In the midst of despair

By Viktor E. Frankl, Beacon Press, 127 pages, $19.95

Late in March, holed up in my apartment in New York, I received the terrible news that the coronavirus pandemic had claimed the life of someone I knew. Just as shocking was the fact that it wasn’t the physical symptoms of this terrible disease that had overwhelmed her body. It was, instead, despair that had killed her spirit.

We cannot know all the factors that played into the tragic logic that led her to suicide. But piecing the story together afterward, her closest friends think that when New York shut down, she believed that so, too, had the possibility of continuing the full life she had created there. Before the pandemic, her calendar overflowed not just with work and volunteer activities, but with social engagements and cultural events, scheduled through the rest of this year and into the next. And now amid the cascade of closings, cancellations, and postponements into an unknowable future of all the work, volunteer, arts, and other in-person events she had so carefully planned but could no longer look forward to, her own life seemed to be crumbling into ruins. So she negated it, all of it, on her own terms.

And this is only one among many deaths of despair against our current backdrop of heightened stress, uncertainty, and vulnerability.

It’s the challenge posed by any crisis: How do we hang on to hope? It is also the question that Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), the Viennese psychiatrist and author best known for his exploration of trauma and resilience, Man’s Search for Meaning, devoted the bulk of his career to answering.

Now, with the publication for the first time in English of Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, originally written as a series of lectures in 1946, we have the opportunity to read what amounts to a brief, early draft of the concepts he presented in a more accessible form and in greater detail in his later classic. But in whichever version you encounter them, Frankl’s ideas bear particular consideration right now.

Frankl stressed the importance of what he called the will to meaning. He believed that having a sense of meaning or purpose or a goal in life drives us forward from one day to the next, even when we confront personal suffering, family tragedy, or public calamity. That is the inner compass that gives us direction; when we lose it, we begin to drift and can become lost in, and to, despair.

Frankl had begun to develop his ideas about the pivotal role meaning plays in our lives before the Nazi regime deported him and his family to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942. As Jews, the Frankls were in Hitler’s crosshairs for annihilation.

But despite four years of being shuttled from one camp to another, suffering the ravages of typhus and starvation and the nonstop threat of being shot, beaten, or gassed to death, Frankl endured. He held onto the hope that he would see his family after the war. He also set his sights on completing the unfinished manuscript describing his theories that the Nazis had seized and destroyed when they imprisoned him.

Those goals kept him focused on the possibility of a postwar future. He even jotted down brief notes on scraps of paper, which he hid in his threadbare uniform, about how his experience of life in extremis bore out his ideas. He observed that fellow inmates who were able to maintain an inner purpose were less likely to give up and give in to the futility of camp existence.

It did not matter what the goal was — whether to reunite with loved ones, to bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, to stay true to religious faith, or to spite the enemy simply by staying alive. Just having a reason to live bolstered the will to live, to try to persevere, evade death, survive, even if just for another day and then the next, with each day holding the possibility of bringing the goal that much closer.

After the war, Frankl was devastated to learn that neither his parents nor his wife had made it out of the camps alive. But he did have his work, and he buried himself in it, reconstructing and in time, completing the manuscript the Nazis had seized, Man’s Search for Meaning, as well as composing, less than a year after being freed from his hellish incarceration, the three public lectures that make up Yes to Life.

With World War II’s horrific death toll still being reckoned, and the atomic bomb having just been unleashed as a new existential threat, Frankl was acutely aware of an underlying public mood he described as numb, fatalistic, “spiritually bombed out.”

How could survivors return to life, if they did not believe that their lives held value? In the approach to psychotherapy he developed, which he called Logotherapy, Frankl proposed an antidote to giving in to such nihilism: taking hold, instead, of life’s meaning — and more precisely, the particular aim we set for ourselves. If we search, such a purpose can be found embedded in our values, beliefs, experiences and capabilities, and in and through the different personal and professional interests, communities and caring relationships we’ve created. Even at the end of life, Frankl wrote, a sense of fulfillment can be derived from taking “a stance toward the unalterable, fated, inevitable, and unavoidable limitation of their possibilities: how they adapt to this limitation, react toward it, how they accept this fate.”

The fate Frankl confronted was the Holocaust. Our fate today is wrapped up in the coronavirus pandemic and the virtual tide of other crises. Finding and sustaining meaning in the midst of crisis is not easy. I wish my friend had known about this strategy and had sought help that could have harnessed her back to life. 

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