Leading yourself

with Viktor E. Frankl

I don’t get it. Actually, there are two things in the reading that surprises me.


Why can’t I get out of the death cell? I´m living in a big house in the countryside, I step out every day and enjoy the nature. Yes, there are restrictions, but physically my life hasn’t changed radically during the pandemic. So why am I the person that Viktor E. Frankl describes?


He starts with such a strong picture.


”Let us imagine a man who has been sentenced to death and, a few hours before his execution, has been told that he is free to decide on the menu for his last meal”, he writes.


Let us imagine it’s you. See yourself in the cell. Try to understand, that in two or three hours you will no longer exist. Dare to go into the feelings this knowledge awakes in you. What will you answer the guard who offers you all kinds of delicacies?


My initial answer is that it’s absolutely pointless to eat in that situation. I see myself giving in to despair, falling into pieces, locking myself down. In that situation living is meaningless.


In Frankl’s example also the man in the cell rejects all suggestions for food. There is no need to give nutrition to a body that will soon be a corpse, he thinks. But Frankl’s conclusion is this:


”But the whole of life stands in the face of death, and if this man had been right then all our lives would be meaningless, were we only to strive for pleasure and nothing else – preferably the most pleasure and the highest degree of pleasure possible. Pleasure in itself cannot give our existence meaning; thus the lack of pleasure cannot take away meaning from life, which already seems obvious to us.”


Pleasure? That is about the last thing I imagine myself thinking about in the death cell.


For Frankl this is a crucial point in his philosophy. It emerges from his own struggle for survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. For years he lived knowing, that he at any moment could be sent to the gas chamber. He lived in the opposite of pleasure – never enough food, never enough sleep, never rest, never good clothes, never suitable temperature. In pain, starving, forced to work like a slave.


Dreaming about a safe home, providing food and warmth, a hot bath, family around. Dreaming about some kind of pleasure was a way of escaping the hell he was living in.


But it was not enough to keep him going. Pleasure is not enough for giving life meaning. Many of us experience this when we have achieved a certain state of material safety. Was this it? What now? More pleasure is often not the answer.


Before the war Frankl studied medicine and specialized in neurology and psychiatry, focusing on depression and suicide. He questioned the strong Freudian approach to psychoanalysis and stated that meaning was the driving force for human beings. 


In the camp, when his existence was completely stripped from pleasure and filled with the opposite, his way of handling the situation was to turn the question of meaning around. Instead of asking what he could expect from life, he started trust that life had a meaningful task for him, a reason to stay alive no matter what. Something only he could do. He asked: What does life expect from me? For Frankl it was to re-write the manuscript that was destroyed in the camp, and have it published.


After his release did he publish his now classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust, Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager (1946).  The English version Man’s Search For Meaning (1959) became a bestseller. Frankl saw the success as a symptom of the "mass neurosis of modern times" since the title promised to deal with the question of life's meaningfulness.


He also developed logotheraphy and existential analysis, which are based on philosophical and psychological concepts, particularly the desire to find a meaning in life, and on free will.

Frankl identified three main ways of realizing meaning in life: by making a difference in the world, by having particular experiences, or by adopting particular attitudes. When working with clients he used tools like self-distancing, humorous exaggeration, drawing attention away from symptoms, Socratic dialogue and attitude modification.


The question Frankl asked himself, and help us all ask ourselves when thinking that we have nothing more to expect from life, was: What does life expect from me?  But he underlines that there is not only one, ready and right answer awaiting to be found – that would be religion. More important than finding answers is to find a way of living. In good times, and in bad.


His acknowledgement of meaning as a central motivational force and factor in mental health is his lasting contribution to the field of psychology. It provided the foundational principles for the emerging field of positive psychology.


But back to my problem with the last meal in the death cell. I try to follow Frankl’s logic: If pleasure is not the meaning of living, it seems to be worthless to enjoy good food during the last hours of life. Still Frankl writes that the denial to enjoy the last meal is a sign of not understanding that every hour of life, also the very last ones, are meaningful. Even when we know that they are our last ones.


Does this mean that the reason for not enjoying a last meal is more important than the solution itself? If I feel that it is more meaningful for me to spend my last hours doing something else than eating – meditating, talking to loved ones, writing, reading, whatever – then my decision is one of living with meaningfulness. But if I fade away in different modes of self-destruction, then I fade away from understanding what life expects from me.


I see Frankl nod, I hear him saying: There are so many circumstances that you can’t control. But you always can choose how you live every hour of your life.


With this freedom come’s a lot of responsibility. It’s called leading yourself.


Still, the picture of me sitting in the death cell is not scaring anymore. Mentally, I feel at home. Physically, I prefer nature.


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