Two weeks ago (26 March) marked the birthday of Viktor Frankl, the existential philosopher, psychotherapist, and author who survived Nazi concentration camps during World War II. To say he has inspired me is to say nothing; his writings have transformed my vision of life. Passages bounce around in my head on a daily basis. But because his seminal text Man’s Search for Meaning has been translated into 24 languages, I feel that it’s more ethical to point others to his writing than to imagine I could say anything remotely profound. I’m a beggar telling others where to find food.
A couple of passages certainly stand out. When I’m feeling a lack of motivation at home or work, I turn to this one:
The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day 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. . . One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it (112).
Being ever aware of this moment’s purpose allows me at the end of a day to say I contributed to life’s meaning when I . . . One could argue that this mindset is vital in the most literal sense of the term. Frankl relates how it kept him alive in a concentration camp, sick, and aware that going to sleep would send him into cardiac arrest. He stayed awake by scratching his thoughts with the nub of a pencil onto scraps of paper, believing his purpose included publishing his thoughts on life’s meaning and that purpose depended on his ability to keep himself awake.
Most recently, another section has become particularly important for me.Some of its importance stems from conversations with my son, Asher, about freedom and responsibility. He’s 13, and like all 13-year-olds, wants more freedom. And that’s a good thing. Another has to do with my season of life. Certain responsibilities unique to me often feel like hindrances when in reality they provide healthy boundaries that channel responsible freedom. Passages like the one below have helped me cultivate this perspective:
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. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast (134).
Current politics contribute to this conversation. As a member of a country that glorifies freedom, I find Frankl’s concept of a “Statue of Responsibility” challenging, convicting, and downright damning in some regards. But I’ve probably written more than enough at this point. I would encourage all who are sensing that their experiences should feel more vital, more zestful, to grab a copy of Frankl and read the inspiring story of someone who found freedom and purpose in the most dire of situations.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.