Of the thinkers and artists that have influenced my approach, Viktor Frankl is one of the most instrumental in how I envision healing for my clients. There is a reason Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning can declare on its cover, “over 12 million copies in print”. Within the slim volume contains some of the most profound ideas for transcendence of suffering that has graced modern thought.
Frankl, in his 4 years in various concentration camps, including Auschwitz, made the profound observation that prisoners who had something to live for upon release, even if the chances of that something actually manifesting were miniscule, had a chance of survival – and in rare cases, could even thrive. Those who did not were doomed. The latter often gave up, lay down and died. Frankl observed that those who had meaning in their lives were much better able to endure suffering, and even transcend it, often through sharing the light of their transcendence into the dark hell pit of the camp and demonstrating that there was a way in which the suffering could borne.
In terms of application of these revelations, Frankl formulated “Logotherapy” based on the principle (which undergirds all of existential therapy) that suffering is an inescapable, but can be transcended. What can transcend suffering? The answer is meaning. It is up to individuals to make a conscious choice to determine that meaning and to pursue it. To determine that meaning, one must make a choice to change their attitude toward their suffering and resolve to live through that meaning and with is as their moment-to-moment guide.
A depressed person may look at that last paragraph and say to me, “Yea right. Meaning. Nothing has meaning”. To suggest an attitude change sounds like a pale self-help directive, or worse, a judgment that “my suffering is my fault”. Looking at the world through the lens of gray materialism and logic, it is easy for even a person without depression to come to that conclusion. Einstein said, a problem cannot be solved at the level at which it was created. The same is true for overcoming the circumstances that perpetuate and often cause depression.
Within the frame of Logotherapy is the concept of the “noetic” dimension. Roughly characterized as the “spiritual” part of man, it is a place of psychic transcendence from the bare facts of the material, transactional world. From the noetic dimension is seen as the “untarnished core” that, de-vested of defense and damage, gives us the freedom to see that there is a choice for something higher. If we make that choice, if we “change our attitude” towards our circumstances – no matter how awful – we allow for something of profundity and value to guide us through and potentially beyond our suffering.
In therapy, I like to ask, “What gives your life meaning?” but often I must ask, “What once gave your life meaning”? The chasm between meaning and despair seems absolutely insurmountable sometimes. Either way, we investigate the dynamics of our engagement or former engagement in the world, painful as it can be – especially if the enthusiasm for this meaning is lost – and begin the slow process to embody those feelings again. This is done in conjunction with work in which we enter the untouched place within us that even the most depressed person possesses. It is the core of our being and of pure potential before the damage, and it is from this place where we have the freedom from this damage to make a choice of attitude. It is from “another level”, the noetic.
Frankl lost his young wife and witnessed the depths of “man’s inhumanity to man”. Yet somehow, with hope for the future and resolve to stave off hopelessness around him in whatever way he could, he was able to transcend these horrors and help others do the same. One man’s search for meaning in the abyss yielded a knowledge of a way of being that has given hope to millions suffering with existential greyness and despair. This work requires dedication, and just as importantly, faith. Faith that there is a choice to say “Yes” to life; that Meaning will eventually infuse grey existence with transcendent, dynamic color. Our work is to step outside of lackluster and into the noetic realm of possibility, choose our way, and find it.