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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Meaning In Life: Deeds, Human Encounters, Love

"Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible."

-Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

The originality and deep humanism of Viktor Frankl's thinking enabled him to develop his own approach to the human soul: he became founder of the so-called Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy. Thrown into a Nazi death camp in 1942, he, by his spiritual strength and his will to life, had managed to survive and thus became a living proof of the main thesis of his philosophy:

"One can live only for so long as one's life has a meaning."

Frankl (1905-1997) believed a societal sickness had been haunting the world for over 50 years and has now become pandemic. This sickness is the loss of meaning in people's lives. More and more people today have the means to live but no meaning for which to live. Boredom is the main symptom of the sickness. When boredom becomes unbearable, then addiction and aggression threaten the individual and society.

Unlike an animal, man is no longer told by drives and instincts what he must do. And in contrast to man in former times, he is no longer told by traditions and values what he should do. Now, knowing neither what he must do nor what he should do, he sometimes does not even know what he basically wishes to do. Instead, he wishes to do what other people do... or he does what other people wish him to do...”

(Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning, 2006)

Robert Kaplan, noted American journalist, calls this illness that has engulfed America an “existential vacuum,” the meaninglessness of life. He actually believes democracy may be slipping away because of a passive voyeurism. An important symptom of the vacuum is the willingness to give up self and responsibility, which Kaplan sees as a form of tyranny. He gives the following image to illustrate his understandings:


When voter turnout decreases to around 50 percent at the same time the middle class is spending astounding sums in gambling casinos and state lotteries, joining private health clubs and using large amounts of stimulants and anti-depressants, one can legitimately be concerned about the state of American society. We have become voyeurs and escapists. Many of us don't play sports but love watching great athletes with great physical attributes. It is because people find so little in themselves that they fill their world with celebrities. The masses avoid important national and international news because much of it is tragic, even as they show an unlimited appetite for the details of Princess Diana's death.”

(Robert D. Kaplan, “The Coming Anarchy,”
The Atlantic Monthly, February 1994)


Are the most serious problems in America direct consequences of boredom, loss of self, and loss of responsibility?

Addiction to illicit drugs is one of the most pressing problems in the United States today. Drug-related crime is also a huge threat. Of course, the demand for drugs is at the heart of the problems.

Although, in percentages, the numbers of ethnic minority drug users are higher, the market itself — and that is what is important even if one only wants to stop the spread of drugs — is sustained mainly by whites, middle and upper-middle class whites. Why are these people involved in drug activities? The cause is almost without exception linked to the meaninglessness in the lives of American adults and children

How about other forms of addiction? Gambling – through numerous state-supported lotteries, and legal and semi-legal casinos spreading in America – is rapidly increasing. More numbers of children are becoming addicted to video and computer games. And, of course, enslavement to the Internet is on the rise. Are these problems signs of boredom?

People now often claim their lives have no meaning, and they become depressed. Depression has reached epidemic proportions in America. According to Mental Health America, it affects more than 21 million American children and adults annually and is the leading cause of disability in the United States for individuals ages 15 to 44.

The rate of increase of depression among children is an astounding 23%. And, unbelievably, pre-schoolers are the fastest-growing market for antidepressants. At least four percent of preschoolers – over a million – are clinically depressed.

Depression is also the principal cause of the 30,000 suicides in the U.S. each year. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens. It is the second leading cause of death in colleges. Every year there are approximately 10 youth suicides for every 100,000 youth. Certainly, many of these people found no meaning or no reason to continue living and facing life's many struggles.

The CDC Youth Risk Survey found that for every suicide completion, there are between 50 and 200 attempts. 8.5% of students in grades 9-12 reported a suicide attempt in the past year, and 25% of high-school students report suicide ideation. (

How do many of the living cope? Many medicate. Psychotropic drug prescriptions for teenagers skyrocketed 250 percent between 1994 and 2001, rising particularly sharply after 1999, when the federal government allowed direct-to-consumer advertising and looser promotion of off-label use of prescription drugs, according to a new Brandeis University study in the journal Psychiatric Services. (“Psychotropic Drug Prescriptions For Teens Surge 250% Over 7 Year Period,” ScienceDaily, January 4 2006)

How about aggression? Doesn't Hollywood and television deliberately engulf America with violent content? A.C. Huston and colleagues have estimated that the average 18-year-old will have viewed 200,000 acts of violence on television (A.C. Huston, E. Donnerstein, H. Fairchild et al. Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society. 1992)

It is the problem of supply vs. demand. But why do people like and want to watch these kinds of movies and TV programs? The reason is exactly the same as that, which, two millennia ago made the Roman mobs pack the Coliseums where gladiator slaves killed each other, or were thrown to wild animals. Could the reason be boredom?

In a recent (March 20, 2005) Time Magazine Poll 53 percent of respondents said that they think the FCC should place stricter controls on broadcast-channel shows depicting sex and violence. 68 percent believe the entertainment industry has lost touch with viewers' moral standards. 66 percent said there is too much violence on open-air TV, 58 percent said too much cursing and 50 percent said there is too much sexual content on TV. 49 percent say FCC regulation should be extended to cover basic cable.

A powerful factor that also feeds aggression in America is the proliferation of firearms. It is now threatening normal life in our cities and towns. Is the desire to "bear arms" a result of Americans' deep-laying mistrust of government as a potentially oppressive institution? Could it really be a response to the high level of the boredom-born aggression in American people?

It seems all segments of society have been penetrated by the existential vacuum, or as Frankl also calls it, the "frustration of meaning." The American Dream - the dream of affluence and success - does not even seem to promise happiness anymore. And evidently acquiring wealth and success does not add meaning to life anyway: among the drug users there are more affluent than poor.

So, what is meaning? In his Autobiography Frankl writes:

"As early as 1929 I developed the concept of three groups of values, three possibilities to find meaning in life - up to the last moment, the last breath. These three possibilities are:

1) a deed we do, a work we create,
2) an experience, a human encounter and love, and
3) when confronted with an unchangeable fate (such as an incurable disease, an inoperable cancer) a change of attitudes. In such cases we still can wrest meaning from life by becoming witness of the most human of all human capacities: the ability to turn suffering into human triumph."

(Viktor E. Frankl, Recollections: An Autobiography, 1997)

Simple? Yet, meaning cannot be learned or taught, or shared."Meaning" is always personal, the meaning. In other words, life gives the individual an assignment, and a person has to learn what that assignment is. But what is important," the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as if it were a closed system." (Viktor E. Frankl Man's Search for Meaning, 1985.)

Frankl stresses that finding a meaning in life inevitably requires what he calls "self transcendence" - rising above one's own self: "being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself - be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter.... The more one forgets himself - by giving himself to a cause to serve, or another person to love - the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself."

Many thanks to Genrich L. Krasko, VIKTOR FRANKL: THE PROPHET OF MEANING.
Genrich L. Krasko is a retired physicist still affiliated with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. He lives in Peabody, MA with his wife Zeya. Full article:
Video Viktor E. Frankl:

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