The meaning of life?

Some think life has no meaning, some think God only knows (and mean it), some, of a more literary disposition, think it's 42. Viktor E. Frankl's Man's search for meaning examines what underlies logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy, and its roots in Frankl's own experiences in the concentration camps of the Second World War.

The basic tenets that underlie logotherapy are that life has meaning in all situations, even miserable ones; the main motivation for living is our will to find meaning; and we have freedom to find meaning in what we do or experience, or in the case of an unchangeable situation, for example a terminal illness, how we approach it.

The first half of Frankl's book deals with his experience of the camps, while the second half is a straightforward guide to logotherapy drawing on clinical and personal experiences. The edition I've been reading was published in 1964.

It's impossible not to admire Frankl hugely. The section about the camps is both moving and disturbing. Frankl is very honest about his experiences, and his own responses to them. His survival was due largely to luck. This was especially true of the very end of the war. He was given the chance to go with the majority of the camp on what were believed to be Red Cross lorries to another camp. A friend was sick and unable to move, and begged Frankl to stay with him.. Rather against his better judgement he did so. A few days later his camp was liberated. There had been a mix-up with the Red Cross lorries, the camp inmates transported in them were indeed transported to another camp....where they were placed inside barracks, which were then set alight. What Frankl was making clear here is that sometimes there is no meaning. In staying with his friend he chose life, even though he thought he was choosing death. What logotherapy does is to encourage each person to find their own meaning, and it will be different for everyone. Some will find the will to live from their families or their work, some from art or religion or beauty.

I'm not entirely sure what I think of the overall concept. I understand the concept of logotherapy, although there are some aspects of the theory behind it (at least according to the edition I read) that have aged badly. There is, for example, quite a heavy influence on religion as providing meaning, which to a religious person such as Frankl, and set in the period in which it was written, would make perfect sense. In a more secular society I don't think this altogether works. The other side of religion giving meaning to life is that for those who are not religious, it is harder to find meaning, and I don't think this is necessarily true.

I like the concept of logotherapy though, and I think there are certain tenets of it that I would like to explore more fully, but whether it altogether works, I'm not sure. When dealing with suicidal patients Frankl would sometimes ask them "Why don't you commit suicide?" This often forced the patient to think about what stopped them making that final leap - it was their "thing" that gave their life meaning. I felt a great deal of empathy for this, but at the same time it brought me up short, and made me realise that for everyone this form of psychotherapy doesn't work.

The first half of the book detailing the time in the camps was hugely reminiscent of that other great survivor's account, Primo Levi's If this be a man. Levi survived the camps, returned to Italy, and became a great writer. He died in 1987, and although there has been some dispute, it seems most likely that he committed suicide. As Elie Wiesel, a fellow survivor, said "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later".

Not all therapies work for everyone, some will find meaning, and find their lives turning around; others will struggle with this, and find another therapy better suited to their individual needs. Fascinating, often inspiring, and definitely a book to make you think - Viktor E. Frankl's Man's search for meaning.


Popular Posts