Notes from an Interview with Alexander Batthyany and Elisabeth Lukas.
On January 15, 2021, Professor Dr. Alexander Batthyany, Philosopher and University Professor at the Universities of Vienna and Budapest, Director of the Viktor Frankl Institute in Vienna, and Viktor Frankl Chair for Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Lichtenstein, and Professor Dr. Elisabeth Lukas, Clinical Psychologist, and former student of Dr. Viktor Frankl, were interviewed by Andreas Obrecht at the Austrian Radio [ORF] with the program title “Saying Yes to Life.” It aimed to provide an opportunity for Dr. Batthyany and Dr. Lukas to present their latest book with the title “Logotherapy and Existential Analysis Today: A Current Standpoint.” [Logotherapie und Exystenzanalyse Heute: Eine Standortbestimmung, 2020].
Dr. Batthyany studied logotherapy with Dr. Lukas over twenty years ago. These two prominent advocates of Viktor E. Frankl’s work collaborated in writing the book that explores the position of Viktor E. Frankl’s Logotherapy and Existential Analysis with respect to our complex reality today. The program provided an opportunity for listeners to express their views and ask questions.
Referring to the current pandemic, Andreas Obrecht explained that “Difficult questions arise in difficult times.” The interview aimed to explore some of the answers that logotherapy and existential analysis can provide in response to these questions. He prefaced the interview with the remark that “Logotherapy and existential Analysis, also known as the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, was founded by Dr. Viktor Frankl, an exceptional doctor, psychiatrist, neurologist, and philosopher.” He then chose one particular crucial point in Viktor Frankl’s life, 1941, when he held a valid visa in his hands that would have allowed him to immigrate to the United States. Since he was of Jewish origin, the visa was very significant for it would have allowed him to escape the horrors of the concentration camps. However, he decided to let it lapse because he wanted to protect his family. In 1942 his entire family was deported to the concentration camps where his wife, parents and his brother perished. He was liberated in 1945 by American troops.
From this brief window into the life of Dr. Frankl, Mr. Obrecht returns to the book in which Dr. Batthyany and Dr. Lukas state that it is hard to characterise Dr. Frankl since “his life was multi-faceted” and he was an exceptionally talented man. Dr. Lukas explains that “… One of the most remarkable qualities of Dr. Frankl was the coherence between his convictions, his teaching, and his life example which gave him a high level of credibility.” Namely, we can see that soon after the liberation when he found out that his loved ones perished, and he was struggling, he established to himself that there must be a ground and a reason for his suffering why he would be in a unique position to shoulder it and he held firm to the belief that a meaning that he can realise must be waiting for him in the face of it. Dr. Lukas explained, “…He had been granted a second life. This was a present. The first life ended in the camps. The second life was a gift of grace that he said he wanted to show himself worthy of it.” He wanted to use it well and so he lived in a way to help others. Another example of the congruence between his actions and words can be seen in the fact that “…he determined that he wanted to keep his heart free from hate and grudge.” Dr Lukas explained that “…hate and grudge dwell in the soul and weighs it down. The only way one can free oneself from both is by focusing on the present and how one’s life in the here and now can be filled with a meaningful content.”
The interviewer remarks how Frankl had written his book Man’s Search for Meaning very soon after his liberation and it become popular immediately after its publication. It is still a widely read book today, perhaps exactly because it offers an example for people on how to deal with suffering and even very intense suffering, such as Frankl experienced in the concentration camps. Dr. Lukas pointed out that Frankl dedicated himself to helping others as a doctor fully respecting each person. He did not ask his patients what their convictions were. His sole aim was “… to help people live a healthy life and this is what helped him to regain his own stability.”
The title of this new book is “Logotherapy and Existential Analysis Today: A Current Standpoint.” From the perspective of this historical vista, one can reflect on the contributions of this psychotherapeutic orientation today. Although the interview allows for only very brief remarks, Dr. Alexander Batthyany, notes that it is relevant to recall that the foundations of logotherapy have been laid before the second world war because this point is often missed or misunderstood. The roots and basic formulation of logotherapy were already laid by Frankl before the war and to think that he developed his theories in the camps or after his liberation emerged with this theory is of course not correct. What Frankl witnessed in the camps is that “…all the methods and therapeutic formulations that he gathered through his experiences earlier were applicable and held up in the camps and after.” Regarding the contribution of these principles today, Dr. Batthyany notes that he had been fortunate to hold presentations on logotherapy in different parts of the world, for example Japan or Africa, and he was always impressed by the realisation that the basic principles and the corresponding therapeutic methods are so to speak “trans-cultural” and timeless. “The basic factors, the basic principles remain, although the conditions may change with time and from place to place.” We live in some countries and on some continents in wealth but not on others and so the circumstances and the challenges may be different. However, the methods that have been applied across several cultures and have proven to be time-tested and effective. The principle what Frankl asserted is that fulfillment can be found “…not by intending that what feels good but discovering and doing what one is good for.” Thus, “…one can not aim for pleasurable activities to overcome hardships because there will be still hardships left but rather to think: how can I remain a human being in the good times and in the difficulties, through the ups and downs, and become a human being who leaves their own contribution to the world?”
One chapter in this book is entitled:” Happiness is what we are saved from.” This is a thought- provoking title. Dr. Lukas explained that it is easy to forget about life’s blessings: “What one experienced in the past is a wealth that was a gift. Each new day is a gift.” Looking carefully at the current situation, we realise that even what we take for granted, for example, our everyday lives, “…normalcy itself–is a present.” Dr. Lukas then asserted that “…even loss has an element of thankfulness about it that is easy to overlook.” Often it is only when we have lost something that we realise how precious it was. For example, if one loses a loved one. Or if one loses a job and realises how much one enjoyed work. These are values in life that we may temporarily overlook. She noted that it is relevant to become aware of the precious things that surround us. It is good to be mindful of everything that we value so that when we need to let go, we can think back with gratitude that we were blessed, and we were given these values as a present.
The first caller is a lady who has attended Dr. Lukas’ presentations and would like to point out another important contribution of Frankl that he summarized with the quotation “Whoever has a why can bear with nearly any how.” An experienced educator, she wondered how this idea could be presented to young people and if the formulation that if we have a reason, we can learn from our challenges could be explored in today’s classrooms. Dr. Lukas affirms her point by remarking that those who can see a task waiting for them can handle frustrations easier as they are searching for where they can responsibly contribute to making our society better.
Next, the interviewer invited Dr. Batthyany to summarize two main concepts in logotherapy: self-transcendence and self-distancing. Self-transcendence, said Dr. Batthyany, is the dynamics of reaching beyond oneself. “…It is an empirically demonstrated phenomenon. As human beings, we are capable of observing and reflecting on ourselves. Beyond self-awareness, we are able to reach beyond ourselves into the world and an area of possibilities in the world. These possibilities represent the area where our area of freedom lies. Not all of these possibilities are of equal value and this is where the element of responsibility enters. Some could be accomplished, some may be possible, and we need to aim for discerning the one task that is waiting for us to become actualised, that only we can bring into reality. This is our contribution. This is when we look not so much for what is good for me, but for what am I good for, what is meant for me to accomplish?”
Reflecting on Frankl’s remark that “responsibility is at the same time frightening and at the same time wonderful,” Dr. Battyany explained that it is a gift that we are able to act and that there are possibilities to choose from in our area of freedom where our values beckon. The realisation that without us acting none of these values can actualised, can fill us with a frightful sense of responsibility. Thus, “…we are all writers, and we write by the minute, the hour and the day our own stories. We decide what title we give to the chapters in our lives.”
Self-distancing, continued Dr. Batthyany, has to do with freedom. We have a physiological and psychological reality. For example, we have impulses and thoughts that may come and go. The question is if we are fully dependent on these psychological or physiological realities, “…do they have the last word, or can we gain some distance from them?” Here is where an area of freedom opens, at least in our attitudes. Dr. Lukas continues the explanation of this concept by referring to Dr. Frankl’s notion of the tragic triad of human existence: pain, guilt, and death. “No one is spared of pain, no one is free from guilt and we all have to face our finality.” In this relation to fate that which we do not have direct control over, or very little or no control over, we have little or no responsibility. We are not the ones who ask the question of why bad things happen to good people. Life does not answer these why questions. However, we are the ones who are being asked by life, what we are going to do in response to fate. “Until the last breath, we have a choice how we answer to life. We can answer with a yes or a no to life. That is what it means to be responsible.” Dr. Lukas explained that “…we can choose to be constructive, loving, or negative, bitter and cynical.”
The next caller asked why there is a strife between logotherapy and psychoanalysis. Dr. Battthyany explained that the roots of the differences go back to radical positivism. Historically, Frankl elaborated on the foundational principles of psychotherapy and the anthropological view of the human person to include the dimension of the spirit and unconscious spirituality along with the resources and capacities o the spirit which logotherapy mobilises. Thus, “…the are clear differences between psychoanalysis and logotherapy.” He goes on to say that “…If we omitted the changes that happened the evolution of psychoanalysis and we still considered it in its dogmatic origins with these principles at the forefront, then the differences would be very marked, indeed.” The differences would be even contradictions, for in logotherapy the therapist’s main concern is not the uncovering of hidden motives or drives. “Logotherapy rest on the recognition that we live in the world and our intentions are not ends in themselves; we are not primarily aimed at achieving homeostasis but that we are directed toward the world.” At the same time there are differences, there are instances in psychoanalytical thinking where we can see that “…the two orientations coincide”, noted Dr. Batthyany, and this is “…because ultimately, we are both talking about people in the world and the aim is the same: to help people. This is a common denominator. We want to understand people and support them. Thus, while there are some differences, there are some inherent similarities.”
The next caller expressed the view that through Frankl’s talks and presentations, one which he was fortunate to attend, there was always a thread of deep-seated trust and faith. Not necessarily in a religious sense, but the deep-seated trust of a believer, that was absent in Freud’s atheistic bent. He recalled the example mentioned at the start of this interview where Frankl shared that when the Vienna synagogue was destroyed , he found a marble piece with on the Ten Commandments engraved into it and it was the one: “Honor your mother and father so that you may do well in the land” and he acted accordingly. He based his decision on his faith and not on positivistic atheism.
The interviewer asked Dr. Lukas about the scientific basis of logotherapy following the findings of her dissertation . She explained that she measured two parameters. First: “To what extent people see their lives as meaningful?” She developed a test [Logotest] for measuring this first parameter. Second, the mental stability of her subjects. “The interesting finding was that with ninety nine percent certainty one could observe a correlation between mental health and seeing meaning possibilities in life.” Her findings offered one of the first empirical validation of Frankl’s work. This was an early study and since then, evidence for their validity has been mounting, with extensive research on the methods and the applications of logotherapy and existential analysis.
The question arose “What would Frankl say in response to the violence and aggression we see through the media today?” Dr. Lukas replied saying that each time has its negative trends. Frankl said that “…each time has its own illnesses and its own therapies.” Aside from reductionism, he identified fanaticism, fatalism, and collectivism. Nevertheless, there are several positive trends in today’s society as well, examples of kindness and altruism. Thus, we are confronted with the question “…whether to give in to these trends or to join those people who stand for hope and a better future.”
A caller requested to have some more information on the ways in which logotherapy can be applied in the case of treating emotional disorders. Dr. Lukas explained that logotherapy’s principles are applied with the intention to help the person in the present. “…We are not concerned so much with the past, and roots of the disorder but giving first aid in the present and exploring what possibilities the person has in the present.” In facing psychological difficulties and limitations “…we want to point to an area of freedom whereby one can develop a vision for the future.” Thus, logotherapy is primarily present and future oriented and helps to mobilise one’s inner resources in response to trauma or emotional challenges.
A caller who is currently a student of logotherapy and wishes to apply it in the future in his work with young people inquired about whether there is an international network of research and training insitutes in logotherapy? Dr. Batthyany replied that there are about 140 institutes in 40 countries. There are small institutes and larger institutes among them. [The list of these accredited institutes can be found on the website of the Viktor Frankl Institute: http://www.viktorfrankl.org]. There are innumerable publications of book and articles in many languages. However, the main point he wanted to emphasize is that “…the idea is always greater than the institutes.” What Frankl wrote and his students developed on the basis of his thoughts, ”… is wholesome and transculturally applicable.” The second point he made was that, as the saying goes: ‘the taller the tree, the deeper the roots,” and there is a lot of opportunities for an in-depth study of logotherapy and existential analysis.
A caller reported that he developed a program based on logotherapy and positive psychology with an emphasis on gratitude and mindfulness. He was wondering if happiness could be taught and learned? Dr. Batthyany lauded his efforts. However, about the question if to cultivate happiness can be made an intention, he offer this alternative: “…I think that aiming for a fulfilled life would be more realistic [than aiming for a happy life]. Happiness is only a small segment of life. There is also pain and grief. And if we focus too intensely on our own happiness it may cause us to be a bit blind to the suffering of others and the suffering where we could be helpful. …Engendering hope and being helpful, acting with responsibility and accomplishing something worthwhile that is waiting for us to accomplish is what I think can be helpful.”
[Dr. Batthyany’s proposition stems from Dr. Frankl’ assertion that happiness is the by-product of a meaning-filled life, and it will ensue by itself, we do not need to intend it. It may come as a gift, or unexpected, as a surprise when we least expect it. Such as with the words of C. S. Lewis who said that “At the times of intense suffering we may still be surprised by joy.”]
A person sent in a comment wondering if lack of thankfulness is an overgeneralised statement. Alternatively, if we have the right to ask people in difficult situations to be grateful? Dr. Lukas answered these remarks with a personal example to illustrate that gratefulness does not need to disappear and it can be present especially in the most difficult situations. She related that her husband passed on after 44 years of happy marriage. It was a tragedy for her and “…the only thing that helped me was this great sense of thankfulness about having been happily married for so many years.” Illustrating the way in which gratefulness can be present and helpful, she explained: “…On my left side is thankfulness and on my right side is grief. Whenever grief on my right-side whispers into my ear: ‘You have lost something wonderful,’ gratitude in my left side whispers: ‘You had something wonderful.’ This is of great comfort.”
Another caller was wondering if logotherapy’s applications are too abstract and authoritarian. Dr. Lukas noted that it is one of the basic guiding principles of logotherapy that the therapist can not prescribe or command another person what to do or what should be meaningful to them. “…What we are attempting is to help people connect with their own inner resources, their own inner voice, one can name it one’s conscience or inner compass that orients them toward values and meaning that is inherent in the situation.” People need to discover for themselves best what it is that is a meaningful next step for them. “Therapy is successful when we can bring people into harmony with what they discern to be meaningful with their inner resources and we can help them gain awareness of it.”
The last caller asked if logotherapy can become a religion for a secularised society? Dr. Lukas’s answered this question with an empathetic “No.” “Logotherapy is a form of psychotherapy that is brief and effective. It is open to both religious and non-religious people.” Dr. Batthyany added that “…Frankl very clearly stated that logotherapy is for all people. It helps to intuitively discover meaning though being attuned to the inner voice of our conscience.”
Batthyany, A & Lukas, E (2020). Logotherapie und Exystenzanalyse Heute: Eine Standortbestimmung. [Logotherapy and Existential Analysis Today: A Current Standpoint] Innsbruck/Vienna: Tyrolia Verlag.