Among the death notices that did not rise to front-page news during last week’s international grieving was the obituary noting the passing of Viktor Frankl at age 93.
It is worth pondering whether Frankl’s death would have had a higher news value had there been less funereal competition. After all, there are two ways to look at his life and work.
He may be seen as an anachronism, a psychiatrist whose doctrine of the individual’s responsibility to life is hopelessly out of date in this, the golden age of victimization. My view is that he was a remarkable man, doctor and author whose life and writing offer profound instructions about living.
My first experience with Frankl’s famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” was in a religion course. We studied his experiences in Nazi death camps and reports on American prisoners of the Korean War to learn what sustains people trapped in horror and hopelessness.
“Man’s Search for Meaning” was first printed in 1946, only a year after Frankl’s liberation from a Nazi death camp. During his three years as a prisoner, he lost his mother, father and wife to the gas chambers.
Although Frankl’s thin volume has been through 73 printings, you would be much troubled to find another book more out of touch with the current Zeitgeist. Frankl’s basic premise is that people have choices even in life’s most dire circumstances, that they are not victims unless they choose to be.
Compare that with today’s canon, which insists we are all victims to be nurtured through our pain. Criminals are not the architects of their crimes but victims of a society that pushed them into antisocial behavior. Students who sleep in class aren’t at fault, they suffer from attention deficit disorders.
Even those who aren’t sure when or if they were victimized can be helped if the right therapist probes for repressed memories to find what or who is to blame for discomfort, unhappiness or failure.
A culture of complaint and denial runs through our national life like a swelling stream. It comforts anyone who needs it, from president to addict. Even a killer can be the victim of too many Twinkies, too much rap music or PMS.
In Auschwitz, Frankl learned a different lesson. “The sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone,” he wrote. And it is that spiritual freedom to choose your attitude toward your life that gives meaning and purpose to living.
Frankl insists that a person’s inner strength is sufficient to raise him above his outward fate. Even in the hell of the death camps, Frankl counseled other prisoners “that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”
“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,” he wrote. Frankl believed a person’s approach to life, his or her responsibility for his life, is nothing less than destiny.
In Frankl’s method, which he called logotherapy, responsibility is “the very essence of human existence.” Man does not simply exist, “but always decides what his existence will be.”
Frankl’s therapy is not an easy road. It insists a person accept responsibility, face the truth and do the right thing. A visiting psychiatrist once told Frankl that in psychoanalysis, “the patient must lie down on a couch and tell you things which sometimes are very disagreeable to tell.” Frankl replied that in his therapy, the patient may sit but must “hear things which sometimes are very disagreeable to hear.”
In the childlike denial of responsibility that defines our age, Frankl’s doctrine would seem doomed. But it supported him through this century’s worst nightmare, through 50 years of work afterward, and it is still in print today.
In fact, “Man’s Search for Meaning” may be more important in this mistakes-were-made era than ever before.