Awaken: It is an honor to spend this time with you today. I thank you in advance for your words and I know that our awakened readers will so appreciate your message.
Your work grew out of your direct experience with the horrors of multiple Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. You speak of the liberating potential of being able to turn tragedy into an internal triumph of sorts, through the discovery of meaning. You also speak of the enduring power of love. You have subsumed your approach under the title of Logotherapy… could we start with a quick summary of what you mean by this, for those who may not be familiar with your work?
Viktor Frankl: Therapy means healing. And logos means meaning. Thus logotherapy is really healing through meaning, although this is of course an oversimplification.
Awaken: So, to get right into the thick of it, how can we even make sense of the notion of healing when we are in dire straits? Or for that matter, even in the midst of ordinary daily challenges?
Viktor Frankl: A human being is never fully free from conditions, be they of a biological or a psychological or sociological kind, but the ultimate freedom is always, and remains always reserved to ourselves… this is the freedom to take a stand to whatever conditions might confront us… How we react to the unchangeable conditions is up to ourselves. In other words, if we cannot change a situation, we always have the last freedom, to change our attitude to that situation.
Awaken: I love this correlation between acceptance, healing and liberation. We set ourselves free when we let go of the inner resistance that holds us captive. You build upon this by bringing to the foreground the importance of finding meaning in one’s situation, no matter how grave it is. Is this the one thing we as humans need the most?
Viktor Frankl: The wish to find and to fulfill meaning is the basic motivation in human beings. … that is, the impulse to find… to discover in life, or better, to say in each life situation, the desire to find a meaning therein, and go on to fulfill it.
Awaken: Is this to say that most of us lack the sense of meaning, and so this becomes an ongoing search?
Viktor Frankl: It’s a void which manifests as apathy, boredom, lack of initiative, lack of interest… interest in the world and lack of initiative in changing something within the world for the better.
Awaken: Yes, I see that in today’s world… It seems as though previous generations were more eager to take initiative toward change. For example, during the hippie revolution of the late 60’s, there was so much energy, which manifested as a desire to change the world for the better. But now there seems to be a kind of frustration that lacks direction.
Viktor Frankl: This frustration is a proof of the existence of a will to meaning.
Awaken: Are you saying that this will to meaning is so strong within us, that when we are not aligned with it, the consequent feeling of frustration unavoidably swells up within us?
Viktor Frankl: Man cannot be healthy without meaning, without meaning beckoning him, he could not even remain alive. You know who has said this? Albert Einstein. And now I think psychiatry should be reminded of this primary motivational force… that man is primarily and basically reaching out for meaning and man must be prepared to endure the tension between the meaning that is waiting for him and the actual state of affairs.
Awaken: This is an important point… It doesn’t matter what the actual state of affairs is. We make the mistake of looking outward and by waiting for things to become “better” before we can be happy. But you are reminding us that we should be working in reverse… In other words, no matter what situation we find ourselves in, if we can find meaning within it, then we can also be satisfied in life, even when we cannot change those circumstances?
Viktor Frankl: Once I was consulted by a general practitioner… and he told me “Dr. Frankl, I came to see you because of a severe depression that I have been suffering throughout the last two years, since my wife died. It’s nonsense to approach you, doctor, because any prescription I could make myself, but nevertheless, I have the feeling that I should speak to you.”
And I just asked this old doctor this question… I asked, ‘what would have happened if you had died first and your wife would’ve had to survive?’ and he said “oh this would have been terrible… she would have suffered.” And then I said, ‘this suffering, doctor… your wife has been spared the suffering and it was you who could spare her the suffering… but you have to pay for it, by the fact that you have to mourn, you have to suffer, you have to survive her.’
This man looked at me, stood up, gave me his hand and silently left my office. He found consolation in this reversal of attitudes toward a state which could no longer be changed… He could not revive his wife… but he could change his attitude… suddenly he saw a meaning… a meaning in the suffering. At the same moment, there was no depression any longer. He could overcome his depression. He was still suffering but he was suffering for the sake of something.
Awaken: How do we begin our search for meaning in a similar way? How do we begin to remedy the feeling of void that so many feel… in terms of an everyday approach?
Viktor Frankl: The average man on the street or woman on the street may find a meaning, day by day, in doing a deed… in creating a work… creating and experiencing something. The beauty… The truth, as a researcher, or the good in dealing with people, as a teacher, or whatsoever. Finding a meaning in experience without doing anything or without achieving or accomplishing anything, but just in giving oneself to the immediate experience of something beautiful going on in the world.
Awaken: What you are saying rings familiar to anyone with a mindfulness practice… Being so aware of the present moment… which may be simple, but not as easy as it seems, especially in a hyper-stimulated world where it’s even a challenge to connect and to hear each other sometimes…
Viktor Frankl: This is also another aspect… not only experiencing something but also experiencing someone. More than that, experiencing another human being in his or her very uniqueness. It is the main attribute of a human being—that he is a person. He is a person, a person is always something absolutely unique… non-repeatable in the evolution of the cosmos… Incomparable with any other human being and this uniqueness can be got hold of solely by a loving person… because he not only sees the essence but also the potentials in the beloved person.
Awaken: By truly seeing someone, we become so present that we lose ourselves… we forget ourselves for a moment?
Viktor Frankl: The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause, to serve, or to another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.
Awaken: And so, is this moment of forgetting oneself what is meant by awakening, or perhaps you would prefer to call it self-actualization?
Viktor Frankl: 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… by forgetting himself and giving himself… overlooking himself and focusing outward.
Awaken: It’s interesting, you endured so much in the holocaust and yet, despite the relatively comfortable living standards that most of us have today, especially in a consumer society, we still live with an inner void—is this because of the emphasis on satisfying superficial needs, which leaves us unsatisfied?
Viktor Frankl: Consumer societies even create needs, but the need for meaning remains unfulfilled. It’s what I have called recently, ‘the unheard cry for meaning.’
Awaken: I think this goes hand in hand with the underlying world view that supports consumer society, which embraces and even encourages a very egotistical view of what we are as humans…
Viktor Frankl: Youngsters are told and taught that in the final analysis, man is nothing but the background of conflicting gains of ego…the outcome of various conditioning processes…sociological conditions… psychological conditions… biological…
Awaken: If I can read into what you are saying… We tend to turn ourselves into victims of our circumstances. However, we always have the inner freedom to change our attitude, no matter what is going on. And perhaps this message would not have been heard so clearly if it were coming from anyone else. But you had to endure the worst possible conditions, having lived through several German concentration camps…
Viktor Frankl: Man is not at all free from conditions, but man is always free to take a stand toward whatsoever conditions he might be confronted with. And in this taking a stand, and to this very extent, he is free. There is choice… which attitude to adopt whenever you are confronted with an unchangeable situation.
Awaken: And by taking ownership of our attitude, it seems that we simultaneously liberate ourselves from hate. But we make ourselves suffer doubly, not only from whatever the first offense was, but by condemning others continually for past wrongs…
Viktor Frankl: My father perished in the camp of Terezin. My brother died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. My mother died in the same camp, in the gas chamber. And my first wife lost her life in the concentration camp Bergen Belsen. However, do not expect a single word of hatred from me. Who should I hate? I knew only the victims, but I do not know the perpetrators… At least, I do not know them personally, and to blame somebody—not personally, but collectively, is something I strictly reject.
Awaken: I appreciate that you have made a point of this. I had a similar inkling many years ago when I was teaching a class that was primarily composed of Asian students. I learned from their papers that the Chinese hatred toward the Japanese, for World War II crimes, runs deep. Of course this is a general statement, and individually, there are, of course, liberated people. But it got me thinking of how strange it is, since most of the people that were alive during World War II were busy taking care of their own families, and doing what everyone else does to survive… trusting in whatever their government was telling them… Who knows what was really going on, at the level of those in control, who often operate out of greedy and corrupted agendas. The crimes were not on the people. And even those people no longer exist! In that sense, forgiveness should come easy, since the idea of a generalized culpability is a fiction!
Viktor Frankl: Collective guilt does not exist. And I believe that to collectively blame the men and women in Austria who are today between zero and 50 years old is a crime and madness. Or, let me formulate it in a psychiatric manner: it would be a crime if it wasn’t a case of madness. And in addition, a relapse into “clan liability.”
Let this be said to those who believe they are justified in saying that you have to feel guilty or even ashamed of something you did not do yourself, or did not even refrain from doing yourself, but something the parents or even grandparents burdened their conscience with. And I think I am sure that the victims of former collective persecution should and will be the first to agree with me, unless their intention is to drive the youth of today into the hands of the old Nazis or the Neo-Nazis.
Awaken: And this, coming from one who endured the greatest horrors that man can inflict on his fellow man…including the most depraved sorts of abuse and starvation… would you be willing to share anything of those horrors?
Viktor Frankl: We looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no powers of resistance left. One after another the members of the little community in our hut died. Each of us could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come.
After many observations we knew the symptoms well, which made the correctness of our prognoses quite certain. “He won’t last long,” or, “This is the next one,” we whispered to each other, and when, during our daily search for lice, we saw our own naked bodies in the evening, we thought alike: This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me? I am but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh . . . of a mass behind barbed wire, crowded into a few earthen huts; a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless.
Those who have not gone through a similar experience can hardly conceive of the soul destroying mental conflict and clashes of will power which a famished man experiences.
Awaken: It’s hard to imagine anything worse…
Viktor Frankl: The most ghastly moment of the twenty-four hours of camp life was the awakening, when, at a still nocturnal hour, the three shrill blows of a whistle tore us pitilessly from our exhausted sleep and from the longings in our dreams. We then began the tussle with our wet shoes, into which we could scarcely force our feet, which were sore and swollen with edema. And there were the usual moans and groans about petty troubles, such as the snapping of wires which replaced shoelaces. One morning I heard someone, whom I knew to be brave and dignified, cry like a child because he finally had to go to the snowy marching grounds in his bare feet, as his shoes were too shrunken for him to wear. In those ghastly minutes, I found a little bit of comfort; a small piece of bread which I drew out of my pocket and munched with absorbed delight.
Awaken: It seems all too easy to lose one’s soul in the midst of such unthinkable atrocities. Was there still the capacity within you, for anything spiritual?
Viktor Frankl: In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain… but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy makeup often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature. In order to make myself clear, I am forced to fall back on personal experience. Let me tell what happened on those early mornings when we had to march to our work site.
There were shouted commands: “Detachment, forward marchl Left-2-3-4! Left-2-3-4! Left-2-3-4! Left-2-3-4! First man about, left and left and left and left! Caps off!” These words sound in my ears even now. At the order “Caps off!” we passed the gate of the camp, and searchlights were trained upon us. Whoever did not march smartly got a kick. And worse off was the man who, because of the cold, had pulled his cap back over his ears before permission was given.
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.
Awaken: Aside from the striking tenderness and beauty of the moment, which revealed itself in the midst of the greatest darkness, why was this such an important moment for you?
Viktor Frankl: 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.
Awaken: Love. That’s it! And we can experience love, even while surrounded by horrors.
Viktor Frankl: 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.”
Awaken: It’s as if you were able to enter into another, more pure and exalted realm?
Viktor Frankl: In front of me a man stumbled and those following him fell on top of him. The guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoner’s existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one: I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return, and I answered.
Awaken: You were conversing with your wife, even though you were not physically together…
Viktor Frankl: I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing—which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance. I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out… but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. “Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.”
Awaken: With that beautiful lesson of the enduring power of love, which reaches beyond circumstances and even beyond the physical realm, I thank you once again for your words and for sharing your experience and wisdom with us, Dr. Frankl.
This is one of Awaken’s Dream Interviews, conducted by Donna Quesada, and All Answers are Verbatim from Viktor Frankl.