From the book Man's Search For Meaning
by Viktor E. Frankl
Will to meaning
As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.
This emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in the categorical imperative of logotherapy, which is:
"Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!"
By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic "the self-transcendence of human existence." It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.
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. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.
Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.
According to logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one's life is the primary motivational force in man. Man, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values!
Logotherapy regards its assignment as that of assisting the patient to find meaning in his life and to make him aware of this meaning can contribute much to his ability to overcome his neurosis. Inasmuch as logotherapy makes him aware of the hidden logos of his existence, it is an analytical process. To this extent, logotherapy resembles psychoanalysis.
Logos is a Greek word which denotes "meaning."
There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche:
"He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."
Logotherapy tries to make the patient fully aware of his own responsibleness; therefore, it must leave to him the option for what, to what, or to whom he understands himself to be responsible. That is why a logotherapist is the least tempted of all psychotherapists to impose value judgments on his patients, for he will never permit the patient to pass to the doctor the responsibility of judging. It is, therefore, up to the patient to decide whether he should interpret his life task as being responsible to society or to his own conscience.
Logotherapy is neither teaching nor preaching. It is as far removed from logical reasoning as it is from moral exhortation. The logotherapist's role consists of widening and broadening the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible to him.
According to logo-therapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways:
- by creating a work or doing a deed;
- by experiencing something or encountering someone; and
- by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
The first, the way of achievement or accomplishment, is quite obvious. The second and third need further elaboration. The second way of finding a meaning in life is by experiencing something—such as goodness, truth and beauty —by experiencing nature and culture or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness—by loving him.
In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice. It is one of the basic tenets of logotherapy that man's main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.
Logotherapy "may help counteract certain unhealthy trends in the present-day culture of the United States, where the incurable sufferer is given very little opportunity to be proud of his suffering and to consider it ennobling rather than degrading" so that "he is not only unhappy, but also ashamed of being unhappy."
There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one's work or to enjoy one's life; but what never can be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end. In other words, life's meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the potential meaning of unavoidable suffering.
Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man's world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?" This ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man; in logotherapy, we speak in this context of a super-meaning. What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningful-ness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic.
Those things which seem to take meaning away from human life include not only suffering but dying as well. I never tire of saying that the only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualized, they are rendered realities at that very moment; they are saved and delivered into the past.
The person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest.
Man's will to meaning can also be frustrated, in which case logotherapy speaks of "existential frustration." The term "existential" may be used in three ways: to refer to
- existence itself, i.e., the specifically human mode of being;
- the meaning of existence; and
- the striving to find a concrete meaning in personal existence, that is to say, the will to meaning.
Existential frustration can also result in neuroses. (called "noogenic neuroses") The frustration of the will to meaning plays a large role.
Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic; some amount of conflict is normal and healthy. In a similar sense suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon; rather than being a symptom of neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration.
A man's concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.
Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. So if therapists wish to foster their patients' mental health, they should not be afraid to create a sound amount of tension through a reorientation toward the meaning of one's life.
Man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. 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 manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. Now we can understand 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.
Not a few cases of suicide can be traced back to this existential vacuum. Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them. This is also true of the crises of pensioners and aging people.
Moreover, there are various masks and guises under which the existential vacuum appears. Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money. In other cases, the place of frustrated will to meaning is taken by the will to pleasure. That is why existential frustration often eventuates in sexual compensation. We can observe in such cases that the sexual libido becomes rampant in the existential vacuum.
A realistic fear, like the fear of death, cannot be tran-quilized away by its psychodynamic interpretation; on the other hand, a neurotic fear, such as agoraphobia, cannot be cured by philosophical understanding. However, logother-apy has developed a special technique to handle such cases, too. To understand what is going on whenever this technique is used, we take as a starting point a condition which is frequently observed in neurotic individuals, namely, anticipatory anxiety. It is characteristic of this fear that it produces precisely that of which the patient is afraid.
Ironically enough, in the same way that fear brings to pass what one is afraid of, likewise a forced intention makes impossible what one forcibly wishes. This excessive intention, or "hyper-intention," as I call it, can be observed particularly in cases of sexual neurosis. In addition to excessive intention as described above, excessive attention, or "hyper-reflection," as it is called in logotherapy, may also be pathogenic (that is, lead to sickness).
Logotherapy bases its technique called "paradoxical intention" on the twofold fact that fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes. In this approach the phobic patient is invited to intend, even if only for a moment, precisely that which he fears.
The reader will note that this procedure consists of a reversal of the patient's attitude, inasmuch as his fear is replaced by a paradoxical wish. By this treatment, the wind is taken out of the sails of the anxiety. Such a procedure, however, must make use of the specifically human capacity for self-detachment inherent in a sense of humor. This basic capacity to detach one from oneself is actualized whenever the logotherapeutic technique called paradoxical intention is applied. At the same time, the patient is enabled to put himself at a distance from his own neurosis. A statement consistent with this is found in Gordon W. Allport's book, The Individual and His Religion: "The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure."
Paradoxical intention can also be applied in cases of sleep disturbance. The fear of sleeplessness results in a hyper-intention to fall asleep, which, in turn, incapacitates the patient to do so. To overcome this particular fear, I usually advise the patient not to try to sleep but rather to try to do just the opposite, that is, to stay awake as long as possible. In other words, the hyper-intention to fall asleep, arising from the anticipatory anxiety of not being able to do so, must be replaced by the paradoxical intention not to fall asleep, which soon will be followed by sleep.
A given symptom is responded to by a phobia, the phobia triggers the symptom, and the symptom, in turn, reinforces the phobia. A similar chain of events, however, can be observed in obsessive- compulsive cases in which the patient fights the ideas which haunt him. Thereby, however, he increases their power to disturb him, since pressure precipitates counterpressure. Again the symptom is reinforced On the other hand, as soon as the patient stops fighting his obsessions and instead tries to ridicule them by dealing with them in an ironical way—by applying paradoxical intention—the vicious circle is cut, the symptom diminishes and finally atrophies. In the fortunate case where there is no existential vacuum which invites and elicits the symptom, the patient will not only succeed in ridiculing his neurotic fear but finally will succeed in completely ignoring it.
Anticipatory anxiety has to be counteracted by paradoxical intention; hyper-intention as well as hyper-reflection have to be counteracted by dereflection; dereflec-tion, however, ultimately is not possible except by the patient's orientation toward his specific vocation and mission in life. The cue to cure is self-transcendence!
For too long a time—for half a century, in fact—psychiatry tried to interpret the human mind merely as a mechanism, and consequently the therapy of mental disease merely in terms of a technique. I believe this dream has been dreamt out. What now begins to loom on the horizon are not the sketches of a psychologized medicine but rather those of a humanized psychiatry.
Tragic optimism, that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for:
- turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment;
- deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and
- deriving from life's transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.
As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation. Indeed, what is called "the pleasure principle" is, rather, a fun-spoiler. 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. Once, Meaning orientation had subsided, and consequently the seeking of immediate pleasure had taken over.
Is this not reminiscent of another parallel, a parallel that confronts us day by day? I think of those youngsters who, on a worldwide scale, refer to themselves as the "no future" generation. To be sure, it is not just a cigarette to which they resort; it is drugs. In fact, the drug scene is one aspect of a more general mass phenomenon, namely the feeling of meaninglessness resulting from a frustration of our existential needs which in turn has become a universal phenomenon in our industrial societies.
Just consider the mass neurotic syndrome so pervasive in the young generation: there is ample empirical evidence that the three facets of this syndrome—depression, aggression, addiction— are due to what is called in logo-therapy "the existential vacuum," a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness.
It goes without saying that not each and every case of depression is to be traced back to a feeling of meaningless-ness, nor does suicide—in which depression sometimes eventuates—always result from an existential vacuum. But even if each and every case of suicide had not been undertaken out of a feeling of meaninglessness, it may well be that an individual's impulse to take his life would have been overcome had he been aware of some meaning and purpose worth living for.
Regarding the second facet of the mass neurotic syndrome—aggression—let me cite an experiment once conducted by Carolyn Wood Sherif. She had succeeded in artificially building up mutual aggressions between groups of boy scouts, and observed that the aggressions only subsided when the youngsters dedicated themselves to a collective purpose—that is, the joint task of dragging out of the mud a carriage in which food had to be brought to their camp. Immediately, they were not only challenged but also united by a meaning they had to fulfill.
I would locate the cognition of meaning —of the personal meaning of a concrete situation— more specifically boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words, to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.
Doesn't the final meaning of life, too, reveal itself, if at all, only at its end, on the verge of death? And doesn't this final meaning, too, depend on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been actualized to the best of the respective individual's knowledge and belief?
Logotherapy conceives of conscience as a prompter which, if need be, indicates the direction in "which we have to move in a given life situation. In order to carry out such a task, conscience must apply a measuring stick to the situation one is confronted with, and this situation has to be evaluated in the light of a set of criteria, in the light of a hierarchy of values. These values, however, cannot be espoused and adopted by us on a conscious level—they are something that we are. They have crystallized in the course of the evolution of our species; they are founded on our biological past and are rooted in our biological depth.
Jerry Long, to cite an example, is a living testimony to "the defiant power of the human spirit," As we see, the priority stays with creatively changing the situation that causes us to suffer.
A crime in the final analysis remains inexplicable inasmuch as it cannot be fully traced back to biological, psychological and/or sociological factors. Totally explaining one's crime would be tantamount to explaining away his or her guilt and to seeing in him or her not a free and responsible human being but a machine to be repaired. Even criminals themselves abhor this treatment and prefer to be held responsible for their deeds.
- When I addressed the prisoners in San Quentin, I told them that "you are human beings like me, and as such you were free to commit a crime, to become guilty. Now, however, you are responsible for overcoming guilt by rising above it, by growing beyond yourselves, by changing for the better." They felt understood. And from Frank E.W., an ex-prisoner, I received a note which stated that he had "started a logotherapy group for ex-felons. We are 27 strong and the newer ones are staying out of prison through the peer strength of those of us from the original group. Only one returned— and he is now free."
The 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?
I argued not only for the rehumanization of psychotherapy but also for what I called "the degurufica-tion of logotherapy." My interest does not lie in raising parrots that just rehash "their master's voice," but rather in passing the torch to "independent and inventive, innovative and creative spirits."
You may of course ask whether we really need to refer to "saints." Wouldn't it suffice just to refer to decent people? It is true that they form a minority. More than that, they always will remain a minority. And yet I see therein the very challenge to join the minority. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.
So, let us be alert—alert in a twofold sense:
Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.
And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.