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Worry less about the meaning of life, and more about the meaning in your life

How do we find hope, healing, and purpose in the very tortured and anxious times in which we live?

If you ask Viktor Frankl, he might say “future goals.”

When working with patients attempting to process and move past traumatic events in their lives, Dr. Frankl found it was essential “to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. [Because as] Nietzsche said, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.’” (Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 84)

This therapeutic approach developed by Dr. Frankl became known as Logotherapy.  Logos from the Greek root signifying “meaning”. Frankl said, “There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning in his life.” (p. 108)

LOGOTHERAPY v. PSYCHOTHERAPY

How does Logotherapy differ from other psychoanalytic theories?

In his book Logotherapy in a Nutshell,  Frankl explains, “During psychoanalysis, the patient must lie down on a couch and tell you things which sometimes are very disagreeable to tell.” To which Frankl replied: “Now, in logotherapy the patient may remain sitting erect but he must hear things which sometimes are very disagreeable to hear.”

What is so disagreeable to hear? 

  • While psychoanalysis is more retrospective and introspective and can become an exhaustive look at the past, logotherapy is prospective and focused on our futures. 
  • Logotherapy requires the patient to earnestly ask themself what they are personally responsible for in their current situations.
  • Logotherapy asks patients to recognize that they have control over and are responsible for their own attitudes and actions over their lives, regardless of what has already happened.

Dr. Frankl was not devoid of empathy for the challenge of healing from past trauma. He himself was a survivor of multiple concentration camps among which he lost his parents, brother, and eventually his wife. But it was that very experience that helped to bring Frankl to the knowledge that “what was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” (p. 85)

WHAT IS WANTED OF ME?

When I read this, I had the strongest epiphany of thought that changed my thinking from “What do I want from life?” to “What from this life is wanted of me?” 

I considered my many personal endeavors: a marriage to develop, children to mentor, a business to build, a school to found, among others. These endeavors each had inherent challenges and they all required personal sacrifice. But I have been blessed because they have not only fed me yesterday but are still providing future feasts for me in creating a heritage or legacy of family, faith, and freedom into the future. The nourishment has been brought to me because they have all brought meaning to my life.

But even in the midst of blessings, life can be a costly personal endeavor. As Frankl also points out, “Dostoevski said once, ‘There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.” (p. 75)

I love those words! They reflect much on last week’s post of finding dignity, purpose, and freedom in death of a loved one or personal suffering. Logotherapy helps solve the tension between who we are and who we may be or become as we look to the future. 

WHAT IS LIFE STILL EXPECTING OF YOU?

So, how do you do this? What is life still expecting of you? What do you look forward to? It is captured in the idea that we are always becoming. Human excellence is always on display. Our best years are yet to come. 

According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: 

(1) by creating a work or doing a deed

(2) by experiencing something or encountering someone

(3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering 

December is the month for these healing suggestions. 

I invite you to reflect and act. Dr. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that will change you and your life forever, and possibly that of a family member who may desperately need hope in their future during the time of Christmas and the New Year.  

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

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