By Dayal Mirchandani
Incarcerated in Nazi death camps during the Second World War, psychologist Viktor Frankl observed that those who found meaning in life were the most likely to survive. Later, he evolved this insight into a new psychotherapy logotherapy
Everything can be taken from a man but the last of the human freedoms to choose one attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one own way.
Dr Viktor Frankl
After the Second World War, Dr Viktor Frankl emerged like a phoenix from the horrors of Nazi death camps to establish a new paradigm in psychotherapy, called logotherapy. What is unique about this therapy is the humanistic, spiritual philosophy that forms its basis. Unlike the obsolete school of Freudian psychoanalysis, logotherapy has a much more positive view of human beings that makes it acceptable and useful.
What is truly amazing about Dr Frankl is the fact that he espouses such a positive philosophy despite having been subjected to the most brutal and inhuman treatment in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, where six million Jews were killed in gas chambers. Frankl lost
his father, mother, brother and wife in the Holocaust, and only he and his sister survived. One must remember that the inmates of these camps were stripped off their identity, possessions and clothes, and were kept on a near-starvation diet with the sceptre of torture and death forever hanging over their heads.
While he was in the concentration camp, Frankl observed: Other things being equal, those apt to survive the camps were those oriented toward the future toward a task, or a person, waiting for them in the future, toward a meaning to be fulfilled by them in the future. He also found that those who had nothing to live for were the ones who died quickest in the concentration camp. Frankl attributed his own survival to his determination to recreate and publish a manuscript that had been destroyed during the war, as well as love for his wife. He helped many others survive the death camps too; by helping them find a reason to live.
After the war, Frankl wrote Man's Search for Meaning, one of the most inspiring books I have ever read. He was sure that his experience in the camp would be helpful to people who were prone to despair. As he said: I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. And I thought that if the point were demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing. His book went on to become a bestseller and made him famous around the world. Till his death in September 1997, Frankl authored more than 30 books, most of which have been translated into several languages.
Logotherapy is Frankl's greatest legacy. The term literally means therapy through meaning. Frankl found that many people who suffer psychological symptoms like depression, anxiety or addictions lack a sense of meaning in life and begin to improve when the therapist helps them find a worthy goal. He believed that even in the most horrible situations man has the ability to exercise the most important freedom of all the freedom to determine one's own attitude and spiritual well-being. He also strongly believed that people find meaning when they work towards goals that go beyond themselves: what Frankl calls self-transcendence.
Basically, logotherapy is an existential therapy in that it believes that every person has an innate desire to find meaning and this provides man his principal motivation for living. It is each individual's responsibility to find this meaning in his or her own life. According to Frankl, we can do so by thinking of ourselves as being questioned by life daily and hourly.
Unlike other schools of existentialism, which propose that there is no inherent meaning in life except what we give it, logotherapy strongly believes in a spiritual force within us that expresses itself through us. People who are not connected with this suffer symptoms of psychological distress. Frankl is careful to point out that all psychological distress is not caused by lack of meaning, but that it is an important cause of suffering. He observed that up to 25 per cent of the population in the West suffered from what he termed noogenic neurosis. A lack of meaning is responsible for this disorder and the cure for it is to help the person activate what Frankl called the defiant power of the human spirit and bring it to bear on current life situations to bring about the desired change that is healing or life-giving.
While logotherapy has never gained widespread acceptance as an independent therapeutic school, Frankl's ideas have contributed in humanising the field of psychotherapy, which under the influence of outdated 19th century psychoanalysis had become mechanistic and unfeeling. Frankl also legitimised the use of the spiritual in medicine. Above all, he showed the importance of meaning in life to promote health. Research by other scientists has shown that those who find a strong source of meaning in their lives are less likely to develop physical illnesses and are more likely to be psychologically healthy. As Frankl says: What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.
Logotherapy is ultimately about taking responsibility for one's own life and making appropriate choices based on this awareness. Says Frankl: 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. He knows the why for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any how. In this endeavour he must focus on worthy goals that involve love, truth and service to others or a spiritual quest.
Dr Frankl lived by his credo, that ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognise that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
Dr Dayal Mirchandani is a psychiatrist with the Behavioural Science Network, Mumbai.
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