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Jul 06, 2008

Viktor Frankl -- "What Life Expects from Us"

Mans_search_for_meaning Optimism is based odds.  Hope is based on principles.

I've been turning this idea over in my head for a few months,* occasionally revisiting the Cornel West / Peter Gomes blogpost that got me started on all this a couple of years ago.

Viktor Frankl has a related take.  In my copy of Man's Search for Meaning, a previous owner wrote "HOPE" (all caps) in the margin next to these words:

The observations in this one case [Archer Pelican note: in which a man died shortly after his dream of liberation on March 30 did not come true], and the conclusion drawn from them are in accordance with something that was drawn to my attention by the chief doctor of our concentration camp. The death rate in the week between Christmas, 1944, and New Year's, 1945, increased in camp at beyond all previous experience. In his opinion, the explanation for this increase did not lie in the harder working conditions or the deterioration of our food supplies or a change of weather or new epidemics. It was the simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naïve hope that they would be home again by Christmas. As the time to near as there was no encouraging news, the prisoners lost courage and disappointment overcame them. This had a dangerous influence on their powers of resistance and a great number of them died. 

As we said before, any attempt to restore a man's inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how," could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why -- an aim -- for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from my life anymore." What sort of answer can one give to 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. 

-- Viktor E. Frankl, from the chapter “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” in Man's Search for Meaning (originally published in 1959, revised and updated in 1962 and 1984)


*You don't need to visit a poor country to find places where optimism would be misplaced.  There's plenty in any US town and I see it often enough in Durham.  Thus my never-ending appreciation for people who fight for causes that aren't easily (or likely) winnable. 

You've all seen the bumper sticker, "If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention."  There's much truth in that, but I don't think you can get much done if you're outraged all the time.  At some point, I think, you have to settle into something closer to patient, hopeful work, accepting the joy (not the same as "happiness") when it comes.  Speaking of Joy, some time ago I suggested this bumper sticker.  I'm not sure it makes sense but/and I still like it.  I wonder if a smiling Elie Wiesel would like it, too?

09:58 PM in Quotables | Permalink


For true. There's a great deal to be said for that "patient, hopeful work." At the movies yesterday, I lost track of how many times I saw a preview for "The Cleaner." If I still had cable, I'd watch, I think. Looks to me like a story about someone doing much that kind of patient, hopeful work, in just those kinds of places where optimism would me most misplaced. Stay safe.

Posted by: Doc | Jul 7, 2008 1:47:50 AM