Before we begin, I propose a drinking game. Let’s drink everytime we see the word death (this goes for all your papers). This pandemic has the world flipped on its head, so it’s only right we respond with optimism. Frankl would want nothing less. Anyways….
The meaning of life and the meaning of my life are two vastly different things. I find meaning in making music, spending time with my family, and eating. While it might sound like I’m joking when I say eating (don’t worry, I don’t have an unhealthy infatuation with food), I’m dead (this counts) serious. I just know that what’s important to me is less about what it is I’m doing, and more about the fact I’m doing it. As Epictetus would say, I’m not fond of a specific ceramic cup, I’m just fond of cups in general. Still, we do have our own inclinations and habits that define us. My list doesn’t necessarily have to be the same as yours, but we both do have one. While our drives may differ, the fact that we attempt and try to find meaning in things does not. It is in doing where meaning is awakened.
Acclaimed writer, holocaust survivor, and philosopher Viktor Frankl says “through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a situation” we find a reason to be happy. The key word is actualizing. We are not actualizing anything if we are not doing something. This leads me to believe that thinking (although it is an act), is nothing without doing. We are alone in our thoughts. When we are thinking we are only having a conversation with ourselves. Even in conversations with other people, we only think about our interpretation to those people’s words. So, while we are thinking all the time, it is what we do with these thoughts that matters. As counterintuitive as it seems to be studying philosophy and not wanting to think, it is the action of and after thinking of which we derive meaning.
Frankl implores tragic optimism to do three things. All three are responses to suffering, guilt, and death. While he separates them into distinct categories, they respond to these different events in fundamentally similar arguments. He universally advocates for a call to action. To face despair with courage, not reasoning. He emphasizes change, evolution, and accomplishment. He says, “yet is not this transitoriness a reminder that challenges us to make the best possible use of each moment of our lives” (Frankl 7). Tragic optimism is a response to hardship, whatever kind it may be. “It must be kept in mind, however, that optimism is not anything to be commanded or ordered” (Frankl 1). If we stop to ask ourselves “are we happy?”, we most likely are not. Frankl says, “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue” (Frankl 1). So, we need to find a reason, and we find that reason through optimism.
To say that death negates the meaning of life would be in direct contradiction of Frankl’s philosophy. “Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself” (Frankl 5). He advocates for turning tragedy into triumph. There simply can’t be tragic optimism without hardship. Without death there is no life. Death is a necessary time constraint that allows us to cherish the moment. Furthermore, life as a concept is a reflection of ourselves. It is a cycle, an evolution. Just as we are expected to evolve and overcome, so is the circle of life. We are in a race, not against each other or time, but against ourselves. Death acts as the finish line. As important as the journey is, without a destination there is no meaning.
Frankl says that life is like a movie. We will never know what the meaning of the entire film is until the very end. Along the way we try to piece together what it could possibly mean, but until it’s over we simply won’t know. He suggests, “doesn’t this final meaning, too, depend on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been actualized to the best of the respective individual’s knowledge?” (Frankl 4). Only on the verge of death will the final meaning of life reveal itself. It is a necessary culmination of our goals and ambitions. You cannot have a start without an end. Our life evolves from the possibilities of the future into the realities of the past. Death is a looming, constant reminder of the irreversibility of our lives. “For as soon as we have used an opportunity and have actualized a potential meaning, we have done so once and for all” (Frankl 7). Every decision amplifies what story we tell.
Psychologist Rollo May criticizes Frankl by saying “there seem to be clear solutions to all problems, which belies the complexity of actual life. It seems that if the patient cannot find his goal, Frankl supplies him with one. This would seem to take over the patients’ responsibility and … diminish the patient as a person” (Pytell 1). While I did group Frankl’s responses into one general concept of how to overcome the feeling of meaninglessness, it doesn’t lessen his understanding of the complexity of life. There will always be variables that influence our understanding of things. He is not trying to provide a goal for everyone, but a way to reach everyone’s goal.
Not everyone’s circumstance is going to be the same, but our responses can come from the same idea. He’s advocating for a change in mindset that can be universal. It is not a goal but the way to actualize a goal. I am not a military veteran struggling to cope with reality again, but I am a young man trying to pave my own path. I’m not a girl overcoming “that time of the month”, but I am a student trying to pass a philosophy class during a pandemic. I am not a manatee, but I am a swimmer. I am not many things, but that is not what matters. Frankl realizes that it is not about the patient being a person that matters, it is about what they do with their humanity. It is not about what I am, but what I do, for what I do, makes who I become.
If death negates life’s meaning, sadness negates what it means to be happy. The same way you won’t know what it means to be happy if you never face sadness, you won’t know what it is to live unless you can die. Life cannot exist without death, happiness cannot exist without sadness, joy cannot exist without pain. There is no opportunity for growth without suffering. We are not responsible for what nature brings to our life, only our reactions to it. Where there is a problem, there is a solution, it is just up to us to find it.
Pytell, Timothy. “The Case Against Viktor Frankl.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 14 Apr. 2016, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/authoritarian-therapy/201604/the-case-against-viktor-frankl.
Frankl, Viktor E. “The Case for a Tragic Optimism” (postscript to Man’s Search for Meaning).
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.