by Larry K. Brendtro
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthy goal. ~Victor Frankl
As a small boy in Vienna, Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) dreamed of becoming a medical doctor. When a high school science teacher contended that humans were little more than chemicals under combustion, Viktor posed the challenge: “What then is the meaning of life?” As a teen, Frankl began exchanging letters on philosophy with Sigmund Freud. One day he spotted Freud on the street and approached him asking, “Am I honored to speak with Professor Freud?” When Freud answered yes, the boy replied, “I am Viktor Frankl.” Freud, recalling their correspondence, responded, “Viktor Frankl, Second District of Vienna, Scheingasse #6, Apartment 25.” Freud later published a manuscript by young Viktor in the International Journal for Psychoanalysis. By age 22, Frankl had become assistant to Alfred Adler and published a second article in Adler’s Journal of Individual Psychology. But Frankl was expelled from Adler’s circle because of his unorthodox interest in the spiritual dimensions of life.
Freud saw human behavior as driven by sexual pleasure while Adler believed the "will to power" was central. Departing from both mentors, Frankl concluded that striving to find meaning and purpose in life was the primary motivational force in humans. Frankl became a psychiatrist and worked with thousands of depressed, often suicidal, women in the Vienna Jewish hospital. In 1937, he began his own school of psychology, Logotherapy, coined from logos, the Greek word for “meaning.” In 1942, Frankl and his family were deported to a concentration camp. He smuggled a manuscript of a book he was writing on the basic human need for meaning and purpose in life, but this was burned in Auschwitz.
Frankl kept his sanity and hope alive by envisioning a future filled with purposeful love and work. He envisioned carrying on conversations with his wife, concluding that "love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.” He also imagined that he would someday lecture to audiences about overcoming extreme adversity. Even when near death from typhus, Frankl found a sense of purpose by reconstructing his lost manuscript in his mind and jotting observations on scraps of paper. When Frankl was freed by the Allied army in 1945, he learned that his family had perished in the death camps.
Frankl joined the faculty at the University of Vienna and finished The Doctor and the Soul based on the lost manuscript. Then, in only nine days, he dictated what would become his epic contribution, Man’s Search for Meaning. With millions of copies in dozens of languages, this is among the most influential books of all time. His account of the horrific concentration camp experience introduced the antidote to suffering, finding meaning in life. His thesis was that a human’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to find a meaning in life. A half century later, the need for purpose is recognized as a core of resilience and positive development as described in the accompanying article: Strength in Adversity.