viktorfrankl“Eventually my struggle brought me to this answer: In some respects it is death itself that makes life meaningful. Most importantly, the transitoriness of life cannot destroy its meaning because nothing from the past is irretrievably lost. Everything is irrevocably stored. It is in the past that things are rescued and preserved from transitoriness. Whatever we have done, or created, whatever we have learned and experienced – all of this we have delivered into the past. There is no one, and nothing, that can undo it.” – Viktor Frankl, Recollections

Many of us know Frankl, at least by name, from Man’s Search for Meaning, as well as his work as a psychologist and Holocaust survivor. One of the reasons I picked up this slim volume was to see more into the man himself, and perhaps glean some insight into a life full of early success, horror, recovery and even more lauded success.

“When someone asks me how I explain my accomplishments, I usually say: ‘Because I have made it a principle to give the smallest things the same attention as the biggest, and to do the biggest as calmly as the smallest.'”

Although the manner of writing is stilted (perhaps because it was never ‘written’ as an autobiography as such, and has been translated from German), there are some true insights into the human self and meaning that are powerful alone, but almost haunting given the context of  Frankl’s life experience.

Despite all he lost, and his intimate relationship with the worst humanity can do to one another, he insisted on belief in a supra-meaning, or an overall meaning of life that is beyond our comprehension. Although he does not shroud this supposition in religious terms, it obviously echos with many organized faiths.

What is striking, and was revolutionary, in his thought is that of personal responsibility and drive:

“It is not we who should ask for the meaning of life, since it is we who are being asked. It is we ourselves who must answer the questions that life asks of us, and to these questions we can respond only by being responsible for our existence.” 

Viktor-Frankl-Recollections-9780738203553He was inspired in his life by a quote mentioned to him by a colleague from Soren Kierkegaard – “‘Don’t despair at wanting to become your authentic self.’ It is difficult to believe what decisive turns in our lives we sometimes owe to even casual remarks made by another person.”

Along with personal responsibility, he posits that meaning is never lost – indeed nothing ever is truly gone. He holds the past, both individual and communal to be a wellspring of possibility that should be seen as a fount for recollection of meaning and creation of purpose. Again, no matter hat has occurred.

He distills his overall beliefs into a simple structure:

[I believe there are] “three possible ways to find meaning in life – even up to the last moment, the last breath. The three possibilities are: 1) a deed we do, a work we create; 2) an experience, a human encounter, a love; and 3) when confronted with an unchangeable fate (such as an incurable disease), a change of attitude toward that fate. I n such cases we still can wrest meaning from life by giving testimony to the most human of all human capacities: the ability to turn suffering into a human triumph.”

In this way, despite his truly epic place in history, Frankl posits that fulfilling meaning is open and possible for all of us. Although I struggle with his vision of ‘salvific suffering’ – it is obviously rooted not only in his psychological expertise, but his own base survival of Auschwitz.

And as a great clinician, in the end he again turns to us in his own autobiography and says: well, what are you going to do about it?


The Art of the Everyday – April 3: Weekly Book Review! Wherein I attempt to reach my goal of 63 books this year:

The Books Around: 2014

1. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
2. Home by Toni Morrison
3. Grandville by Bryan Talbot
4. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
5. Help Thanks Wow by Anne Lamott
6. Viktor Frankl Recollections by Viktor Frankl
7. How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
8. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Prachett
9. Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
10. A House for Mr. Biswas by VS Naipaul
11. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
12. On the Mystery by Catherine Keller
13. In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz by Michela Wrong
14. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
14. King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
15. Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
16. The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
17. The Journey Home by Radhanath Swami
18. Quantum by Manjit Kumar
19. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
20. Dispatches by Michael Herr
21. Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard Edited by WH Auden
22. The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
23. Wool by Hugh Howey
24. Black Boy by Richard Wright
25. Embracing Defeat by John W. Dower
26. Cane River by Lalita Tademy
27. The Paradise of Bombs by Scott Russell Sanders
28. kira-kira by Cynthia Kadohata
29. Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
30. The Permanent Revolution by Leon Trotsky
31. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
32. Trinity by Leon Uris
33. Omaha Blues by Joseph Lelyveld
34. Airships by Barry Hannah
35. Big Sur by Jack Kerouac
36. Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser
37. Passionate Nomad by Jane Fletcher Geniesse
38. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
39. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaurder
40. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
41. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
42. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
43. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
44. The Brothers K by David James Duncan
45. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
46. Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
47. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
48. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris
49. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
50. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
51. Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler
52. Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey
53. The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potzsch
54. World War Z by Max Brooks
55. Blindness by Jose Saramago
56. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre
57. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry
58. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
59. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
60. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
61. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
62. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
63. Dune by Frank Herbert


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