Re-reading Viktor Frankl's
Man’s Search For Meaning:
Writing In Spite of My Schooling

by Don Berg, Founder
Attitutor Services

Here's the famous attitude quote from Viktor Frankl's book Man’s Search for Meaning:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.

They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.”

Victor Frankl observed the behavior of giving bread and providing comfort, but what is really awe-inspiring is the fact that those behaviors in that situation were virtually meaningless.

It is not merely the behavior that was remarkable, it was the objective meaninglessness of the behaviors in that particular context that made them remarkable.

Those individuals enacted behavior that was in any critical analysis of the situation, pointless.

The people they fed were most likely going to die anyway.

The glimmer of comfort they provided would most likely be overshadowed by the unspeakable cruelty and deprivations that defined their everyday, moment-to-moment existence in the concentration camps.

Rereading Viktor Frankl’s classic book has caused me to reflect on my life since the first time I read the book many years ago.

In particular I remember that when I read the famous passage above I realized that attitude was the subject that I was striving to learn and teach.

Mainly because I felt that it was a gaping hole in my own schooling.

That impulse became my first book Attitude First: A Leadership Strategy For Educational Success.

As I mention in the introduction to the book I was not expecting to explore fundamental principles but originally set out to simply describe attitude and what influences it, to sketch a map of it.

What I discovered was a rabbit hole that kept going deeper and deeper until I wound up with enough material for several books.

What became my first book was merely a small section of the larger conceptual mapping that I had made in the process of exploring the relevant terrain around the idea of attitude.

Since I was on a college track throughout most of my school years I had a whole suite of expectations about school and how necessary it was supposed to be.

When I left college after three years I was doing so mainly because I could not reconcile my behavior with the expectations that I had learned.

Just one example of this was around writing.

Schooling convinced me that I was a poor writer.

As much as I tried I could not find any redeeming value in all the writing I felt forced to do and the process of producing it was such a struggle that it seemed the epitome of foolishness to go through such mental and emotional contortions for something that I neither cared about nor succeeded in doing well.

(If you dislike my writing now, be thankful you didn’t read what I wrote back then.)

What I eventually discovered is that most people with nothing to say are poor writers.

School also convinced me that I was undisciplined.

I was told repeatedly from a very young age that with my “obvious” intelligence I had the potential to get excellent grades if only I could apply myself.

It was clear from the discrepancy between the school accounts of my performance and my “potential” that in spite of my best efforts I must be too undisciplined to succeed.

It was only after three or four years of intensive martial arts training when a friend remarked on the high level of discipline required for such accomplishment that I realized my conclusion about being undisciplined might be wrong.

Below is the passage from Viktor Frankl's Man’s Search for Meaning that got me thinking about all this again.

This is later in the same section of the book as the famous passage about attitude.

He is refuting the possibility that the appalling and cruel behaviors he observed in the concentrations camps should be blamed on the external circumstances alone.

He is making the case that while the circumstances certainly favored terrible behavior it was ultimately a decision made by individuals as proven by the examples of those who chose to live and die with some form of dignity that defied all the circumstantial momentum towards depravity.

“An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature.

But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces.

A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him.

But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful.

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.

Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.

Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”

The key to this passage is in understanding the metaphor Viktor Frankl is laying out.

First he portrays the obvious span between active creative living as opposed to passive enjoyment of life.

He says that each of these two aspects have certain inherent and assumed sets of value that, though different, provide equal access to meaning and purpose.

Where meaning and purpose are the necessary ingredients of fulfillment which are necessary to a worthwhile life.

Then Viktor Frankl introduces a third extreme in this metaphoric structure, suffering, which he implies has previously been assumed to be effectively barren of any ingredients for worth in life, or for “high moral behavior” as he puts it.

Making his point he asserts authoritatively that meaning is not the exclusive province of just the two extremes of creativity and enjoyment.

His concept is that life is a container in which meaning and purpose reside.

He is saying that meaning and purpose are pervasive throughout the container of life, therefore, as a consequence of simply being within the container of life, suffering also has meaning and purpose.

Contrary to popular belief, he asserts, suffering cannot negate nor restrict access to meaning and purpose.

Viktor Frankl is saying that we have a generally accepted idea that life is inherently meaningful except for the areas of life in which suffering occurs.

When you observe a person in a state of suffering you get the impression that meaning and purpose are absent or that the suffering person is prevented from accessing them.

Viktor Frankl assumes that life is inherently meaningful, so he points out how suffering must also be meaningful because of the fact that it is part of life, ipso facto.

Since life is inherently meaningful then any assumption that is made about the inherent meaninglessness or purposelessness of suffering is false, an illusion.

Viktor Frankl, writing before the development of cognitive sciences, insisted meaning is inherent in life, but as I read cognitive science and from my own philosophical explorations it is more accurate to say that what gives life meaning is a meaning making consciousness, like our human consciousness.

Life is not inherently meaningful; life, in and of itself, is meaningless until there is a consciousness that assigns meaning to it.

Life is not in and of itself fulfilling until there is a consciousness that makes it fulfilling.

Life is not literally a container and can only metaphorically be a container if a consciousness conceives of it that way.

What fills life with anything at all is a consciousness that conceives of life as a container that can be filled with something, which is exactly what we humans do.

We conceive of life as a container and then fill it with meaning and purpose, unless there is a different story or metaphor that we choose instead.

The question this raises is how to understand the differentiation between those who behaved with dignity under the circumstances of the concentration camps from those who behaved with depravity.

If meaning is what we give to life, then how do we understand the concentration camps?

I believe that what distinguishes those who behaved cruelly or without dignity and those who expressed compassion or retained their dignity is in their understanding of the situations in which they found themselves.

The majority of people accepted the socially reinforced view of the plight of prisoners as devoid of meaning and value whereas the rare few asserted their inherent meaning making powers and chose an attitude that defied the socially reinforced view of the situation.

In either case the meaning of the situation was imposed by those who were taking action, either taking the “easy” route of accepting what others have told them about the situation or the “hard” route of asserting a different meaning.

I put the quotes around the words “easy” and “hard” because I also suspect that what distinguishes one person’s ability to assert meaning in the face of other incompatible meanings is mostly practice, not disposition or conscious deliberation.

Thus, if a person has grown up in situations that have repeatedly encouraged them to assert meaning then they will have developed a habit that can serve them under more trying circumstances.

If my suspicion is correct then everyone takes the “easy” route, from the perspective of their own personal experience.

What makes the “hard” route “hard” is the fact that someone who has not developed the habits of mind for creating meaning will not have access to that option and it seems extremely difficult, if not impossible.

School taught me to accept the meanings I was given.

I did a pretty good job of that until I could not make sense of my life given the meanings I had accepted.

I have been doing my best to get into the habits of meaning making ever since.

And I fully encourage my clients to engage in that practice, as well.

What schools taught me was a story about reality (as opposed to helping me develop a practice for discerning reality.)

That story did not match up with reality very well, in my case at least.

The reality of who I am did not fit with the stories I was taught to believe about me.

I spent a long time struggling to change the reality of who I am to fit the stories, and I eventually found that it is really much more interesting and fun to discern reality as best I can and search for communities that already tell stories that seem to match the reality I am finding.

Sometimes I find that the stories I learned in school are guiding my life despite my best efforts to live in the stories that I have found are better suited to reality.

But this is a tricky business because I don’t have any choice about living within a story, so the question is what kind of story is guiding my life from moment-to-moment.

Am I living a story that I accepted or one that I have chosen?

Is the story guiding my actions consistent with my purposes in life or am I living out a story deeply embedded within me that contradicts my chosen intentions for living?

The power of choosing your attitude is the ultimate in self-generation of your own story, but you still have to operate within the narrative conventions of your culture and society.

We are not radically free to do absolutely anything (despite what some pop philosophers claim.)

The surest route to insanity is to make a complete break with the conventions of your culture and society; because insanity really is just an individual living within a story no one else can understand.

There are two logical perspectives on the concentration camps that Viktor Frankl presents and I believe a third is more accurate given my understanding.

The first is what Fankl posits as the common view that meaning and purpose are found in creative work and passive enjoyment but not in suffering thus the camps are simply areas of the world that are devoid of meaning and purpose.

Viktor Frankl disputes this perspective by observing that rare individuals in the camps must have connected with meaning and purpose to behave with dignity and compassion.

He asserts that meaning and purpose are pervasive in the world therefore since suffering is in the world it has meaning and purpose.

Viktor Frankl believes that psychological health and the ability to determine your own attitude are determined by individual ability to perceive the meaning and purpose that are in the world.

Thus he explains the dignity and compassion of those few in the camps as caused by their particular ability to perceive meaning and purpose.

Viktor Frankl developed his professional practice as a psychologist based on assisting people to perceive meaning in the world.

He saw that everyone can make a conscious deliberate choice to perceive the meaning and purpose that pervades life if given the right opportunity.

Viktor Frankl's work came before the cognitive sciences, therefore his explanation is generally acceptable given his time.

However, since cognitive science has challenged certain fundamental notions that Frankl took for granted it is useful to examine how to reframe his explanation from the new perspective.

The basic problem is the assumption that meaning and purpose are in the world.

This is not true.

To take the paradigmatic example of color, what we know as red is a by-product of our particular cognitive structure, not some objective quality in the world.

While under some conditions there is a correlation between certain wavelengths of light and the concept of red, under other conditions that correlation fails.

The same is true of everything we can talk about, while there are some conditions in which we all agree on what is real, true, good and meaningful, there are other circumstances when we will not agree, even though the objective conditions might be the same.

If purpose and meaning are in us and not the world, then how do we explain the behavior of those who acted with dignity and compassion in the concentration camps?

I believe that what made the difference are habits of mind.

Thus, the converse question is important to consider, given that meaning and purpose are in us then how do we explain the pervasive sense of meaninglessness and purposelessness that Frankl is arguing against?

I believe that while we each have the power to assign meaning and purpose, we also have the option of accepting the opposite.

We can assign meaninglessness and purposelessness to life as easily as meaningfulness and purposefulness.

The pervasive view of the camps derives from a broadly accepted social attitude; a set of aggregated ideas about the camps that influenced how most individuals understood the situation.

We are embedded in the world.

We are influenced by levels both above and below us.

Under the circumstances of the camps there are a number of factors that create a kind of momentum towards meaninglessness and purposelessness.

Given the deprivations and the pervasive attitudes of those wielding authority then it is easy to see that at both levels above and below there are influences that are thwarting any effort to think independently about the situation.

But, no matter what the objective circumstances, we are still wired for the ability to create meaning, therefore the question is what range of options are available.

Most people are in the habit of flowing with the momentum of their circumstances and accept a situation according to how it’s understanding is prompted from outside themselves (from both lower and higher levels.)

Some people, however, have developed the habit of deciding for themselves.

These people are still aware of the influences from outside, but they have somehow reinforced the necessary brain circuitry for making independent decisions about the meaning and purpose of their situation.

These people, therefore have a greater capacity to navigate their circumstances with more freedom, they have the ability to discern more behavioral options in any given situation.

I now pursue writing in spite of everything that I learned in school.

I also know that I frequently apply myself with extraordinary intensity to activities that matter to me.

I have always succeeded at everything that I really set my mind on succeeding at and I have rarely set my mind on succeeding in terms that impress the rest of the world.

Therefore, I am not rich, I am not famous, but I am living a life that is fulfilling and worthwhile.

I may not be up to the level of withstanding the deprivations of a concentration camp, but I am certainly doing my best to develop independent habits of mind, so that the inevitable hardships of life are less likely to overwhelm me.

Link to Viktor Frankl on Wikipedia