The meaning of life- an imaginary interview with Viktor Frankl
Mel: Hi Viktor, this has been a long time coming. I have admired you and your work for many decades and never hesitate to recommend your book, Man’s Search for Meaning to as many people as possible who have not yet met you. If you had your time again, I’m sure you would have written it but would you have done so the same way?
Viktor: It is also a pleasure to be having this conversation with someone like you Mel, who did not live in the same time frame as me. Although I’m sure that our spirits might have crossed, perhaps in Germany when you were there as a teenager and you spent time absorbing the Germanic ethos.
And to answer your questions, yes, I was blessed to have been through what I went through and to have been able to share my understanding of humanity through my book which has been read nearly everywhere.
I consider myself, like other writers, to be a channel for the truth that lies within our beings and waiting to emerge in so many different ways and through different media.
And today you have the wonders of the internet and intranet and who knows what else in the future. My typewriting skills were never helped with autocorrect etc. Of course, with every successful book there is a whole team of people who help to give birth to the gift of writing.
I loved writing this book because it mirrored both my time in the concentration camps and my path in life, logotherapy. This is a school of psychotherapy that holds that the search for life’s meaning is the central human motivational force. The word logos comes from the Greek word logos- meaning.
Mel: I just wish that you had made it gender neutral and not used the word man so much. I’d like a publishing house to feminize your text and make it more female friendly.
Viktor: Well yes, that makes sense at the beginning of the 21stcentury and I would have changed it if I had lived now.
Mel: You lived a long time, 92 years, practically the whole of the 20thcentury. I don’t know that I’d have the courage to stick around here that long. I know that you studied psychology as a teenager and while studying medicine you focused on neurology and psychiatry but how did you come to your unique take on the world?
Viktor: I had read and admired the work of Freud and Adler, the darlings of the psychology world in the 1920s. When I dared to suggest that there was another approach, they turned on me. While I was still a medical student, I organized youth counselling centers to help with the growing problem of youth suicide, especially around end of year report card time. After qualifying as a doctor in 1930 I worked in a psychiatric hospital for depressed and suicidal women. By 1940 I was in charge of the neurology department at the Rothschild hospital, the only one where Jews were allowed to practice. For two years I was able to help many mentally disabled people from being euthanized.
Mel: And then all hell broke loose in your life.
Viktor: We could feel it building month by month but like all humans we think somehow the disaster will pass us by. First, we were sent to Theresienstadt which I believe you have visited. My father died there of pneumonia and starvation.
Mel: Yes, it’s not too far from Prague and when I visited, I could still feel the anguish and terror inside its walls. I went there on a lovely peaceful summer’s day with grass and flowers growing between the stones. It was the dormitories that got to me. It was not difficult to imagine the stench of fear and overcrowding in those awful stacked bunks in those terrible dark cavern-like rooms. I ‘ve never been to Auschwitz but I’m sure the enshrined pain is even stronger.
Viktor: I believe it is, even to this day. Those three long years in concentration camps burned not only the tattoos on to our arms, but profound grief into our souls.
Mel: I read somewhere that you wrote your book in nine days. How did you do that?
Viktor: It’s quite a slim book and the first part recounts my experiences of concentration camps. There are other great books that go into more detail and are concerned with other aspects of that terrifying experience. I was more concerned with trying to use the lessons of that incarceration as the impulse for the profound beliefs I developed there in the midst of that terrible misery.
Mel: The older I become, the more I wish that young people had opportunities to read your book. I know speaking to many young people these days, that one of their main concerns is the rise of fascism and the overweening control of the world by a small group of people.
Viktor: It was ever thus and probably always will be, but our freedoms in life will ebb and flow throughout history and that is the nature of the human journey. The circumstances and nuances change with time but the essence of the challenges to our ability to live our lives in freedom repeat themselves.
Mel: And that is why one of your most famous quotes will stand its ground throughout the ages, especially in view of your having survived total destruction. It’s the choice of attitude that so many people in the helping professions focus on. Even in the midst of misery and pain we can choose how to react and how to move forward in our lives.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. To choose one’s own way.
I think that many people these days strive to live with this ultimate option of choosing one’s own way. Some people use it as rocket fuel to break away from the constraints of their backgrounds while others ignore it completely, out of fear, that they cannot change or choose.
Viktor: And naturally, everyone’s understanding of my interpretation of these truths is slightly different.
Mel: Yes, we all wriggle around inside universal truths and reflect their nuances in different lights and with different priorities.
I wish more people could spend time with another one of your pieces of wisdom.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.
These two sentences remind us that in every situation there is a space between the new idea and our potential response. I find that quite consoling. An affirmation of free will, our great power in our human lives. Just as in a great piece of music the space between the notes offers us so many possibilities of great harmony or not, so too in our lives those precious spaces shine like the most brilliant jewels
Viktor: For most of us, our lives will be a mixture of ups and downs, in ever-changing scenarios, along a spectrum of events from delightful to catastrophic. However, in our response to these challenges lies our greatest humanity, our potential for transformation.
When we are no longer able to change a situation- we are challenged to change ourselves.
Mel: Yes, that is what gets me up every morning, watching the dawn sky change from a whisper of hues to full blown light in all its shades. Recognizing that each moment matters, that within each moment lies the potential for the unique expression of the meaning of our lives. You put it so succinctly into these two sentences.
For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day today and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.
Viktor: I struggled with these two more than others, hoping that they truly reflected the reality of our co- creative abilities in life. That life is offered to each one of us, not always in attractive ways, and that we can choose to imbue it with any of its possible meanings.
Mel: Growing older and watching the struggles of older people has been a challenge for me over the past couple of years. I have an increasingly acute sense of the value of time and its evaporative nature. I sense the gift of every day and get annoyed a little with myself on days of little accomplishment. However, the following sentence always uplifts me. I sense that if each one of us consciously recognized the enormous power of love in our relationships, in our daily work for others we would dance on wings throughout our lives. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears towards a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.
Viktor: Bearing almost any ‘how’, without rancor is the door to peace, I think. It frees us up into being our best selves.
Mel: Yes, there are always forces beyond our control, threatening to take away everything we possess, except that one thing, our freedom of response to any given situation. If we could only sit with this and play with the options. We learn best through relaxation and fun, become our better selves, release our creativity and unique self-expression of love. In summary, thank you Viktor Frankl, for your great contribution to our understanding of how we function best as human beings. And thanks for making it simple and available for everyone to access. The simple truth, that you cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do. About what happens to you. Deep inside.