[Key Words: Viktor Frankl, Logotherapy, search for meaning, demands of life]
Most of us have probably faced situations in life with which we would rather have not had to deal. I know people who have encountered difficulties that I cannot fathom. Cancer survivors, people with heart conditions or degenerative diseases that have disabled their mobility, and victims of debilitating and life-altering accidents all make the list. In my role as a counselor, I have worked with victims of violent crime, sitting with individuals who had lost loved ones to homicide. I have worked with one individual who lost her daughter to suicide while she sat inebriated, not knowing her daughter was dying in the room next to hers. I have heard stories of individuals who have lost their businesses, all their savings, not having the foggiest notion of where they were heading for the future. And in response to each of those experiences, the haunting doubts from the depths of my soul always emerged in the shape of a resounding question: Could I handle what they have gone through? What I do know is that I would rather not have to find out. Yet many times, life calls on us to learn lessons along paths we otherwise would not choose to travel.
One of my heroes (for lack of a better term – and I’m fairly certain he would not relish being called a hero) is Viktor Frankl. Known as an author of many books, perhaps his most well-known work is Man’s Search for Meaning. In that work he details many of his horrifying experiences in Auschwitz and Dachau, unfathomable hells that predictably leads readers to think there is absolutely no way they could have survived what he endured. Yet in that soul baring work, Frankl poses an alarming challenge, one today that I believe our culture may not be prepared to engage – “It is not what you demand of life that matters, but what life demands of you.”
The question begs other questions: What are the demands of life? How can they be described? How can we be aware that they are upon us? I believe deeply that there are no simple, objective answers to these questions. Demands of living are not experiences that necessarily can be quantified for everyone. I feel strongly that we can address these questions as a dialogue with others, or a monologue with ourselves, or perhaps in meditation and prayer, only in a qualitative way. And I think the questions, themselves, perhaps get at a deeper question that lies behind them: Can I carve out a full and enriched life, no matter what sinuous paths the vicissitudes of living take? Or more to the point: When I face unsuspected challenges, losses, and pain, hove I got what it takes to work through such experiences?
The crux of Frankl’s challenge revolves around how we deal with inevitable suffering that comes with living. We all suffer on some level, and while it’s a human trait to compare people’s suffering, such comparisons miss the boat altogether. A person’s suffering belongs to that person alone. And although, from the outside, it may appear that one person’s suffering is not as great as another’s, each person must deal with her or his own suffering. No doubt we can learn from how others face suffering, hence the impact of Frankl’s book for over six decades now. But how we face our own individual suffering is our road, a path that belongs to us alone. Whether or not we like it, or whether or not we want to believe it, diverse levels of struggle and suffering, the ominous fear of the cloud of unknowing, and various types of losses and pain are all a part of our experience with living. And equally whether or not we like it, how we face those experiences develop and contribute to our depth of character, in terms of courage, integrity, and authenticity. I say this, desperately emulating the words of Kierkegaard, in fear and trembling. I would prefer not to believe what I just wrote. I would prefer not to believe that suffering is inevitable. I would prefer not to believe that how I deal with suffering contributes to the make up of my character. I would prefer not to have to face the awful demands of life, awful in the sense that although at times such struggles can be terrible, they are also awesome in the sense that they are prodigious, overwhelming, and fearful. They can be awesome, as well, in that they are amazing, wonderful, and beautiful. We see both these aspects of the awful encounter in Frankl’s rendering of his concentration camp experiences. There is the absolute horror of Auschwitz and Dachau, but the beauty of Frankl’s victorious survival, his search for meaning, and the impact of his Logotherapy. Man’s Search for Meaning is a work that depicts awful terror along side awe-inspiring courage and beauty.
Fruit without the Labor
When I first read Frankl’s work, I was awe-struck at how he not only survived the camps, but also how he constructed meaning through his experiences. I found myself in that Sartrean script of inauthenticity in which I desired to be where Frankl landed without having to go through the journey he took to arrive there. However, we don’t arrive where Frankl, or anyone else for that matter, arrives in wellbeing without having to do the traveling. Obviously, struggling through life challenges in a way that leads to growth doesn’t mean that we all have to go through the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, or that we even have to face, as many have, life-threatening experiences to become aware of what is important in life. Yet taking on the demands of life does mean that we must find a way to face those struggles that do come our way, whatever they may be for us individually. I believe we are steeped in a culture today in which we (I include myself here) want the good life without confronting the demands that life places on us. We want the personal growth, character, courage, and integrity apart from the experiences in living by which such traits are forged. We want victory, achievement, and success without effort, setbacks, and the work that goes into such accomplishments. Hence, our views of such endeavors are shallow. It’s questionable whether or not we truly understand accomplishment, achievement, and success. Today, the measures by which we assess such milestones render them as anything but a milestone.
What Life Demands of Us
So how do we know when we are facing those experiences where life calls on us to be more than what and who we are at the moment? We will know, most likely, when we’re frustrated, tired, feeling defeated, perhaps bound by hopelessness, and see no way out of our struggles. We will know when we realize that time might be the major factor that will get us through the struggles we are facing rather than a quick, easy fix. And then again, we may not realize we have gone through such struggles until we have, in fact, worked through them. We realize them when upon reflection, we look back and say something like: That was tough; don’t want to do it again, but I learned a lot about myself from it. In a word, life demands growth, our continued becoming. It calls upon us to personally and inwardly grow from the moment we take our first breath to that moment we take our last. It may be a frightening sign, indeed, when people within a culture want life to be easy and struggle-free, desiring quick answers when problems do surface. It may be a telling sign when achievement and success is measured by celebrity-hood. It may be a tragic sign when people place demands on life rather than face what life demands.
I’m cautious that my contemplations upon Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning, not be misread or misinterpreted. What I have stated here might lead some to think that life requires suffering, and that we should hope for it to come so as to provide growth for us. In contrast, Frankl warns people not to seek out suffering, which he considers masochistic. Suffering, on some level, most likely will come our way, so we don’t have to go in search for it. The search is for meaning when we find ourselves dealing with some form of suffering. Likewise, what I have said here might easily be construed by some as a call to man-up, get tough, and stand alone. To some degree, I do not totally disagree with some of that sentiment. However, facing the tough demands that life sends our way doesn’t mean that we have to go through our struggles alone, that we don’t have doubts, and that we never feel like we want to give up. It doesn’t mean that we never feel weak and lost at times. Life is a struggle, is the first line in M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled. Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning, is one explication of what a life-struggle looks like. The depiction of his experiences and how he emerged from them portray a man from whom we can learn. The struggle to take on what life demands of us, above all, calls for us continually to reflect upon and to embrace what we claim to value and believe at our core, so as vigilantly to be aware that we live out those core values and beliefs moment-by-moment within our life’s journey.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/November 15, 2013