Finding meaning in your life is an effective way of coping
with pain, loss, and suffering. Victor Frankl. a Holocaust survivor, was a neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna prior to World War II. He lived in the concentration camp Theresienstad from 1942 to 1945. His wife and parents died in the camp. He worked with prisoners while there, sometimes in secret, to help them maintain hope and relieve despondency and despair.
Following his liberation in 1945, Frankl published 32 books, taught all over the world, was given 29 honorary degrees, and resided at Harvard University. Best known among his writing is Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy
(1946), explaining a type of therapy based on a person's finding meaning in his or her experience.
Logotherapy's core principles are:
- Life has meaning. Even if your circumstances are tragic, grievous, or miserable, you can find meaning in it.
- The principal motivation for living is your will to find meaning in your life.
- You are free. No matter what your external circumstances, you can choose how to think, how to react, and what to do.
- Mind, body, and spirit are interdependent. The spiritual core of the human being is the key to wholeness. It is in the spirit that the will to meaning is exercised. The spirit enables vision, goals, and the ability to move beyond animal instinct and transcend self.
In one of his books Frankl talks about what he did at times when he was overwhelmed with the suffering in his life. During those difficult times he would imagine himself giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp to a large audience. This gave meaning to his experience and helped him survive. He was later released and spent decades speaking to large audiences about what he learned in the camps. He also attributes his survival to his determination to reconstruct a manuscript that had been lost when he first came to Auschwitz. He tells of setting his will to rewrite the manuscript and did so, while sick with typhus, with a piece of a pencil, using the backs of Nazi papers that were smuggled to him.
In his writing Frankl talks about the importance of finding a why of your existence. He describes this as the way to find hope, strength, and a goal for the future. From his observation of prisoners, he wrote that if someone loses faith in the future, he is doomed. Loss of hope will not only result in despair, but will lead to death. Frankl wrote about the connection of mind and body and how losing hope impacts the immune system.
Each person's meaning must be individual. Frankl discusses this as the person's assignment in life, and he talks about the importance of finding out what your assignment is. He also stresses that meaning is found when the person rises above herself and forgets herself as she gives to another person or a cause. Frankl talks about coping with suffering by transcendence - this rising above yourself - and in that process, changing yourself. He talks about accepting suffering as a task.
Joseph Fabry (1988) writes about logotherapy and areas where meaning can be found:
- Discovery of self. People put on masks to protect themselves. One way to meaning is to take off your masks and find your real self.
- Choosing. Looking for more choices in any situation. The more choices, the more potential meaning is available.
- Uniqueness. You are different from everyone else in the world, with individual gifts, talents, and abilities. Only you can be you. You cannot be replaced.
- Responsibility. Meaning is found in taking responsibility for choices. However, if your situation is one of unavoidable suffering, and no choices exist, then not to take responsibility provides meaning.
- Reaching out to others. Getting beyond self-absorption and looking to the needs of others gives your life meaning.