Rembrandt's Philosopher in Meditation (detail).

Rembrandt's Philosopher in Meditation

Annette Mattern, Author of Outside the Lines… Of Love, Life and Cancer, and ovarian cancer survivor, told her readers that her hypnotherapist had recommended a book to help her deal with and get rid of feelings of resentment at her fate.

That book was Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl. In it, Frankl attempts to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life?”

Frankl was a psychiatrist and survivor of four concentration camps during World War II.

Though he was invited to emigrate to the United States before the war, he declined so he could stay and take care of his elderly parents. At the end of the war he found he had lost his parents, his wife and his entire family.

On first being taken to a camp, he was required to give up a manuscript just waiting for publication. What he discovered over the course of his internment was that having a goal in the future was one of the sustaining elements of his survival. His goals:

  • To be reunited with his wife and family
  • To rewrite the confiscated manuscript
  • To lecture on the psychological effects on inmates of brutal, hopeless circumstances.

And, this is what he discovered – having a goal was psychologically and spiritually sustaining not just for himself, but for many others. He joked with another camp doctor who was slipping into a state of futility about how surreal it would seem once the surgeon resumed his practice after the war to have a sterile operating room, well-fed nurses and attendants, with quiet music in the background during surgery. They began to try to make up jokes for each other daily.

To be sure, Frankl does not argue that setting goals is sufficient to safeguard anyone under life-threatening conditions. What he does argue is that the one freedom that cannot be taken away is the freedom to make choices. One of those choices can be dignity in the face of suffering. And, this dignity and the choice to exercise it, gives life meaning.

Frankl argues further that while achievement is traditionally thought of as the sole way to give meaning to a life, love and the capacity to grow and change oneself under difficult circumstances also gives life meaning.

He found, for instance, that even in his extreme circumstances, he could still enjoy the beauty of a tree, the memory of music and art, the love he and his wife had for each other.

His accomplishments, circle of friends and family, appreciation and love for the arts, and humor could not be erased. They were assets in a past that could not be taken from him.

And, he had the freedom to imagine a future.

As it happened, he had a rich career in developing a new school of psychotherapy ahead of him, based on the meaning of life. Different from the past-focused Freudian school, or the power-focused Adlerian school, he was credited with developing the third Viennese school of psychotherapy, called logotherapy, logo for meaning.

After the war, he learned still more about the psychological effects of extreme circumstances as former camp inmates returned to life and discovered that:

  • Their former neighbors and friends often dismissed the extremity of their circumstances with replies like, “We did not know,” and “We suffered too.”
  • Some former camp inmates thought nothing could hurt them anymore after coming through such circumstances, only to discover family they had looked forward to seeing again gone
  • Some former camp inmates thought they deserved to be reckless or brutal after what they had endured and had to be guided back to a decent path.

Frankl mentions the similarity between the extreme circumstances of the camps, with no guarantee of an end, with that of someone with inoperable cancer. The parallels in taking hope and finding meaning cannot be missed.

If you would like to read Frankl’s uplifting book, please click here to get it from

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To love and laughter with your grandchildren, symbols of your future.

Carol Covin, “Granny-Guru”

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers”

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