June 29, 2018 - Monocle Research Department
Viktor Emil Frankl was a renowned psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and a keen amateur mountaineer. In perhaps his most famous piece of work, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), the Austrian doctor recounts his experience of being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War and his mental battle to find meaning in atrocious circumstances. Inserted alongside descriptions of unimaginable brutality, Frankl uses the analogy of a weary mountaineer who finds renewed strength upon seeing the peak of the mountain between the clouds, to present an extraordinary new perspective that ignites a will to live beyond the abject present.
Subjected to the cruellest and most inhumane conditions, with many dying alongside him every day, including his own mother and brother, Frankl still managed to emerge from this experience believing that one can find meaning worth living for in any circumstance. This would become the central premise to his theory of logotherapy, which hypothesises that it is the pursuit of meaning, or the will to meaning as Frankl often described it, that is the key motivating factor for human behaviour, in contrast with the popular musings of Freud and Adler, who respectively believed that humans were driven by pleasure and power. Once the war was over, this theory was reinforced in Frankl’s mind. He wrote in The Unheard Cry for Meaning (1978): “As the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” Logotherapy, he believed, was the answer to this question of meaninglessness that plagued post-war Western society. A society he described as living in an existential vacuum, characterised by a “tragic triad” of depression, aggression and addiction.
It is then up to the individual, as Frankl described it, to discover meaning in their everyday lives. This, he made clear, is not an exercise in finding the ultimate “meaning of life”, but rather to find meaning in each moment. To make it your life’s goal to seek out what is essentially the unknowable meaning of existence, Frankl believed, is the equivalent of asking a chess grand master, “What is the best move in the world?” There is no such thing as the best move in the world in an abstract sense. A move is only good in relation to the situation and the player’s opponent. The same, Frankl believed, is true for finding meaning.
To illustrate this idea, imagine talking to three nurses in a government hospital. You ask each the same question: “What do you do as a nurse?” The first nurse says that it is her job to clean up after patients, mostly emptying bedpans and changing bloody dressings. The second says that she tries to make patients comfortable by taking care of their basic needs. And the third says that she strives to make people’s lives better by providing support and love when they need it most.
One may argue that each nurse performs the same duty and the difference in their activities lies only in semantics. Yet, Frankl would argue there is a difference, especially regarding a distinction in psychological perspective. Although performing the same tasks, one finds that the third nurse takes far more pride in her work than the first, who goes about her tasks in an emotionally disconnected manner. The third nurse has made the choice to be engaged and emotionally present – and this will benefit both her and her patients, while the first has lost this opportunity. But who can blame her? She cannot see the top of the mountain through the clouds, having changed bloody bandages and scrubbed dirty bedpans for many hours, many days, many years, and perhaps, even many decades. She has become desensitised by a life lived in an existential vacuum.
This condition of meaningless work can be seen all around us. In every industry, at every level, people lose sight of what Nietzsche calls the “why”. The reason we do anything. Be it creating expense reports, putting together a PowerPoint presentation, scrubbing a bedpan, sweeping the street or climbing a mountain, one must find meaning in every action along the way. Without meaning, actions become meaningless and their purpose, nullified.
The truth is, work is hard. Tasks can be mundane, they can cause anxiety, and they can feel purposeless. But as Frankl said, “The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.” It is up to us to find meaning in everything we do. If something is worth doing, it will require hard work. Any accomplishment that has the potential to fill an individual with pride and gratification will take hours, days, years, or even decades of suffering and sacrifice to achieve. Then, when faced with a metaphorical mountain of work, it is important to remember that the pain is worth the price, for as Frankl quotes Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”