Healing Through Meaning

Dr Teria Shantall

Every psychotherapy or, for that matter, any particular persuasion or point of view is based on a particular way of looking at the world and on certain assumptions about what we are like as human beings.

What are the Views that Viktor Frankl Espoused?

Logotherapy is based on the following three tenets, principles or concepts:

  1. The freedom of will.
  2. The will to meaning.
  3. The meaning of life.

We will explore these tenets in ever greater depth throughout this book. Taken together, it says the following:

We have the freedom to search for, find and realize the meaning of our own lives.

Freedom of Will

As human beings we have freedom of choice. This is the first tenet. We are not driven by needs, determined by instinct and environment, pushed and pulled this way and that. Or, at least, we need not be! Nor are we the helpless victims of heredity, passively determined by inherent inclinations, good or bad, that we have no power to direct or control. We are not automatically good without effort and dedication on our part. Nor are we helplessly fallen creatures, unable to say “No” to what proves to be bad or destructive behavior. 
We have a self-determining part to play in the shaping of our own lives.

The Will to Meaning

This brings us to the second tenet: the quest to make sense of our lives. What makes sense is when one thing connects meaningfully to another. Things hold together. There is harmony, things are linked, related to one another; parts fit together in a greater whole. Cohesion is the basis of understanding and grasp: “this makes sense, it has meaning, we can see how it works; we understand it!” Disconnected, conflicting, contradictory parts hostile to and set against each other (things that tear apart and destroy), do not make sense to us. They are disordered and create confusion and unrest. Are they, therefore, lawful? Is this what we want? It goes against the grain, it is senseless, not what anyone should want: “this ought not to be! This is not the way we desire things to be!”

Meaning is therefore something that is good, lawful, something we fundamentally need and want. It connects with, appeals and speaks to us, draws us to it in a good way. What is meaningless disturbs our feelings of connectedness to what holds out meaning to us. We will something different. We have a will to meaning!

Our deepest desire, need or want, therefore, is to reach out to and connect with what is meaningful to us in the most fundamental sense of the word. We seek connection with something or someone outside of ourselves. We want to be linked to, harmoniously part of some greater whole where everything is held together in a good, non-disruptive and life-enhancing way. We want to be called out of ourselves and into some kind of enlivening interaction with others and with our world.

We feel good, happy about and at peace with ourselves when we have something or someone to live for, something of worth to contribute to the common good. We are doing our share for the good of the world around us. This forms the basis of a feeling of self-worth, of being a person in our own right. We are needed: we belong somewhere, have a unique space to fill or role to play.

We fit into the greater picture!

Our deepest and most fundamental motivation, therefore, is the desire for meaning in our lives.

We want to live a meaningful life!

The Meaning of Life

This brings us to the third tenet: life as ultimately meaningful. It would make little sense if we had the freedom to search for and a fundamental will to find meaning in our lives if such meaning in life did not exist in any real way; if it was just a case of phantasy, a mere projection of what we desire life to be like. Life must be meaningful in and of itself. It must hold meaning outside and beyond ourselves. Its meaning must be incontestable. Only if life is objectively meaningful is it there for us to become part of, embrace, appreciate and enjoy.

Life must have enduring worth beyond human caprice, beyond being something of our own making or something that we can shape to our own liking. Only if life is something beyond human manipulation, is its meaning indestructible. Being indestructible means that nothing and no-one can nullify life’s meaning!

Life’s meaning must remain, be unassailable, beyond spoiling, always there to be found by anyone, at anytime, anywhere, no matter what tragic thing happens or what anyone does or tries to do to darken its horizons.

Consider this: What meaning is there in life if things are arbitrary or happenstance; if we are in this world through some freak accident, soon to slip into oblivion as if we never lived, if in the end it makes little difference whether we were here or not?

Furthermore, for life to be real to us, something we can trust and really believe in and feel inextricably part of, it must be everlasting. It must have been in existence before us and go on after us. Our present lives must be a vital link in the chain of time.

Lives that are lived meaninglessly are arbitrary, given over to chance. They fall away from or fail to find what is meaningful in life. They disconnect, lose anchor and continuity. But once turned onto meaning, those lives take on significance, fall into line. Then the truth starts to operate, even retroactively to former generations that may have missed the mark.

The truth is this: We are meant to have a history, an origin and a genealogical line. We have a prophetic destiny, one we are meant to embrace. How else can we lay hold of life to live it in the way we are called to do, if there was no such coherence of a beginning towards an end; if there was not an original plan and a final purpose to the life given to us all?

Our individual lives must feature in the greater scheme of things, be recorded as significant for posterity and as part on an ongoing story. We must be players, the characters, in life’s unfolding story.

The most optimal place to be, one earmarked by mental and spiritual well-being, is to have unconditional faith in the unconditional meaningfulness of life. Coupled to this, Frankl contested, is the awed awareness of our own unconditional worth. Will we live up to be who we are were ordained to be? Life calls us. We have an assigned and significant part to play.

We have the dignity of personal responsibility!

True Happiness

Life is beautiful. But why do we not see it, realize it, embrace and enjoy it with the awe, the wonder, the joy, the gratitude it should evoke? Self-absorption is our greatest drawback. Optimal being is optimal well-being. The stressors are removed, the veil lifted. We are completely open to the beauty that surrounds us: we see the flowers, the trees, the fields, skies and mountains, the seas and rivers, all of creation, its creatures; every wondrous aspect of nature. We live in an awesomely beautiful world.

Nature is a statement of fact: the world is here for us. It is our domain. It affirms our worth, our having to be here. It is the backdrop to the scene of which we are the front figures. All the world is at our feet, not to trample it under foot but for us to take center stage, find our rightful place in it.

The more we learn about the wonders of nature, the awesome beauty and order of our universe, the more we begin to grasp the potential of human greatness in a world designed for the beauty of harmony and peace and that, in fact, it is good to be alive!