Meaning in Suffering!


Viktor Frankl was born in 1905 in Vienna into a poor family. During his high school years, he was first introduced to psychoanalysis and then became one of the youngest socialist workers. He graduated from the University of Vienna where he studied psychiatry and neurology. After that, he published several articles such as “On the mimic movements of affirmation and negation” and “Psychotherapy and Weltanschauung”. He focused his studies on treating severe depression and preventing suicide. He developed his own theory of “logotherapy” which is sometimes referred to as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy”. Logotherapy is based on existential analysis to find one’s meaning in life by finding “the will” to meaning which can be found when people have their freedom. This theory was further explained in Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning”.


In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Frankl talks about his experience with other prisoners in Nazi concentration camp where they were stripped of everything. They were treated as slaves, they were named by numbers, and they were sold to some firms in exchange for money in order to do some kind of work. They were starved, humiliated, and tortured to the point that physical pain did not matter anymore. What mattered was the mental agony that was caused by the injustice in the camp. These prisoners lived in a place where there was no respect for human dignity or human rights, a place where all values, will, and freedom were lost. However, even though they had literally nothing except their bodies, some of them still wished for freedom and did not allow the cruelty of the camp to turn them into selfish monsters. This means that they had a certain type of liberty: it is a spiritual freedom that stopped them from being influenced by the violent circumstances that surrounded them.

Hence, as Frankl states, a choice of freedom means that the person decides to maximize his values to the greatest degree possible. These values were described by Frankl to be the three categorical values or “the meaning triad”. The first value is “the creative value” which can be actualized through work, hobbies, and good deeds. The second is “the experiential value” which can be actualized by discovering the beauty of the world around us. The third is “the attitudinal value” which is the superior of the other two and can be actualized by the choices that we make in life, by choosing justice, fairness, and mercy. This choice of action that a man decides to take is something that can not be taken away from him. This indicates that anyone can obtain freedom and preserve dignity as it is something that is born within each human being. However, if a person decides to give up on his choice of inner freedom, then he will be doomed to a life with no meaning. As a result, meaning can be discovered through the choice of actualizing the previous values and this meaning is the purpose that a person will live for. With it will overcome sufferings. As Frankl says, “He who has a “why” to live for can bear with almost any how”.

In addition, Frankl talks about how kindness was found in the concentration camp. Some prisoners were helping each other by splitting the small portion of their food and by taking care of each other during sickness. Surprisingly, some guards also had some pity in their hearts for the prisoners and tried to make things a bit easy for them. This indicates that there is no way for anyone to know if a person is an angel or a devil just by knowing the side he belongs to. Hence, there is no such thing as a race that is a completely good “pure race” or a one that is completely bad. Both decent and indecent people can be found in each society. We all can be good or bad based on the choices that we make.

In conclusion, bad or good circumstances cannot define people unless they decide upon it. This is because everyone has the freedom of choice and can choose the way he or she acts in a certain situation. For example, Frankl stated that some of those who gained freedom abused it in a way that they justified taking away others freedom because theirs were taken. Consequently, any human being can decide to affirm or violate human dignity in any situation if they chose to be like that spiritually and mentally. As Frankl says, “Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

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Written by Sara Harba, intern alumna and WYA Member


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