Viktor E. Frankl (1905 – 1997)
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Viktor E. Frankl

By Dan Short

Editor's Note: These collected thoughts of Viktor Frankl, M.D., Ph.D. provide a rare opportunity to glance into the life of someone who at 92 years of age is a living witness to the history of psychotherapy. Frankl, having exchanged ideas with Freud, Adler, and other great minds such as Heidegger, is an impressive source of intellectual insight. Because he survived 34 months in the Nazi death camps; where his wife, unborn child, mother, father, and brother where murdered, Frankl is a testament to man's ability to master even the most tragic of fates. In spite of his age and the trouble he suffers from degeneration of the retina, Frankl was still willing to correspond with us so that we could compose this brief account of his complex thinking and his exceptional attitude towards life.

At only 22 years of age Frankl founded the journal "Der Mensch Im Allertag" [Man in everyday life]; since that time he has written 27 books and been published in 22 languages. In 1928 he introduced the concept of "Logotherapy." After his liberation from his last concentration camp he rewrote The Doctor and the Soul; the reconstruction of this lost manuscript took only nine days. This was shortly followed by Man's search for Meaning, a book which has sold over 4 million copies.

Logotherapy, also referred to as the third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, is currently the only major theory which includes the human spirit as a source of healing and strength. His theoretical approach is known as "height psychology," rather than "depth psychology," because it recognizes the human capacity to aspire to motivational factors beyond mere instinct. Now faced with blindness and other physical difficulties Viktor Frankl continues to live as he taught, that is to find meaning in life by facing each new trial with courage and with dignity.

As a 14 year old student in middle school, I did something which was very unusual at the time. I had a professor of Natural Sciences who was very distant, teaching as one would expect a scientists to do. One day he made the statement that life is simply a burning process, nothing more than the process of oxidation. Jumping to my feet I questioned him, "But Professor, then what meaning does life have?" That was when it all began, the first time that I inquired about the meaning in life. What is the purpose of one's existence? This is a question which will never be answered through the nihilistic efforts of scientist who reduce everything to "nothing but..." You can say that such a person practices reductionism, or in the case of my teacher, "Oxidationism." It would be appropriate if a biologist, instead of promoting his own disbelief under the guise of science, just admitted that within the plane of biology there is no evidence of a higher meaning. This does not mean that such a thing does not exist. Ultimate meaning must be found in another dimension. For example, a cylinder is both a circle and a rectangle depending upon the plane from which you view it. However, only in a higher dimension can it be recognized as a cylinder. The higher dimension does not exclude; it includes.

Since the time of my youth I have tried to find, and take meaning from all of life's events. Life is not only meaningful in the larger sense, but there is meaning in each moment. This meaning I cannot get hold of by mere rationale means, but instead by existential means. I will it to be that way. I decide that there is ultimate meaning in the world rather than ultimate meaninglessness--meaning so rich that it cannot be entirely grasped by my finite intellectual capacity.

From 1928 to 1938 I worked with William Burner who was the Director of a center for people who suffer from depression. I learned something there that I was able to use when I became Director of the Suicide Pavilion at the Steinhof, a psychiatric hospital in Vienna. During my four years at the hospital approximately 12,000 suicidal patients were put in my charge. As the Director it was my responsibility to determine whether or not a patient was ready for discharge, a decision which carried tremendous responsibility. Out of this experience I developed a series of questions which allowed me to assess the condition of a patient in only five minutes. During a face to face interview I would ask, "Do you know that it is time for your release?" He would say, "Yes." I would then ask, "What do we do next? Should we keep you here?" In almost every case the patient would say, "No." Then I would ask, "Are you truly free from all intention to commit suicide?" To this he would respond, "I have no more intentions of committing suicide. You can let me go home." But I had to make sure that the patient was not dissimulating, so immediately after his response, that he had no intention of killing himself, I would ask, "Why not?" Next, one of two things would happen. The first type would sink into the chair, unable to respond or to look me in the eye. With a toneless voice he might repeat himself saying, "No, no, doctor...I am not going to commit suicide." This sort of response indicated that the patient was in very serious danger of suicide. In contrast, a patient who immediately stated that he had a duty, (e.g., "I am needed at work." or "My religion forbids suicide."), some meaning to fulfill, (e.g., "My family is counting on me."), he was safe to release from care. He would not kill himself because he had a "why." As Nietzsche has said, whoever has a "why" will in almost every situation find a "how."

The uniqueness of an individual can be appreciated solely by a loving person. It is he who sees the essence and the potential in the beloved person, and will therefore promote the person.

Every single moment in life offers a concrete opportunity for meaning to be fulfilled and actualized. This holds true even under the most miserable of circumstances and literally to the last breath of ourselves. Let me give you an example. During the time of Hitler I lost my best friend, Hubert Suer. He was arrested by the SS because he was working in the Underground. After two weeks he was given the death sentence. During his imprisonment his wife was able to smuggle into his cell a copy of my manuscript on logotherapy. This was the same manuscript that I reconstructed after my release from the last concentration camp. Before his death, my friend was able to smuggle out a message to his wife stating that in the last days of his life the manuscript from Viktor Frankl had given him strength and courage. His death was one of meaning and dignity. His wife could not save him from the execution but she was able to perform the meaningful act of providing him some comfort. And for myself, I can say that this was the most beautiful reward that I got from the writing of my book. It was much more meaningful than any of the thousands of copies that sold, after the war.

Logotherapy, as described in my first book, is something which deals with everyday problems, down-to-earth things, practical aspects of living that are enhanced by finding meaning in life. And, it is possible to find meaning in all of life's events, even when confronted with a fate that cannot be changed or manipulated in any manor. For example, many years ago an elderly man came to me at my clinic. He told me that he too was a doctor and that since the death of his wife, two years previous, he had suffered from severe depression. He said that he had loved her above all else. Rather than giving him advice, I confronted him with the question, "What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?"

He said right away that this would have caused her tremendous suffering. Then I replied, "You see, you have saved your wife from that terrible suffering. You have spared her this suffering, at the price that you now have to survive and mourn her." He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left the office. In the midst of his doubts he now saw reason for his experience, a meaningful sacrifice for his beloved wife. You see, even in a situation where you have no external freedom, when circumstance does not offer you any choice of action, you retain the freedom to choose your attitude toward the tragic situation. You do not despair because this choice is always with you until your last moment of life.

A remarkable thing happened when I was invited to speak at San Quentin, at that time a high security prison for those who have committed murder, at least once.

After I was finished speaking I was told how favorably the prisoners had reacted to my address. One prisoner had said that other psychologists had always told them that their criminal actions were a result of their childhood and that try as hard as they may, there was little they could do to change this reality. This excuse was something they did not want to hear, because they were being treated as though they had no human worth, no freedom to make choices and decisions. In contrast, I had told them that, "You are a human just as I am and therefore you had the same freedom to make the choices that I did. You could of decided not to do something so terrible and senseless, just like every other man. You could have made use of this freedom through a sense of responsibility." You see, it is a prerogative of mankind to realize guilt. It is also his responsibility to overcome guilt.

Members of society must be provided with a direction, instruction that life does have meaning, so that a person in San Quieten realizes that the person he killed was a human being who had significance. Criminal behavior in adulthood and in youth comes from a lack of responsibility, or of meaning. When gangster youth were asked, "Why

do you do these violent things?" the typical response was, "Why not?" The absence of an answer to the question, "Why not?" can result in senseless aggression. In other cases it results in depression and even suicide, or addiction and drug use. This trio of aggression, addiction, and depression is the mass neurotic symptomology of the feeling of meaninglessness or existential vacuum that exists in our society.

There is no such thing as freedom all by itself. Freedom is always preceded by responsibility; they are connected to one another. It is a mistake to pursue freedom without the consideration of responsibility. That is why I have recommended in America that in addition to the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast, there should be the Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. As for the pursuit of happiness: The more we make it a target, the more widely we miss. Happiness is, and will always remain, the unintended effect of meaningful activity.

Therefore, Logotherapy is much more than a process of asking the client questions. It is a call to responsibility. I once had a patient tell me that he was suffering from an "evil parent complex." The patient had shifted his responsibility for his behavior onto his parents. In the same manner the logotherapist must be careful to see that the patient does not shift his responsibilities onto the clinician. To practice true logotherapy, meaning must be found in a place beyond the control of the therapist.

In contrast to the concept of responsibility which I have described, a response which frightens me is when I see someone who has resolved themselves to hate or resent an entire race of people. When a Jew, or anyone else who has suffered, insists that, "I am not willing to reconcile myself with the sons and daughters or even the grandchildren of those who are responsible for my suffering," then he has embraced the National Socialistic concept of collective guilt. It was called "Zebien Haufen," which means the whole family. If someone opposed the Nationalist Party, the whole family; including the sons, daughters, and grandchildren, was arrested. I have been in strict opposition to this concept of collective guilt since my first day of liberation from the last concentration camp in which I had been imprisoned. It is absolutely unethical to hold someone responsible for something they have not done. Accountability is a personal concept. It belongs to the single individual who is guilty by either commission or omission. For all others who have no guilt on their shoulders, reconciliation is the proper objective.

When the eye has a cataract one sees a harsh grayness in the form of a cloud. In the case of glaucoma there is a green light in the form of a halo. In each case the vision of the eye is blocked by what is occurring within. The eye is not made to see itself. This is pathology. The same can be said of a person who suffers from neurosis. He is obsessed with what is in himself, worried that he might be an egotist, or a sexist, or only God knows what else. Unfortunately this condition of hyper-reflection is only exacerbated by analytical therapies which attempt to explain everything in terms of "over-compensation." For example, the client who asserts his desire to accomplish something significant is told by those who practice reductionism, "No, that is not your true motive. You are simply trying to overcome a feeling of inferiority that you have had from birth." A freudian once wrote that philosophy, religion, and schizophrenia are nothing more than a fear of castration. This is absurdity. I agree that Freud was correct in uncovering impure motives but there are also pure motives. There is more to healthy human motivation than the pleasure principle, more than the striving for superiority. These are only degenerated, neurotic forms of existence. However, in the healthy human, there is a will to meaning and it is this that sets man a part from the animals. One would never hear an animal ask himself, "Does my life have meaning?"

But this question is asked by Homo Sapiens. To be human is to strive for something outside of oneself. I use the term "self-transcendence" to describe this quality behind the will to meaning, the grasping for something or someone outside of oneself. Like the eye, we are made to turn outward, toward another human being to whom we can love and give ourselves. Only in such a way does Homo sapiens demonstrate itself to be truly human. Only when in service of another does a person truly know his or her humanity.

The question of meaning, or logos, is decided in the mind of the individual and cannot be answered except in the context of a specific, concrete situation. For example, in 1936 a young man came to me and said that his best friend was about to leave town which provided a one time opportunity to sleep with his friend's girlfriend. He wanted to know if he should do this. Now one must realize that each situation has its own meaning. Both the uniqueness of the situation and of the human personality need to be addressed. Meaning cannot be forced on the client by the psychotherapist.

It would not have made any sense for me to preach at him saying, "This is not proper," or "This is what I believe you should do." Instead, I addressed his understanding of what was significant by stating, "You have told me that this is a one time opportunity and you have told me that this man is your best friend, so look out! You do not want to give him any reason to no longer consider you a friend. This is a one time opportunity for you to prove your friendship in a way that is undeniable, by denying yourself. Do you understand me?" He understood the importance of his friendship, without me telling him what to do.

In all cases the client must be encouraged to push forward independently toward the concrete meaning of his own existence. In the end, education must be education toward the ability to decide. It makes no sense to try to teach the client what in our own life is meaningful. A logotherapist cannot tell a patient what the meaning is, but he can at least show that there is a meaning in life.

Every situation implies a call, a responsibility. To this call we must react according to our best ability and our best conscience. During the three years I spent in Ausschwitz and Dachau I decided that I was responsible for making use of the slightest chance of survival and ignoring the great danger around me. This was my coping maxim that I espoused at each moment. You see, meaning must be discovered from within, from the individual's experiences, from his worth, his courage, his creativity. While teaching in San Diego three of my students were American officers who had been imprisoned for up to seven years in the North Vietnamese POW camps. They told me that the one thing which held them up, in the most horrible conditions ofisolation and torture, was the vision of coming home to loved ones or knowing that they would be needed at work. The moment in which they caught that vision was the deciding moment in their survival.

Even when death comes, meaning remains as something that has been fulfilled.

In contrast to religious or philosophical meaning, which can change over time, individual human meaning remains permanent. My conviction is that nothing is lost or destroyed. No one can deprive us of what we have safely deposited into the past. Inside each of us there are full granaries where we have stored our life's harvest. The meaning is always there, like barns full of valuable experiences. Whether it is the deeds that we have done, or the things we have learned, the love we have had for someone else, or the suffering we have over come with courage and resolution, each of these bring meaning to life. Indeed, to bear a terrible fate with dignity and compassion for others is something extraordinary. To master your fate and use your suffering to help others is for me the highest of all meanings.

From: The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter, Issue 16, Vol 3, Interview. The majority of the information contained in this article can be found in Frankl's July 1994 address to the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference in Hamburg. Translation/summary from German to English has been provided by Bill Short, Ph.D.

Τὸ Ἑλληνικὸν Ἵδρυμα ΝΓΠ καὶ Συστημικῶν Λύσεων καὶ τὸ λογότυπό του εἶναι κατοχυρωμένα σήματα ὑπηρεσιῶν τοῦ Ἑλληνικοῦ Ἱδρύματος ΝΓΠ καὶ Συστημικῶν Λύσεων [Hellenic/Greek Institute for NLP and Systemic Solutuions]. Ἀπαγορεύεται ἡ δίχως ἄδεια ἀναπαραγωγὴ αὐτῆς τῆς σελίδας καὶ τοῦ περιεχομένου της. This page, and all contents, are Copyright © by Stylianos P. Paulides, Athens, Greece.
© 1997- Ἑλληνικὸν Ἳδρυμα ΝΓΠ καὶ Συστημικῶν Λύσεων.
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