation to that person change? Are you truly capable of seeing them and loving them? Is the purpose of the wisdom traditions to change -not what happens to you- but how you think about them and perceive what happens? Does the loss of self and/or selfishness create the ability to see with eyes of love and truth? Can you find meaning sitting alone under a tree?
Theme 6: Meaning of Life 3: The Way of Suffering
Frankl thought the third way (how you face unavoidable suffering) was most important. This does not mean you should create suffering, rather it is about how you deal with unavoidable suffering.
Frankl writes, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” (112). Frankl adds, “Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph (146).
Frankl then tells the story of a man who is mourning the loss of his wife. Notice Frankl cannot change the fact that the man’s wife died, it is unavoidable suffering. Instead, Frankl asks, “If you had died first, then isn’t it the case that your wife would have suffered terribly?”
The man then saw that he had spared his wife from suffering. Yes, he is suffering, but now his suffering has meaning because he understood that he spared his wife from suffering.
Notice Frankl did not see the man’s despair as a disease, nor did he try to spare him his fate. He did not give the man a pleasure pill or tell him to exercise more. No, he helped the man change his attitude so he could see the meaning in his life. Many psychological problems are actually philosophical ones, people need meaning in many cases, not simply drugs.
Again, not all forms of suffering are based in biology or chemical imbalances. Much suffering is caused by a sense of meaninglessness, but many reductionists nowadays treat superficial problems instead of the deeper problem… a lack of meaning.
Of course, if suffering is avoidable, we should remove it. But if suffering is unavoidable, we can change our attitudes to find meaning in it. If something bad happens to you, you don’t have to become a bitter old jerk or what have you... You have a choice.
At one point, Frankl writes about how people commit suicide because they lack meaning. Yes, not every suicide arises from a lack of meaning, but it may well be that an individual’s “impulse to take his life would have been overcome had he been aware of some meaning or purpose worth living for” (142). We should help patients find meaning, not simply anesthetize or lobotomize them. This is one of many methods to help people considering suicide.
So, if you are unhappy for unavoidable reasons, do not listen to those people who want to make you happy or try to make you feel unhappy for being unhappy. No, sometimes it is good and right to be unhappy, and you can still find meaning in life. Pleasure and happiness are not most important, finding meaning is. When you find meaning, you enter a state of being that transcends pleasure and happiness. We are beings as in human beings, not human machines.
This theme should remind you that the way you accept unavoidable suffering, the way you take up your cross, gives you ample opportunity to add depth and meaning to your life. A person can choose to remain brave, dignified and unselfish even in a concentration camp (67) “or in the bitter fight for self-preservation a person may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not” (67).
Again, you can take a stand no matter what conditions you are in. Even if your body is screaming no, you can choose to transcend your conditioned self by choosing the right action and attitude that may very well lead to an early death. You can change your attitude and way of seeing. The meaning you choose is in your control, it is not based on external and uncontrollable factors like whether you will survive the concentration camp. In the midst of suffering, you can find meaning because meaning is not simply about being in a pleasurable, happy, or powerful state.
Questions: Do modern psychologists focus too much on achieving happiness instead of meaning? The man who lost his wife still suffered, but he now had some meaning. Can you think of similar examples? What kinds of unavoidable suffering do you face? How can you make meaning out of them? How is this theme similar to the stoic theme of identifying with what is in your control?
Theme 7: The Ultimate Meaning of Life
Some of you may feel like Frankl is not really addressing the meaning of life because his approach seems to be all about subjective choice, not real objective, ultimate, external meaning. Let’s step back for a moment and think about that criticism. Is there an objective and rational way to understand the ultimate and objective meaning of life… if there is such a meaning?
First, Frankl says that if there is an ultimate purpose or meaning to life, it is suprarational. We cannot know it by science, logic, or reason.
To illustrate, consider the three identical cups on the screen that I created from my cup-making machine. We can use science and math to measure, weigh, and learn about their empirical properties. We learn they are the same material, same length, width, etc. They are “identical” plastic cups.
However, you will never know the purpose for which I created these cups unless you ask me. You can use your reason and imagination to speculate that I created them for the purpose of holding liquids, creating a telephone, and so on… but you might be wrong. You cannot see purpose, in principle, like you can see the empirical qualities of these cups. Purpose and meaning are not empirical and never will be.
So, let’s say I created the first cup for decoration, the second cup to hold coins, and the third cup for no purpose at all. I accidentally produced it after producing the first two cups.
No amount of science, logic, math, or philosophy can reveal the purpose of the cups. Yes, you can choose your own purpose for the cups, but the point is that you cannot know the external purpose, the purpose for which I created them unless I somehow reveal it to you. If there is an external purpose, you can only guess, you can’t know.
You cannot discover ultimate purpose through empirical scientific investigation or rational thought, which is a major problem with natural law theory and teleological arguments. If there is an ultimate purpose, we would not be capable of knowing it through science, logic, math, imagination, or philosophy. We could only speculate.
I believe this is one point Frankl wishes to make. He focuses on what is in our control, which is the three meanings mentioned earlier, instead of this sort of speculation. In a later interview, he also added that some religious people do feel a purpose to know the ultimate ground of all being from which all sense of meaning and purpose comes. But he doesn’t spend much time on that. Like Buddha, he is quite practical. He wants to help people, not speculate too much.
Still, he does recognize that some religious people attempt to find purpose in encountering the ultimate and ineffable source of all purpose and value. Many mystics and philosophers have spoken about the meaning of life in this way. The ultimate purpose is suprarational, so you must experience it.
If there were ultimate meaning in the universe, how would we know it since we cannot observe meaning like we can empirically observe atoms and trees? Sometimes, a therapist might say, “you have a purpose, a meaning.” Which type of meaning is she referring to? Explain the cup analogy.
Interestingly, the last four themes explain why Frankl is not an existentialist. If you believe existentialism involves recognizing the absurdity of human existence and the lack of meaning in life, then he is not existentialist in that sense. Frankl said he disagreed with Sartre and others who dwell on the meaninglessness, absurdity, and despair in life. He disagreed because he does not believe we have to accept the meaninglessness of life. We choose meaning and if there is an ultimate meaning, we cannot know it logically (e.g. cup analogy). Frankl is not saying there is no ultimate meaning, he is saying we cannot know it rationally.
Ultimate meaning would be shrouded in darkness because it cannot be known by the senses or categorizing intellect. But perhaps ultimate meaning would also be light because it gives life to all and “the less we obstruct it, the more radiant we are” (Mitchell, Tao Te Ching). We must use metaphors to talk about its possibility, and Frankl does not reject it like some existentialists do.
Still, it’s obvious that many of his ideas are existential (e.g. emphasis on freedom and responsibility), though he disagrees with the more popular and modern existentialists.
Theme 8: Do not seek a tensionless state
This theme continues his logotherapy approach. Many therapeutic approaches seek to create a mental homeostasis, equilibrium, tranquility. Frankl calls it a tensionless state. It seems many approaches make people complacent, tranquil, stressless, and tensionless either through drugs, meditation, or some other method.
But Frankl writes “mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become” (105).
Frankl and other logotherapists want to create some tension through a reorientation toward the meaning in one’s life. Seeking pleasure and power won’t help in the end; it’s a matter of discovering your meaning. There is a tension between your current self and ideal self, and moving and being in your ideal self is where you find meaning.
However, there is a criticism here. This advice seems to go against some of the other wisdom traditions we are studying (e.g. Buddhism, Taoism, Stoics). These traditions teach you how to be content now. Instead of contrasting your current self with an ideal self, these traditions give you a way to have no self at all. Everything you need now is with you. It’s as if you are sitting on a bucket looking around for a gold ring, but the gold ring is in the bucket you are sitting upon.
These other traditions teach that the problem is we seek contentment in the future or out there. If you are constantly seeking happiness, contentment, or peace in the future or out there, you will never find it because you miss the ultimate peace, happiness, and contentment with you now.
So, how should we evaluate this tension between Frankl’s approach and Wu Wei? Is meaning in life best found by seeking a higher self or dissolving the self? Perhaps there is a middle ground in which you can outwardly move towards the higher potentialities but inwardly be content with the present?
In my opinion, Frankl’s second way of finding meaning (the passive one) captures what is meant in these wisdom traditions and there is no real contradiction. Perhaps the deeper point is that my contentment, happiness, and value are not dependent on actually achieving a future goal, but on simply being a certain type of person. I can work towards the goal (in my control), but will be content with any outcome (not in my control).
So, how can you apply this? One way is to visualize what you want to be and work towards it, but also be content with what you are now. More precisely, think about what you want to have and work towards these forms of life, but also identify with the formless being that you are now and will always be.
Questions: Is meaning in life best found by seeking a higher self or dissolving the self? When and why should we embrace a state of tension? Can I be completely content now and still be motivated to work towards a higher goal?
Theme 9: Your value is not in your utility
At one point, Frankl explains the unconditional value of each person. Just as each moment has potential meaning, so each person has unconditional value. The value of each person is not based on their utility.
If you look around a bit, you know our society values the young. It values youth and usefulness instead of dignity. But if you place value only on usefulness, then you might as well euthanize the elderly, mentally impaired, and other groups that do not seem to have much usefulness to society. Your program might look a bit different than Hitler’s, but it is founded on the same principle if you see a person’s value only in terms of what they can contribute.
No, you must find meaning in the second way listed earlier: love. You must discover this way of seeing that understands you should never treat a person merely as a means to an end (e.g. Kant); every person, no matter how useful or useless, is infinitely valuable. Yes, Frankl rejects utilitarian and egoistic strands of thought.
Frankl adds some wisdom about aging. He writes: “The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully way with its predecessors. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him to notice he is growing old?” (121).
Such a man has no reason to envy the young. Instead of possibilities, the elderly have realities in the past. They have worked, loved, and suffered, bravely suffered.
Much of the value of such elderly people can only be experienced by those who have the eyes to see, those who have experienced the highest love and can be enriched by a being who has actualized much. The blind cannot see their value.
So, how do you apply this? Well, try spending time with old wise people. Second, don’t envy the young. Third, at the end of each day, write down what you have accomplished. Even if it is merely a small and kind act like not driving rudely, record it. You can find meaning in the past and in small things. Growing old then becomes a pleasure. Also, write poetry or spend time in silence. Connect with the formless Being that you are instead of constantly identifying with the ephemeral thoughts, emotions, bodies, and other forms of being. Enjoy them without being them. Finally, as you make your many decisions, ask yourself the following: “Self, will I be happy with this decision when I am on my deathbed at age _____?”
Questions: How can you reorient your mind to see everyone’s value? What is the trick to not envying the young? What can you do now that will make you content on your deathbed?
Theme 10: The book cannot be summarized, it must be slowly read.
Consider two analogies:
Analogy 1: It is a mistake to think I know music simply because I can give a respectable definition of it (e.g. music is the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion). It reminds me of Louis Armstrong who said, “if you have to ask what jazz is, you will never know.” Music is not something you can know from the outside in, you must know it from the inside out. This book is like that.
Analogy 2: It is also a mistake to think I understand love if I have never chosen it and simply define it as a chemical reaction in the brain. An objective definition of love does not give the experiential understanding of it.
So, what is the point of these analogies? The point is it is a mistake to think I understand a profound book simply because I read or listened to a short summary of it. Like music and poetry, some experiences cannot be reduced to a definition, summary, cliff’s notes, video, or short list. Some books, like this one, must be read. These books are an interactive experience in which the silent spaces between the words are often filled with more meaning than the words themselves. A summary cannot be ecstatic in the way experiencing a great book can be.
So, this book is an experience. It moves beyond the abstract theories we study in this course; it shows how they play out in real life… and I think the book may challenge you to become the person you mostly deeply are and want to be. So, this video is in no way a substitute for reading the book…. Just as giving you a definition of music is in no way a substitute for experiencing music. So, go read the book.
Paul Stearns, 2016