Series in Living II – Saying Yes to Life – Philosophy of Viktor E Frankl

Saying Yes to Life

Viktor Frankl (1905 to 1997) is one of the greatest psychologist of 20th century from Europe. His philosophy of life has developed out of his experience in the concentration camp. Despite being no stranger to suffering, war, all round apathy and tough circumstances, his zeal to live and living and face life boldly are commendable. His philosophy towards life and living is simple – Life has meaning in all conditions. Saying yes to life in spite of all sufferings and facing it boldly, believing in future is the key to success and achievement in life.……

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The human being is an entity consisting of body, mind and spirit and each individual is unique. He has choice and has to be responsible for making something of himself. He has a finite freedom in the sense he cannot be free from biological, social or psychological conditioning but has ultimate freedom to take stand to react despite the conditions. One cannot change the situation but can change one’s attitude towards it. Suffering without meaning leads one to despair but if we can find a meaning under suffering and then he can translate it into success and achievement. “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all. The man who could not see any sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on is soon lost.

We had to learn ourselves and teach to the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer is not talk or meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

Therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Hence it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. Life is man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his. Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the suffering by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering in it has hidden opportunities for achievement. It was necessary to face up to the full amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum. But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.

This uniqueness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. Health, family, happiness, professional abilities, fortune, position in society – all these were things that could be achieved. Whatever we had gone through could still be an asset to us in the future.

Human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death. One has to face up to the seriousness of one’s position. They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning.

Man needs “something” for the sake of which to live. First goal was “finding a purpose and meaning to my life.”

Man as he developed has lost his animal instinct and established tradition. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).

The existential vacuum thus created manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. This is in line with Schopenhauer when he said that mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom. In actual fact, boredom is now causing, and certainly bringing to psychiatrists, more problems to solve than distress. And these problems are growing increasingly crucial, for progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in the leisure hours available to the average worker. The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time.

Man has to be fully aware of his own responsibility; and has to decide therefore, for what, to what, or to whom he is to be responsible. Once an individual’s search for a meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering. And what happens if one’s groping for a meaning has been in vain? This may well result in a fatal condition. Meaning orientation had subsided, and consequently the seeking of immediate pleasure had taken over

As logotherapy teaches, there are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or by doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love. The third avenue to meaning in life: 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.

Life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable. And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive. In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation. An optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action. Third aspect of the tragic triad concerns death. But it concerns life as well, for at any time each of the moments of which life consists is dying, and that moment will never recur. And yet is not this transitoriness a reminder that challenges us to make the best possible use of each moment of our lives? It certainly is, and hence Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.

Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment

By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. Therefore, we can predict his future only within the large framework of a statistical survey referring to a whole group; the individual personality, however, remains essentially unpredictable. Yet one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary. Things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment – he has made out of himself.

Saying yes to life in spite of everything  and Man’s search for meaning have the power to transform his Lives.

  • “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor E. Frankl
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