(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 8, 2017.)
Viktor Emil Frankl M.D., PhD. (1905 – 1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy, a form of Existential Analysis, and the best-selling author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which has sold over 12 million copies. According to a survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, it is one of “the ten most influential books in America.” (I have taught out of the book in many universities classes, and it is one of my favorite books. I have summarized it here.)
The postscript to the book, “Tragic Optimism,” was added in 1984 and is based on a lecture Frankl presented at the Third World Congress of Logotherapy, Regensburg University, West Germany, June 1983. Here are its main ideas.
Frankl begins like this:
“Let us first ask ourselves what should be understood by “a tragic optimism.” In brief it means that one is, and remains, optimistic in spite of the “tragic triad,” … a triad which consists of … (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death. This … raises the question, How is it possible to say yes to life in spite of all that? How … can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects? After all, “saying yes to life in spite of everything,” …presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable. And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive. In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation. … hence the reason I speak of a tragic optimism … an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.
Of course, you can’t force someone to be optimistic, any more than you can force them to be happy. Rather, you need a reason to be happy, just like you need a reason to laugh or smile. Give someone a reason to happy or laugh or smile and they will. Try to force them to and they will have fake happiness or forced laughter or an unnatural smile.
Real happiness comes when we find meaning in our lives—meaning provides the reason to be happy despite the tragic triad. Without meaning, we give up. And this meaninglessness often lies behind our experiences of: 1) depression; 2) aggression; and 3) addiction. Now we can trace many neuroses to biochemical conditions, but Frankl found that often their origins derive from a sense of meaninglessness.
As a therapist, Frankl was “concerned with the potential meaning inherent and dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout his or her life,” rather than trying to understand the meaning of a life as a whole. He was not suggesting there is no meaning to an entire human life, but that this final meaning depends “on whether or not the potential meaning of every single situation has been actualized …” In other words: “the perception of meaning … boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or … becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.”
But how do we find meaning in our lives? Frankl reiterates that there are three main sources of meaning in life: 1) creating a work or doing a deed; 2) experiencing something or encountering someone (as in love); and 3) transcending, learning, and finding meaning from the inevitable suffering which we will experience. Frankl also argues that we can find meaning despite the tragic triad of suffering, guilt, and death.
As for suffering, Frankl doesn’t claim that we must suffer to discover meaning, but that meaning can be found despite, or even because of, suffering. Here he reminds me of the Stoics: “If it [suffering] is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is to remove its cause, for unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic. If, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude.” We might not have chosen to break our necks, but we can choose to not let that experience break us. As for guilt, we overcome it primarily by taking responsibility for our actions, rising above guilt, and transforming ourselves for the better.
As for death, the ephemeral nature of life should remind us how we are dying every moment, and thus should make good use of our time. This leads to Frankl’s imperative: “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” In other words, live your life as if you were getting a second chance to correct all the mistakes you made in your first life. Frankl’s ruminations on the irreversibility of our lives always move me deeply:
… as soon as we have used an opportunity and have actualized a potential meaning, we have done so once and for all. We have rescued it into the past wherein it has been safely delivered and deposited. In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.
Surprisingly these considerations lead him to this profound thought about aging:
From this one may see that there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past—the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized—and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.
Frankl says that society mistakenly adores achievement, success, happiness, and youth. However, the quest for meaning is the most worthwhile pursuit and the only way to true happiness. Life’s tragedies—pain, guilt, and death—may lead to meaninglessness, but they don’t have to. We can be optimistic. We can find meaning through our work, our relationships, and by nobly bearing our suffering.