Finding meaning in difficult moments

The will to meaning

Victor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist and the founder of a type of therapy called logotherapy. In 1945, Frankl was arrested by Nazi officials and became a prisoner in the concentration camps of the Holocaust. His possessions were destroyed and his whole family were murdered. He suffered from intense hunger and watched fellow prisoners break down and succumb to suicide. In this brutal existence, Frankl wondered why life was still worth preserving.

The prisoners had had everything important to them taken away. They had lost their freedom and everything that they had ever worked for. All the familiar goals in life no longer existed. In this situation, Frankl observed that prisoners still had one remaining power – the ability to choose one’s attitude in their circumstance. Frankl noticed that the prisoners with the best chance of survival weren’t the strongest or the healthiest; they were the ones capable of directing their thoughts to a sense of meaning.

Frankl was able to survive his imprisonment and eventually returned home. His experiences in the camps helped to influence the type of therapy he practised as a psychiatrist, which he called logotherapy. Logotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence; taking its name from the Greek word “Logos” which means meaning. According to logotherapy, a humans primary motivation is not to get pleasure or to gain power but to strive for a meaningful life. Therefore logotherapy helps patients by assisting them in finding a meaning to their life.

The meaning that logotherapy brings to attention isn’t a general ‘meaning of life’. Instead what it emphasises is the specific meaning that can be derived from a person’s life in a given moment. Frankl states that there are certain moments in life that can generate meaning, one of which is when we encounter unavoidable suffering. Logotherapy teaches that in times of difficulty where we lose the freedom to choose the external condition that we are in, we still have the freedom to choose to take a stand against that condition. In these moments we can establish that the suffering that we are going through has more meaning in it than just being pure grief. For this reason, Frankl asserts that “when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”. We can create triumph in a tragedy.

In his experience as a psychiatrist, he found that not only did people find meaning despite their suffering; they were also willing to suffer if there was meaning in their tragedy. The cases below are of some of Frankl’s patients and are examples of difficult moments and the meanings derived from them.

1. The opportunity to change oneself for the better

A rabbi from Eastern Europe turned to me and told me his story. He had lost his first wife and their six children in the concentration camp of Auschwitz where they were gassed…I asked whether he did not hope to see his children again in heaven…he explained that his children, since they died as innocent martyrs, were thus found worthy of the highest place in Heaven, but as for himself he could not expect, as an old, sinful man, to be assigned the same place. I did not give up but retorted, “Is it not conceivable, Rabbi, that precisely this was the meaning of your surviving your children: that you may be purified through these years of suffering, so that finally you, too, though not innocent like your children, may become worthy of joining them in Heaven?”…For the first time in many years he found relief from his suffering through the new point of view which I was able to open up to him.

2. Deriving an incentive to take responsible action

Once, the mother of a boy who had died at the age of eleven years was admitted to my hospital department after a suicide attempt. Dr Kurt Kocourek invited her to join a therapeutic group…She was telling her story. At the death of her boy she was left alone with another, older son, who was crippled, suffering from the effects of infantile paralysis. The poor boy had to be moved around in a wheelchair. His mother, however, rebelled against her fate.

I participated in the discussion, and questioned another woman in the group. I asked her how old she was and she answered, “Thirty.” I replied, “No, you are not thirty but instead eighty and lying on your deathbed. And now you are looking back on your life, a life which was childless but full of financial success and social prestige.” And then I invited her to imagine what she would feel in this situation…she said…”Oh, I married a millionaire, I had an easy life full of wealth…But now I am eighty; I have no children of my own. Looking back as an old woman, I cannot see what all that was for actually…my life was a failure!”

I then invited the mother of the handicapped son to imagine herself similarly looking back over her life…she said…”I wished to have children and this wish has been granted to me; one boy died; the other, however, the crippled one, would have been sent to an institution if I had not taken over his care. Though he is crippled and helpless, he is after all my boy. And so I have made a fuller life possible for him; I have made a better human being out of my son…As for myself, I can look back peacefully on my life; for I can say my life was full of meaning, and I have tried hard to fulfill it…My life was no failure!” Viewing her life as if from her deathbed, she had suddenly been able to see a meaning in it, a meaning which even included all of her sufferings.

3. Turning pain into a human achievement

Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering — to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

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