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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

#16 Unconditional Faith in Unconditional Meaning

Click here to download Unconditional Faith in Unconditional Meaning

One of the very great privileges of hosting LogoTalk.Net is that I get to interact with our listeners. A listener emailed the following question:

What does Viktor Frankl mean by the word "meaning"?

Our listener has discovered a working answer to this question that is definitely worth sharing. He presently defines meaning as "whatever moves that motivating spirit inside you." Personally, I think that is one of the best definitions of meaning I have heard.

In addition to this question, the listener asked for some examples, large and small, of meaning.

This question is an important one. A misunderstanding of the answer is the basis of a criticism leveled against logotherapy by other existentialists and by cognitive psychologists. Specifically, that criticism is that logotherapy suggests to, or even tells, the client what a certain event means.

When Frankl was asked this same question, his response was that "meaning is what is meant."

To understand this rather cryptic response, it is necessary to know that Frankl believed that each unique situation carried both a variety of potential meanings and a demand characteristic. From all the potential meanings the human being may freely choose one and make it real. However, the situation also carries a demand characteristic. This means that there is only one right choice that the combination of unique person and unique situation demands. The person may make the right choice or the wrong choice, and the person may never know if he or she was right or wrong. We can make better choices, or be right more often, by learning to listen to the voice of conscience. It is an imperfect guide, but it is one we all share.

Now, one example of meaning is the way certain threads in life come together. As if on cue for this podcast, three threads came together. One thread is the email from our listener. Another thread is a question from the course Meaning-Centered Interventions that I am presently taking through the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy. The third thread is my recent stay at a hospital in a distant city, where I had plenty of time to consider this question.

Here are some verbatim notes I made for class:

As I write this, I am sitting in a hospital room in a distant city with nothing but the clothes on my back. I was sent here by air ambulance yesterday. I am writing with a borrowed pencil on a paper towel. I hope when I get home, the writing will have stood up well enough for me to transcribe.

At times like this, when the area of fate looms large, life comes down to the kindness of the nurse who lent me the pencil. A shower was a major event for the day. The goal is to wait until more tests can be run on Monday.

I remind myself of Frankl's words to face bravely what lies in the area of fate. Death certainly lies within that area. While I am not standing on death's doorstep at the moment, I have certainly taken a drive through the neighborhood and want to go home with no souvenirs of the trip!

So what are my thoughts on the meaning of life? A PA named Susan took time to sit and listen to my fears, to answer my questions, to later remind the doctor of one of my questions I had forgotten. She self-transcended. Life is about that and not about doing your work only, no matter how well.

A phone call from my son, telling me about his projects, and his determination that "of course you will pass your tests -- you're my daddy," the meaning of life is in that. And, of course, I will pass my tests, because of him.

During my little stay, I started making a list of meaningful things that I otherwise would not have considered, meaningful things that fall into the very, very small category:

• a pencil
• a shower
• a visitor
• communications
• a way home
• a doctor who listens
• clean clothes

I thought about how Frankl managed to get a hold of a pencil stub and to write notes that he had to hide. How that must have been!

So, for me, the meaning of life is closely tied to small, meaningful moments that lead to self-transcendence, expressed in the simplest way as the ability to communicate with family and friends, or the ability to at least take notes to later express oneself.

I took some comfort in thinking of death as one of those things in the "area of fate." As such, it is something toward which one has the ability to choose one's attitude. It also reminded me that each day is a gift. It is easier, now, for me, to discover the meaning of the moment when I consider how easily it could be the last moment. Which value, then, do I wish to actualize right now? This is done knowing that this moment may be the last, and this value the last to be actualized, or it may be yet another step on a journey of many years. Too often, we act on the assumption that there will always be tomorrow. The meaning of death is to remind us that this is not so. If life did not end, there would be no logical difference between actualizing values and postponing their actualization.

As to suffering, I am not sure that suffering has a meaning per se. Is there meaning in the suffering that Frankl endured? I know many theologians who would answer negatively. The meaning is found in the freedom to choose. Suffering provides the greatest contrast against which that meaning may be seen. I think that the meaning of choice would still be present if suffering did not exist, only, perhaps, more difficult for us to see.

It also occurred to me that suffering is a phenomena only of the body and mind. The invasive procedures can only invade the body, and thoughts thereof can invade the mind. The spiritual core cannot be invaded. As the seat of choice, it also has the ability to "push back" against these invasions through change in attitude.

Now that I am back from the hospital, I think the most meaningful experience was my son on the telling phone telling me, "of course I would pass my tests, you're my daddy." While passing the time in a CT scanner, I thought of this quote. The test was supposed to be repeated three hours later, but, as I was taking another test, the doctor came into the room and said that I had passed the test so well there would be no need to repeat it. I was to be discharged that day, a week ago Monday, if I also passed the other test that was presently being done, which, thank God, I did.

Some larger examples of meaning come from Frankl himself:

A client came to Frankl, a rabbi, who was grieving for the death of his children. The rabbi believed that his children were in heaven, but that he would never see them there. The children were young and innocent when they had died, but the client, as a grown man, had committed many sins. In working with Frankl, the meaning that the rabbi discovered was that the deaths of his children gave him the opportunity to thereafter live in such a way that he would eventually see his children in heaven. While the death of this man's children is certainly an objective evil, through the exercise of the human spirit, the rabbi was able to discover a meaning that changed his life for the better. This is an example of realizing an attitudinal value.

Frankl also tells a story that took place shortly after the Nazis invaded Austria. Frankl had the opportunity to get a visa to leave Austria and come to the United States. There were no visas for his parents, however. One day, he came home and found that his father had recovered a piece of the synagogue his father attended. It had been burned down by the Nazis. On this particular piece of ruble, there was a single Hebrew letter. The block had been part of the depiction of the 10 commandments, with a Hebrew letter abbreviating each one. Frankl asked his father which commandment this letter abbreviated. It was "honor your father and mother that your days may be long in the land."

Frankl believed that his father finding this block meant that he should stay in Austria, let the visa go, and try to protect his parents as best he could. He was able to do so for about a year before the family was placed into the camps. As you know, Frankl survived (though his parents and his young wife did not) and logotherapy took root because Frankl wrote his books in light of his experiences in the camps.

But conscience and the situation may demand not following a commandment:

Frankl writes of a young couple taken to the camps. The husband knew that the wife was very loyal and very faithful. She was also very beautiful. The young husband told her that she was free from her marriage vow, and that she could do whatever she needed to do in order to survive. In the midst of a death camp, the young husband tried to actualize the value of life above all else.

My former director, the woman whose position I now hold, left me a note which now hangs in my office. It is a quote from Frankl:

"Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone's task is unique as his specific opportunity to implement it."

So, in summary:

Frankl's philosophy is founded upon three pillars that Frankl describes as Freedom of the Will, the Will to Meaning, and Meaning in Life. Frankl accepts the first and third of these as philosophically axiomatic. The second pillar, the Will to Meaning, Frankl sees as demonstrable through psychological study. It is this pillar to which Logotherapy owes is practical applications. The Will to Meaning includes two components: an internal "pull" toward the discovery of meaning that is characteristic of the human person, and an external "demand quality" of a given situation or text. Each combination of human person and situation is unique. Thus, the meaning discovered will be unique to each person.

Frankl holds that all humans are subject to a particular demand quality he calls the tragic triad consisting of pain, guilt and death. These universal experiences lie within the "area of fate" outside of human free will. Unique meanings may be discovered by each person depending upon the attitude freely chosen toward these elements. Frankl refers to this free choice as the "attitudinal value." The attitudinal value lies within the "area of freedom" and is motivated by the will to meaning. Moreover, Frankl holds that the realization of the attitudinal value is superior to two other paths to the discovery of meaning - the actualization of creative values (such as through work) and the realization of experiential values (such as through love). It is through the actualization of the attitudinal value that the human person is capable of achieving self-transcendence - the ability to rise above circumstances, or to face the tragic triad as a fully human person. Of self-transcendence, Frankl writes, "What I have called the self-transcendence of existence denotes the fundamental fact that being human means relating to something, or someone, other than oneself, be it a meaning to fulfill, or human beings to encounter. And existence falters and collapses unless this self-transcendent quality is live out."

Thank you for listening. Please email any questions or comments to and may you have a meaningful day.