Viktor Emil Frankl M.D., Ph.D. (March 26, 1905, Czerningasse 6, Leopoldstadt – September 2, 1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor.
It was due to his and others’ suffering in these camps that he came to his conclusion that even in the most absurd, painful and dehumanized situation, life has potential meaning and that therefore even suffering is meaningful. An example of Frankl’s idea of finding meaning in the midst of extreme suffering is found in his account of an experience he had while working in the harsh conditions of the Auschwitz concentration camp:
… We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….”
Another important conclusion of Frankl was:
If a prisoner felt that he could no longer endure the realities of camp life, he found a way out in his mental life – an invaluable opportunity to dwell in the spiritual domain, the one that the SS were unable to destroy. Spiritual life strengthened the prisoner, helped him adapt, and thereby improved his chances of survival.
Life is temporary, yet each life is unique. Frankl would offer this advice: “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”. He notes that as an individual understands the full gravity of time, he or she will recognize the full responsibility for living.
Life, then, is a journey that reflects the experience of time. To face life only to reach the end of the day, the end of the task, the end of a journey is to live for the goal of dying. For Frankl, the focus is on the experience so that each event or task in life can become meaningful. Having lived through four Nazi death camps, Frankl offers the thought that all of life has meaning that can never be taken away from the individual. Only the individual can lose meaning. When this happens, the individual suffers feelings of meaninglessness that Frankl has identified as “existential vacuum.”
Frankl notes that, “The most meaningful experiences in life are those that transcend the individual and offer caring moments with others. The human spirit can also be experienced in the form of suffering. Meaning can be found in suffering by transcending the moment to understand the fullest impact of the experience. Frankl points out that “life can be made meaningful (1) by what we give to the world in terms of our creation; (2) by what we take from the world in terms of our experience; and (3) by the stand we take toward the world, that is to say, by the attitude we choose toward suffering”.
The task of grief, according to Frankl, is twofold: The first aspect is to find meaning in the story. What is it about the story of this person that offers meaning to the person articulating the eulogy? Meaning is often found by asking the question, What is it about this story that would be important enough to you to want to share with someone else? Frankl notes, “This leads to the paradox that man’s own past is his true future. The living man has both a future and a past; the dying man has no future in the usual sense, but only a past” (Frankl 1984, p. 127). In the hearts of friends, the stories of the person’s life reflect shared meaning. In this way there is a future, even after the death of the loved one. Paradoxically, the real hurt in grief is the fact that stories have endings. Yet when the story is understood in meanings, there are no ends, only meanings that can be passed on from generation to generation.
The second task of grief is to understand the responsibility that is called for by the loss of a loved one, particularly in incidents such as a car crash where one person lives and the other dies. Frankl suggests that to honor the life of the deceased is to move beyond survivor guilt, which often accompanies this type of situation. Frankl suggests that there should be no such thing as survivor guilt, but only survivor responsibility. Each person has responsibility to transcend the circumstances of the incident and cherish the memory of the deceased.
The work of Frankl offers a way of thinking about life as well as a therapeutic approach to being with persons who are dying and their loved ones. The goal of this process is the search for meaning. In meaning all of the transcendent life forces come together to offer more than mere existence as a human being.
Viktor Frankl often said that even within the narrow boundaries of the concentration camps he found only two races of men to exist: decent and unprincipled ones. These were to be found in all classes, ethnicities, and groups. He once recommended that the Statue of Liberty on the East coast of the US be complemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West coast, and there are plans to construct such a statue by 2010.
(Research Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viktor_Frankl and http://www.deathreference.com/En-Gh/Frankl-Viktor.html)