THE SEARCH FOR MEANING

JANUARY 25, 1998
R.M. FEWKES

This morning's sermon was crafted in fulfillment of the "Sermon of Your Choice" which was bid and purchased by Jeff Angley at last May's Goods and Services Auction. After some thought Jeff asked if I might talk about the life and psychology of the renowned Viennese psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, who died last September in Vienna at the ripe old age of 92.

His most famous book, Man's Search For Meaning was published by Beacon Press in 1959, and gives an account of his life as a prisoner in the Nazi death camps and how his struggle for survival tested and refined the ideas for his existential psychology which he came to call logotherapy. Frankl's book has had a wide global impact. It has been translated into 24 different languages and is considered by some to be one of the great books of humankind. Frankl himself has been called "the man who therapeutically tackled the sickness of the century--meaninglessness."

The first edition of the book was called From Death Camp To Existentialism. I read it during my first year in seminary and was profoundly moved by Frankl's account of his suffering and endurance and how he used that living nightmare experience to deepen and enhance his future work as an existential psychologist. Frankl spent a total of three years in four different concentration camps and by sheer luck and grace and determination he somehow managed to survive, but he lost his father, his mother, his brother and his first wife, all of whom died in the camps. His sister, fortunately, had emigrated to Australia before the Jews in Austria were rounded up and sent to the death camps.

Frankl was the founder of what has been referred to as the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy. Freud was the founder of the first school which was based on the central role of the libido or pleasure principle in human psychology. Alfred Adler was the founder of the second school which stressed the importance of the will to power and the significant role of the inferiority/superiority complex in human behavior. In contrast to the will to pleasure of Freudian psychology, and the will to power of Adlerian psychology, Frankl based his psychology and therapy on the will to meaning which he believed to be a primary motivating force in human life. He called his school of treatment logotherapy from the Greek term logos, which denotes "word", "reason" or "meaning."

As it says in the opening verse of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God"--implying that the human search for meaning and values has a transcendent origin and reference, which Frankl called the quest for the suprameaning of existence, a notion that is close to what theologian Paul Tillich meant by faith as ultimate concern. This suprameaning cannot be known by the rational mind--logos is deeper than logic--but it is what moves and motivates each of us to seek for meaning in a hundred different ways in every human life. The meanings we find are unique and specific to each person--the people we love, the jobs we perform, the duties and obligations we fulfill, our creative outlets in art and music and nature--but the quest for those meanings is universal, whether conscious or unconscious.

Frankl believed that there were three levels or dimensions in every human being: the biological, the psychological and the spiritual. Behavioral and depth psychology tend to focus on the first two and to ignore the spiritual dimension as being of little consequence. Frankl argued that "not only is there repressed and unconscious libido, but also a repressed and unconscious religion," the religious/spiritual dimension of the soul, the source and ground of true conscience. This repressed spirituality is what causes the "unrest in the human heart" which does not rest content with mere material accomplishments or accumulation of goods, or the violation of conscience not to do what we know is right, or refrain from what we know is wrong.

Once the angel of our better nature is repressed it can turn into a demon which seeks fulfillment in addictive substitutes--food, drugs, alcohol, sex, greed, sado-masochism, workaholism--none of which truly satisfy the hunger of the heart for meaning and values which endure. We experience the lack of meaning in our lives as an "existential vacuum" which we seek to fill with inadequate and poor substitutes. It is the task of logotherapy, says Frankl, "to re-mind patients of their unconscious religiousness", the spiritual dimension of their lives, their will-to-meaning, and to bring it into conscious awareness once again, to recover the capacity to choose those values which give our lives worthwhile meaning.

Though Frankl's psychology is existential in its orientation his is no psychology of despair. His psychology is more future oriented than past obsessed, and he has great hope that the human spirit can surmount great difficulties and challenges. He believes, moreover, that a sense of humor is key to finding enjoyment in life and for successful therapy. His humor is lighthearted. He often refused a second cup of tea with the quip, "No thanks. I'm a mono-tea-ist. Only one cup of tea." And once when asked what he thought of the theologian Paul Tillich's concept of "the God above God", Frankl replied, "If I answer your question regarding the God above God it would imply that I consider myself a Tillich above Tillich."

Frankl insists that life is never lacking a meaning, though the meanings which people find are ever changing and unique. What is missing is our awareness of the meaning potentials and our belief in our capacity to choose those meanings. We can find meaning in our lives through creating a work or doing something worthwhile--creating beauty or doing good deeds--or through experiencing and sharing something in art or nature, or by loving and ethical encounters with other persons. Even in seemingly hopeless situations when we must endure suffering and loss we always have the capacity to choose the attitudes in which we will endure whatever harsh circumstances fate has sent our way. Though we may not be able to embrace our fate with amor fati, we can nonetheless resolve to make of that fate an occasion for the making of our souls. We can become an example to others of courage and hope and can transform tragedy into a triumph of attitude within the human spirit. "Everything", writes Frankl, "can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances."

Frankl is fond of quoting Nietzsche's famous dictum: "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how", as well as this sentence from Dostoevsky, "There is only one thing that I dread, not to be worthy of my suffering." Another favorite quote comes from John Ruskin: "There is only one power: the power to save someone. And there is only one honor: the honor to help someone." Frankl tried to do both under extraordinary circumstances of suffering, oppression and genocide. When Frankl was transported to the death camp at Auschwitz he (along with every other prisoner) had everything taken from him--his past, his profession, his name, his dignity, every human possession, even the clothes he brought with him were taken from him--he was only a number among other numbers. "All we possessed," writes Frankl, "was our naked existence."

What kept Frankl going was two things--the image of his beloved wife Tilly whom he kept alive in his heart though he later learned of her death--and his life's project to someday complete the writing of his text on The Doctor And The Soul which he had brought with him to the camp, sewn into the lining of his coat, only to have it taken from him. So he kept the text alive in his mind and sketched the outline of his future book on the back of some Nazi SS forms. In place of his own coat he took a tattered one left behind by a former prisoner sent to the gas ovens. There he found a page from the Jewish prayer book, with the Shema Yisrael inscribed upon it: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One." This page and prayer gave him sustenance and courage till the day of his liberation when it mysteriously disappeared.


Before he was transported to the death camps Frankl worked as a psychiatrist at one of the mental hospitals in Vienna. He had become aware that the Nazis were practicing euthanasia on mentally ill patients. Knowing this he had a moving dream in which he saw that some of his patients had been selected to die and were lined up in front of a gas chamber. After a short deliberation he chooses to join the people in line. How close his dream came to reality! When Dr. Joseph Mengele at Auschwitz had pointed Viktor Frankl's shoulder toward the left column of those headed to the gas chambers, Frankl paused, and since he recognized no one in the left line, behind Mengele's back he switched over to the right line to join a few of his young colleagues. "Only God," says Frankl, "knows where I got that idea or found the courage." It was the first of many strange coincidences that saved his life.

When Frankl and his first wife Lilly were transported to Auschwitz together (they had only been married a few months) he told her in the firmest possible tone before they were separated, "Lilly, stay alive at any price. Do you hear? At any price!" She lost her life, but Frankl kept her alive in his heart. After his liberation he records the following uncanny encounter with a displaced Dutch laborer: As he and I were talking, he kept playing with a small object in his hands. "What do you have there?" I asked him. He opened his palm, and there I saw a tiny golden globe, the oceans painted in blue enamel, with a gold band for the equator. On it this inscription: "The whole world turns on love." It was a pendant--just like the one I had given Tilly on her first birthday that we celebrated together. Just like it? It could have been the very pendant, for when I bought it I was told there existed only two of its kind in Vienna.

The laborer had procured it from an SS collection of Jewelry that came from the extermination camps--Auschwitz being the primary source. Frankl immediately bought the pendant from the man. "It was dented slightly," notes Frankl "but the whole world still turns on love." Though she did not survive, his love for her did, and that love gave him the courage and hope to endure through many periods of incredible suffering and despair.

Frankl recalls a poignant and moving moment of illumination following his liberation from the camp. He walks for miles through flowering meadows in the countryside. He records the following words in his famous book on the Search for Meaning:

Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks' jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky--and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world--I had but one sentence in mind--always the same: "I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space." How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step by step I progressed, until I again became a human being.

There were many, so many, who did not survive the death camps. Their ordeal of suffering and death is incomprehensible for us to imagine even when we read about it. Millions were gassed the day they arrived in the camps. Others died of malnutrition, disease, cold, brutality and beatings, loss of hope and destruction of the will to live. One man dreamed that the war would end for him on March 31st. When it became clear that the war was not going to end as the date approached he fell deathly ill the day before his liberation was to come and died the very next day. On another occasion Frankl was moved to awaken a man who was having a terrible nightmare when it suddenly struck him "that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp" to which he was about to recall him.

Some who died showed great courage and equanimity and became an example for other prisoners of hope and dignity in the face of death. Like the young woman who knew that she would die in the next few days. When Frankl talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. She said to him, "I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously." Pointing through the window of her hut she said, "This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness." Through the window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. "I often talk to this tree", she went on. Thinking she might be delirious Frankl asked her if the tree replied. "Yes", she said. "It says to me, I am here--I am here--I am life, eternal life." Shortly thereafter she died, very much at peace with herself and with the source of life eternal that had finally blossomed in her soul.

In spite of all that he had suffered and lost Viktor Frankl did not give in to bitterness and despair. He was, he noted of himself, a man who did not forget any good deed done to him nor carry grudges for bad ones done against him. He remained opposed to the concept of collective guilt. For all those who gave into brutal impulses of cruelty, greed and violence there were others who demonstrated kindness, compassion and mercy when such actions were risky to perform. None of us are really in a position to judge the behavior and responses of others, nor could we predict how we might behave were we put in similar circumstances. In the concentration camps there were those who behaved like swine while others behaved like saints. As Frankl notes we all have both potentialities within ourselves. Which ones are actualized depend on deep interior decisions of the soul and not solely on exterior conditions of the environment however difficult those conditions might be.

Viktor Frankl concludes his great book on MAN'S SEARCH FOR MEANING with the following observation: Our generation is realistic for we have come to know [human nature] as [it] really is. After all, [humanity] is that being who has invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, [humanity] is also that being who has entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on [our] lips.

O Thou who art the source of life in the blossoming chestnut tree and in the beating of the human heart, be in us also as source of conscience and will-to-meaning. Help us to find our deepest meanings in life in loving and caring human relationships and in the surprise discovery that the whole world does indeed turn on love. Amen.