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How a goal saves your life

Let’s see… when in recent history did the shit really hit the fan? Viktor Frankl has seen it all. As a psychiatrist – and prisoner – in Auschwitz he learned to see when a man would break. So what was the psychological difference between life and death? It is in the story of one man Frankl new, who believed war would end on a certain date: 30 March, less than a month into the future. When the 30st day came, he fell into a coma. One day after learning that his believe was wrong, he died.

While – barely – living in the camp for several years, Frankl experienced that people need a goal in order to live.  Nietsche already said it: He who has a reason to live, can bare almost all circumstances.[1]. Nothing can give a man more strength to survive than the knowledge that his life has meaning. Meaning can be found in creative work as well as in love. But with both lacking – nothing to accomplish, no one to love – where do you turn?

Going against Sartre, Frankl found that people do not invent their meaning but rather find it; in responsibility, he claims.[2] His logotherapy, that has developed into a large mainstream of psychology labelled the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, postulates the commandment: live like it’s the second time, and like you are at the point you are going to make the same mistake as you did the first time. This confronts you with the finiteness of life and the irrevocability of your decisions.

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Meaning can be found in three places: by doing, by perceiving, and by suffering. By doing, like in doing creative work. Through perceiving, experiencing values like culture, nature or love. But by suffering? Isn’t that quite biblical?

But what if suffering is your only option? If your snowboard breaks and you find yourself downhill alive but torn in peaces, to live the rest of your life in excruciating pain? Or if you suffer from ALS and your motoneurons break down while your senses remain painfully intact? This is what Tony Judt painfully describes in his last book, the Memory Chalet. Tony had the luck he was able to carry out some last meaningful creative endeavour; writing – dictating – a book. But if you can’t do that? How do you find meaning in suffering?

Some find it in their minds.

If a prisoner felt that he could no longer endure the realities of camp life, he found a way out in his mental life– an invaluable opportunity to dwell in the spiritual domain, the one that the SS were unable to destroy. Spiritual life strengthened the prisoner, helped him adapt, and thereby improved his chances of survival.[3]

So, when can suffering have a purpose? First, when it is absolutely unavoidable. Second, ultimately: in the way you carry your fate. In taking responsibility over how you suffer because this ultimately is your dignity. Finding a goal to believe in – within or outside yourself –  might be the key to survival in turbulent times.

  1. [1]Nietsche, F., quoted in Frankl (1978), Man’s Search for Meaning, Rotterdam: Kooyker, p. 98 (translation this autor)
  2. [2]Ibid: p. 136.
  3. [3]Man’s Search for Meaning, Part One, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp”, Viktor Frankl, p. 123