Life Has Meaning Even in the Worst of Times

Life Has Meaning Even in the Worst of Times

At a time in our country when it’s difficult to plot an intelligent course of action as politicians promise answers but no substance, it’s interesting to look back to a time when answers could mean the difference between life and death.

The following appeared in an article by Emily Esfahani Smith in The Atlantic magazine, January 9, 2013.

In 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested (and later transported) to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp, with his wife and mother. Three years later when the camp was liberated, most of his family, including his wife, had perished.

In his best-selling 1946 book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who died came down to one thing: meaning.

As he saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” he wrote in his book, “the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Using his experience as a therapist in the camps, and recounted in his book, Frankl encountered two suicidal inmates. Both were hopeless, thought there was nothing more to expect from life, nothing to live for. “In both cases,” he said, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them. For one, it was his young child, who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books he needed to finish. In each case, it gave meaning to their need to survive.

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life,” Frankl said. “He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”