Posted by: Dr. Grover B. Proctor, Jr. | 17 May 2010

Viktor Frankl and the Meaning of Life


This vintage 4-minute clip of Viktor Frankl (at age 67) recently crossed my desk. Please watch it before reading on.

Viktor Frankl speaking at a conference in Toronto.

It might seem jarring to hear Frankl say that the redemption of a “criminal or juvenile delinquent or drug abuser” could be accomplished merely through “presupposing the ideal” of which he or she is capable—and that this is what will “make him become what he is capable of becoming.” On the face of it, this seems far too simplistic to be taken seriously.

While capable of wonderful humor (as shown in the above video), Viktor Frankl was anything but trite. His life experience had been so profound, and his intellect so great, that we rightfully came to expect penetrating insights and erudite conclusions from him.

Frankl suffered in World War II through incarceration at Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, at the hands of the brutally evil-incarnate Nazi regime. He somehow survived, but his wife and parents did not. How could someone who endured all of this horror at the hands of such wicked, malevolent people believe that the redemption of anyone–even the most wickedly evil, including the Nazis?—can be accomplished at all, much less by simply and idealistically “over-estimating and over-rating” them?

I pondered over this for some minutes, before going back to some of his writings. I found this, from his masterpiece Man’s Search for Meaning:

"Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl“We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the [concentration] camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: ‘If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.’

“That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, ‘The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.'”

So truly, what Frankl’s wartime hell and his subsequent years as one of the world’s greatest neurologists and psychiatrists had led him to discover was this eternal truth:

Love is the ultimate answer. To every question. Period.

  • The Eternal God summarized and codified His equally eternal Law for the Israelites in the wilderness. Why? Because, as Paul would ultimately remind us in Romans 13:10, “Love is the fulfillment of the Law” (NIV) or “Love is all that the Law demands” (CEV) or “Love is the whole Law” (Darby).
  • The Creator God came down to Earth to live a blameless life in order to effect redemption, through His Grace, for all of humanity. Why? “Because God so loved the world…”
  • And how did the Father God instruct us to live our lives, ever since Creation? “Love the Eternal your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5) and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). Grace itself is effected through and because of His love for His children. (That these two divine commandments, as well as the idea of justification through Grace, are OLD Testament precepts should not surprise us.)

Therefore, Frankl’s cognitive leap should not surprise us either: The quest for meaning in life is ultimately the search for the “Ideal”—and that “Ideal” (as Frankl discovered in the hell of Theresienstadt) is Love. The search for the “Ideal” is to search with and for Love. By extension, to be “idealistic” in considering and dealing with one’s fellow humans is to be loving towards them. For to be “idealistic” is to approach others “as they should be, as they could be.” Love expects the best, and therefore nourishes it in all of us.

So, in the end, when we “presuppose the Ideal,” when we “over-estimate and over-rate” another person, we acknowledge what is possible—and we want that ideal for the other person.

If that isn’t love, what is?


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