The Meaning of Life: Lessons from Logotherapy
There is no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bear witness that we have the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.
In 1944, the Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl was languishing in the Auschwitz concentration camp, bereft of his entire family — wife, brother, mum, dad — everyone save his sister, he had in the words of fellow survivor Primo Levi ‘ reached the bottom.’ Nevertheless amidst the crematorium smoke, he also discovered the meaning of life. It was while on one of his daily marches talking with a fellow prisoner about their wives he had an epiphany:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire – The salvation of Man is through love and in love. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way. In such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.
In 1945, the camp was liberated and Frankl regained his freedom. A year later in 1946 he published “Man’s Search for Meaning” the foundational text for Logotherapy an existential psychology designed to assist individuals in finding the meaning of their life even in suffering.
‘Those who have a why to live, can bear with almost any how’ Friedrich Nietzsche
The sense that life is meaningless is prevelent amongst trauma-survivors. Nevertheless Frankl argued ‘a man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of his life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.’ Logotherapy argues some of the symptoms of mental illness, especially ones seen in Borderline Personality Disorder, aren’t symptoms at all. Rather they point to an existential crisis arising from excess pain and suffering. Therefore, people often have therapy not to acquire new skills, or talk about the past, they come to ask important questions like what’s the point of living at all.
For Frankl contemplation of the image of a ‘beloved’ meant he could survive a Nazi death camp – some of us aren’t so lucky, because perhaps we feel nobody loves us. However Frankl believed the beloved doesn’t have to be a spouse or family member, it could be anything meaningful to us. In Auschwitz he was moved to see prisoners who were able to endure hunger, pain and humiliation each day, if they could only catch a glimpse of a sunrise or observe the blossom unfurling on a tree. If they could speak about their goal or life’s work; a musical composition, a line of poetry, a scientific paper, that was their beloved. It meant it was possible to survive suffering and find meaning in it. A person can live anywhere provided he has something to hold onto. The holding-on part is what Frankl calls the ‘will to meaning:’ That through the memory of love, we find the meaning in order to live.
“There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” Fyodor Dostoevsky
Logotherapy lends itself very well to Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s a condition which Frankl might call a noogenic neurosis, or in layman’s terms an illness based on an existential frustration with reality. Individuals with BPD myself included inevitably find life difficult. Chronic trauma, naturally inspires doubt, despair, and distrust of the world around us.
Because individuals with BPD are also unable to conjure a Soothing Introject when distressed — That is to say, when sad we cannot invoke the image of someone who loves us — we resort to maladaptive behaviours in order to cope. Such behaviours include self-harm, substance abuse, binge-eating, risky sex. These are in effect self-soothing mechanisms we use in the absence of beloved images. The lack of a soothing introject, may in fact mirror a real life lack of love. All of this compounds the sense that life is meaningless.
‘What must give light must endure burning’ Victor Frankl
According to Logotherapy ‘man is responsible and must actualise the meaning of his life.’ In other words, he must recognise, that irrespective of circumstances, he always has the freedom to choose his attitude. Our stance towards life, inevitably shapes who we are, and what we become. Frankl believed we discover the meaning of life by:
1) By creating a work or doing a deed.
2) By experiencing something or encountering someone.
3) By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
The first is an active way to acquire meaning, the second is passive, the third is alludes to an individual’s freedom of will. According to Frankl in many ways ‘suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.’ It is through a person’s willingness to surrender to their destiny if only to bear witness to their pain as an example of the human condition, which affirms universal dignity.
When I think about the corrosive effects of Borderline Personality Disorder, how it’s destroyed such a great part of life, I remind myself not how much I suffered — but that I suffered for so long, because I was unwilling to accept it. This non-acceptance of life was based not only on the fact it was too painful, but because it also seemed pointless. Now I see things differently.
‘when a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task: His single, and unique task. He will have to aknowledgge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. Nevertheless his unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden’
Logotherapy assigns us a singular task: To find the meaning in our experience. For those of us trapped in the unrelenting crisis of BPD, we have no great deeds nor good works, we don’t anticipate experiencing anything new or meeting anyone different. This may change in the future, but right now it seems our destiny is to suffer: Lets do so with honour and dignity. This is meaning in itself; it is a living testament of our life. It shows even as prisoners of our own emotions, we still have to be set free.
**to find your own meaning visit www.rightresilience.com