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Dresden in Germany

How Viktor Frankl’s Question Can Help You to Health

The only thing that Viktor Frankl took with him when he slowly walked out the gates from Auschwitz on April 27, 1945 was the question he asked himself every day in the concentration camp:

“Is this the first day of the rest of your life or the last day of your life so far?”

Even before Frankl, his young wife and his parents were arrested by the SS in Austria, he had started developing ideas that people have a fundamental striving to find meaning in existence. That meaninglessness is one of the biggest scourges of modern life and a contributing cause to ill health.

Frankl maintained that we try to flee from this – put the lid on our deep longing for meaning and context – through transitory pleasures. Pleasures that only awaken even more emptiness as soon as they go away.

After his arrest Frankl was taken to several camps, including Auschwitz. As he stood in the line of prisoners by the entrance to the concentration camp, he had a scroll in the inside pocket of his coat. It contained a manuscript, which he had worked on for several years and which gathered his thoughts about meaning in life as a basis for health.

man på ett tåg som läser bok för att finna mening

Frankl knew that all the prisoners’ belongings were normally confiscated. But he confided in an SS-soldier, asking if he understood how important the manuscript was to him. At first the SS-soldier smiled scornfully. Then he started laughing, increasingly amused. Finally the man responded to Frankl with a single word: “Shit!” Frankl has described how his entire previous life was extinguished in that moment. He fell down into a hole of deep hopelessness.

“First of all, there was his boundless longing for his home and his family,” Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning.1“This often could become so acute that he felt himself consumed by longing.… Apathy, the main symptom of the second phase, was a necessary mechanism of self-defense. Reality dimmed, and all efforts and all emotions were centered on one task: preserving one’s own life and that of the other fellow. It was typical to hear the prisoners, while they were being herded back to camp from their work sites in the evening, sigh with relief and say, ‘Well, another day is over.’”

After several months in Auschwitz, Frankl made a number of observations, however, that brought his thoughts back to life again. He noted that his fellow prisoners who found a kind of meaning in existence, despite the inhumane conditions, had greater chances to survive.1

Naturally it was hard to see any outer meaning in their situation, just as it is difficult to see any outer meaning in illness, sorrow or misfortune. But people seem to have a capacity to find new paths even under the most difficult circumstances, paths that can give a form of inner meaning and be the difference between surviving or going under.2

fält som ger hopp

Frankl realized that we can find meaning in three ways.3

Through actions toward other people.

Through the experience of being part of a greater context. In community with others. In our personal faith or life philosophy. In nature.

Through our personal attitude to existence.

The last was the most radical of Frankl’s thoughts. Room for action was highly limited in Auschwitz, the experiences loathsome. But Frankl’s attitude gave him new meaning. Through his attitude he tried to inspire his fellow prisoners to endure, and get them in turn to inspire others. To maintain their dignity. Not to give in.

Many of our life questions about sickness and health, limitations and possibilities, the mercilessness of aging and the capriciousness of chance are about trying to find meaning. There is much that we don’t understand and many things that we cannot influence. But sometimes it is possible to find an inner meaning in our own attitude to life. At other times this is difficult.

gamla foton som väcker minnen från tiden för världskriget

When Frankl finally walked out of Auschwitz as a free man he feverishly searched for his family. He soon found out that his wife, his mother and his brother had been executed – only 100 meters from his own cell in Auschwitz.

Despite this, he tirelessly continued to develop his ideas about meaning as a basis for health, and also applied them practically in his work as a doctor.

His principles are still applied all over the world to help people find meaning in illness, in unemployment, in grief – but also in the everyday routine.4

löv i solen som precis som väcker hopp

Perhaps you recognize something from your own life in this oscillation between hopelessness and meaning, even if the circumstances are of course quite different for you. Perhaps you can turn what is apparently hopeless into something meaningful. And perhaps you can carry Frankl’s question further – in your personal form – as an inspiration for your own wrestling with the questions of life and health:

Is this the first day of the rest of your life or the last day of your life so far?

References

1. Frankl V. Man's search for meaning.

2. Frankl V. The will to meaning.

3. Batthyany A. et al., Empirical research in logotherapy – an annotated bibliography

4. Fabry J. Logotherapy in action

More to come

We are about to launch the full English version of the Swedish medical university initiative, PriusHealth, providing daily thought-provoking questions to unlock how you relate to yourself, to others, the larger us, as the way to improve your health.

Available both as an open website and a full guided program, it will be launched summer 2017. If you would like us to keep you informed of its launch and thereby get free access to more content, then click here.

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