I often peruse the obituaries. So many interesting stories can be found in those columns, stories that never make the front page or the evening news. One that drew my attention recently was the story of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who died at age 93. What an inspirational life he led.
Frankl survived Auschwitz and three other German concentration camps from 1942 to 1945, but his parents and other members of his family perished. Frankl used his experiences in the death camps to develop a revolutionary approach to psychotherapy known as logotherapy. The basis of the therapy is the belief that a human's primary motivational force is the search for meaning. Frankl's death, by the way, came about the same time the world lost Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, so there wasn't a great deal of attention paid to his passing.
Nevertheless, a few days after Frankl's death there was an article on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal written by Matthew Scully. The article took a more detailed look at the man and his contributions to the world. Of the 32 books Frankl penned, one of the best is Man's Search for Meaning: Experiences in Concentration Camps. He believed his mission in life was to help patients find meaning in their lives, no matter how bad their circumstances. He observed: "There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge there is meaning in one's life."
Frankl confronted those conditions in the Nazi death camps, and in his book he draws on his experiences: "Reduced, literally to our naked existence, we needed to stop asking ourselves about the meaning of life, and to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life-daily and hourly. Therefore it was necessary for us to face up to the full amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum. But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer."
According to Scully, Frankl was the "usually unacknowledged father of a thousand self-help books." For example, he often spoke of the "tragic triad" of pain, guilt and death. He believed the door to happiness "opens outward." As Frankl saw it, we cannot pursue happiness-it "ensues" when we accept life on its own terms. "Life has meaning to the last breath," he wrote. No matter what our circumstances, there are opportunities to be courageous-for "facing our fate without flinching." He believed we can discover meaning in life in three ways: "By creating a work or doing a deed, by experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering."
Frankl's books have been translated into 26 languages. He held 29 honorary doctorates from universities around the world. A 1991 survey by the Book of the Month Club found people who regarded themselves as lifetime general-interest readers rated Man's Search for Meaning as one of the most influential books they had read.
Frankl's teachings make it clear he believed in the capacity of man to endure and overcome insurmountable odds. Perseverance, courage, commitment and honor are all part of his thesis. Those are words that will never go out of style. It's all about decency and the willingness to fight the forces of corruption and evil. It is in the acceptance of our circumstances that we gain enlightenment and find meaning.
Charles S. Lauer