What We Can Learn from Viktor Frankl

During these unprecedented times — of uncertainty, danger and social isolation — I‘ve been looking to historical figures for inspiration. I already wrote about the example of the great Irish explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton. Now I want to talk about a model who faced an entirely different set of challenges: Viktor Frankl.

Frankl was a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist, who along with his wife, parents, brother, and sister were sent to the Thereisienstadt concentration camp in 1942. Over the course of the next three years, he was moved to four different camps, including the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he was rescued in 1945 when the war finally come to a close. But only he and his sister had survived.

What do you do with suffering like that, and the countless deaths, murders and indignities he had witnessed? Frankl’s answer was clear: you become more human.

In his extraordinary philosophic and autobiographical book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he explains, “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life.”

Suffering, for Frankl, was never something you pursued, but if it found you, you could use it to become something bigger and more virtuous.

It seems to be a teaching that is almost inside-out, it runs so counter to our normal conditioning. Isn’t one of our most basic human instincts to avoid discomfort, and if prolonged difficulty finds us, isn’t it natural to be downcast and dispirited?

For Frankl, the answer is no. It’s only natural if we make the satisfaction of our basic human drives the most important thing in our lives. He teaches that we can aspire for something more.

If these words sound idealistic or theoretical — just consider, they were authored by a man who had seen some of the greatest brutalities a person can witness. Yet in that environment, he tapped into a great truth of human consciousness: not that we create our realities. But that we create the meaning we make out of our realities, and as a consequence, the impact we have upon others, and the ultimate depth and fulfillment of our lives.

These are words I need at this time. It’s not hard to imagine Frankl speaking across the decades, insisting that even in this period of social isolation, where many face the grief of sickness or terrible loss, or look out at a future stained with uncertainty, we have choices.

He writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

So I wonder two things:

#1: Can all the millions isolated from their normal activities set an intention at this time — as he did when he was first imprisoned in the camp — to find a purpose out of these weeks and months that is deeper than mere survival? Can we reshape something in ourselves, our careers, and even, perhaps, the larger world?

#2: And can we use the threat — and reality — of fear, deprivation and loss to become more generous, caring and dedicated to the ones we love and the causes we serve?

If we can, we will have achieved the ultimate alchemy of which Frankl was a master — the transformation of bad fortune into the farthest-reaching good.

Ted Fish studies, writes about, and helps to build leadership in Universities, schools and companies.

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