beach during sunset

Trust, Basic Trust, Self-confidence, and trust in God

Interview with Elisabeth Lukas, PhD, by Stephan Baier (Grandios Magazine, Regensburg, February, 2022). Translated by Maria Marshall, PhD

  • How does the capacity to trust arise and grow?
  • In what ways does parenting affect trust?
  • Can one do well without a basic trust in life’s meaningfulness and a positive mage of the world?

These are the topics of the following interview that was conducted with Dr. Lukas by Stephan Baier at the GRANDIOS Magazine Studios in February 2022.

SB: Trust; what is this concept? The capacity to trust; are we born with it, or do we have to gradually learn it? And finally, is trust like a talent that one can be endowed with more of, or less with, or is it a decision to trust or not to trust. These are the topics that we are going to discuss with Dr. Elisabeth Lukas. Dr. Lukas is one of the most well-known psychotherapists in the German speaking world, and most certainly, the most prominent student of Dr. Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl was the father of logotherapy, also known as The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.

Dear Dr. Lukas, prior to this interview, you gifted me with this booklet (“Wolken vor der Sonne?” Lukas, 2021), that I would like to cite from, since I found something very interesting here that brings us right to our topic: You write that trusting people live not only longer lives, but they get along more harmoniously with others, and they can tolerate loneliness better than others. Why is this so?

EL: Yes, well, trusting people are of course more sympathetic because when it comes to communication and living together, one gets along easier with someone who is trusting than with someone who is skeptical, and when one meets others with a spark of trust, it is easier to get along right away then if one is met with suspicion. This trust that one grants in advance to the other, perhaps more than what they deserve, motivates the other to do something good in return, not to shatter the expectation. In this way one locks the other in trust that presupposes and expects that something good will happen. Of course, one sometimes pays a price for this, if one gives more trust than what was reasonable, one is going to be disappointed, but one needs to accept this. It is better to let oneself experience a bit of disappointment than to be stuck in a steady climate of skepticism and mistrust.

SL: But how do I become this trusting person?

EL: This question has to do with the basis of trust. You raised the question if one naturally has the tendency for trust, or one has to develop it? In principle, each newborn brings with them the capacity to trust, just as they take their first breath. Even babies are born with this innate tendency to expect help when they are helpless, and we know that human babies are more helpless than any baby animal. They are totally dependent on help. They have to trust that help will come. They only way they can signal if they need help is by crying and then help comes, maybe not right away, but it arrives. And this strengthens the experience that help comes when help is needed.

SL: But is there not a disappointment as well if the parent is not responsive? For example, if a mother responds late but does respond eventually, is it not a rhythmic change from disappointment to trust and from trust to disappointment, this rhythm of back and forth and back and forth between trust and disappointment?

EL: Human babies come into the world with a complex neural system that is incredibly adaptable. First, it makes the connection that help is on the way. That it comes. And learns to observe: Observe lights and shadows, observe movements. Also, to perceive those processes that are going to result in help. For example, they can hear the steps, or when spoken to. They learn to associate words with help. When they are spoken to, help will soon come, they will be comforted. When babies grasp the meaning of the events in the world around them through such associations, they can also wait. Here I would like to highlight a point that I think is important: Subjective sense of time. Subjective time is different from the objective amount of time that may have passed. Subjective perception of time changes in the course of life. For a younger person, the same time feels longer than for someone older. For a 10-year-old, a year is a very long time. For a 60-year-old, a year passes in a blink. For a baby, an hour seems an eternity. When they cry the whole night or days go by before anyone responds to their cries of help, then for the child that affects their trust.

SL: When we experience pain or suffering, time seems to pass much slower than other times.

EL: You are exactly right. For a small child or for baby with a long time of no help and discomfort seems a very long time.  Most parents know this and they stay up most of the night and watch their baby and are attentive to their needs. I do not mean to say by this that parents need to be always one hundred percent available and run as soon as their child begins to fuss, there must be some learning on the part of the child as well, of a bit of toleration and waiting for the parent to help. When one has a good communication than one feels integrated in the milieu where one feels safe and protected in the home, one feels at home, and one trusts that help will arrive when it is needed even if it may take for some time to arrive.

SL: The older a child is, the greater the disappointments can get when they understand that the world does not operate according to their wishes. One needs to take this disappointment seriously and learn from it, that the world is not always the way we wish it to be. How can trust grow, despite the disappointments that children and youth need to experience?

EL: A child develops. However, from the beginning, they bring with them a sense of basic trust. This is so deeply engraved in people in all cultures in people from all walks of life and through all concepts and images of God, that there must be behind something or someone that we can trust. I’d like to point out that the fairy tales also do not paint us an ideal world, there are elves, and witches, and dragons, and all sorts of things that occur in them. Yet, what the fairy tales show to us is a clear world. Clear, since there is good and bad. In the stories the good always wins. It always has the final say. People can be saved, changed, and, at the end, the good comes through. This is what reinforces and re-states the notion of basic trust in children. When they grow, they understand of course that the reality is not always like that, the good characters are not always good, the bad characters are not always bad, and between good and bad there are all these ways of in-between, but by that time children have the capacity to distinguish and decide. They can differentiate between their external reality and their inner feeling of trust and security. In the external world, there may be a lot of things that do not match, that do not work, but in their inner reality, there can be something there that wins, that remains. It is otherwise when children from a very early age are subjected to abuse, violence, and aggression, and have experienced grave disappointments, and, as a consequence, they see the world as a hostile and dark world in which the good can not be taken for granted. The negative experiences in this case can stifle a sense of trust that remains hidden inside.

SL: We talked about the positive case, when children feel protected and well taken care of, and parents in such families can also do certain things right and maybe certain things wrong. What can they do to keep trust alive? You gave us one tip, to tell their children stories to reinforce basic trust. What else would you suggest doing?

E.L.:  With the example of the fairy tales, I just wanted to illustrate how in the folk tradition there is already a sense of basic trust. In the early years what fosters trust in consistency. This means rules so that children have a routine, and they can tell what is going to happen next. They learn that now it is bath-time, then we are walking for a walk, now it is time to sleep. This works well for the elderly as well; they function better when they have a structure that they are familiar with. Flexibility comes in-between. In the milieu of such structure, children learn to differentiate that certain people have different traits, different behaviors, reactions, but when their own reference person, a person who they trust, act inconsistently, that upsets children. Children can tolerate and learn very well how people have some different ways o reacting or doing things. However, strong emotional outbursts by the same person, or inconsistencies, and inconsistent reactions manifested by their main caregiver are troubling for children. This happens for example if mothers are over-exerted, under extreme stress, or under the influence of drugs and alcohol, where they show instability, lability, and there are outburst of emotion or temper. When the main caregivers have a loss of self-control emotionally, that confuses children because they learn that they can not trust someone if they are friendly because it is not for sure that this friendliness will last and for how long. It makes children fearful and anxious and loose trust.

SL: Caregivers model trust to their children themselves?

EL: There are no perfect families, but we can say that the intact family is the place of the highest feeling of security on earth. The reason of it is that in other places, one is judged according to one’s abilities and contribution. For example, if I have good recommendations as a speaker, I am being sought after. But if I shy away from people and remain in seclusion, no one will think that I am a good speaker. This is not the same in the family. In the family, when it is intact, one feels valued. Regardless of one’s appearance, even if one is unproductive, one is valued for who one is, whether one is young or old, smart, or not so smart, in the family, one is valued because one is part of the family. I know that this is an ideal, but the family is the place of this ideal. What is wanted to express is that in the family, one is valued for one’s personhood and for one’s inherent value. When children experience this, they develop a sense of self-worth, that helps them to face whatever may come their way.

SL: Is this not inherent in every person to want to be loved and accepted for who they are?

EL: Yes, although in the family it is also important to consider the other part of the question. Everyone wants to be loved but one needs to offer love as well to the others. One wants to be understood, but does one understand the other?  It must be a two-way process.

SL: When a child does not experience that, then what happens? For most children, they know that they are loved, valued, and accepted. They know that their parent loves them even when they are corrected or scolded. What happens to those who never experience such validation or acceptance? What do they then feel that they can give to the other when they have received little, and how can they then think that the world is still a good place?

EL: This is a fundamental question you are speaking about. One discusses this is psychotherapy a lot, and we need to reach back to one’s view of the human person. The view of the human person influences how one sees oneself and others. It is not true that a person is a “Tabula Rasa” and that everything that a person becomes is because of what their caregiver has written on this board. This is simply not the case. People come even genetically with a lot of influences; we know this thanks to modern research. One brings even psychological tendencies, both positives and negatives, strengths and weaknesses. On top of that one has the influences of the environment, the influence if the parents, influence of media, etc. At any rate, people are not merely the product of their genetic inheritance and the impact of their environment. Frankl always said, there is a third given, and this is the spirit of the person, which is an entire novum. Each person is unique, a new creation.

SL: And here lies our potential, right?

EL: Yes, here lies our potential in spirit, and thus a potential for molding and creating oneself. This is what I wish to emphasize. From the beginning, a young person reacts to their environment and to their circumstances in the way that they develop themselves and use their talents for self-discipline, and for self-development to bring the best out of what a person is capable of becoming. A person can take a stand toward their environment when they give their “yes,” or “no” or when they resist something. In other words, there is a capacity that one has for resistance. This is the case when one may be coming from a very miserable background and one had a misfortune of accumulating negative life experiences, this capacity to develop oneself and change oneself is still there and can be developed.  When one distances oneself from such negative influences, quite conscientiously decides to distance oneself from repeating what was mistaken, when one can distance oneself, and one decides “What I do not want” and “This is what I do not want to repeat” that is when Frankl speaks of the defiant power of the human spirit. “I will do it better, and I will do it differently.”

SL: This is a different message, right? If one came to you in psychotherapy and said to you, “I have been totally ruined in my childhood, and for that reason I am unable to go on with my life,” is it that you would have good news for them?

EL: It is a hypothesis that one is “ruined” and comes from being outspoken, but the spiritual person is never “ruined.” They have within themselves the capacity to make everything renewed and different. Also, from the experience of suffering one can develop an advantage of warning. “One knows what not to want, what will not work, and to be even stronger and determined to achieve it. In other words, the new generation does not need to repeat the mistakes of the old generation. They can grow through it and build something new and better. This old sadness may be there and come back at times, but one also has the defiant power of the human spirit through which it is possible to overcome the past and to build something new. 

SL: You were talking about basic trust that each person is born with. This can not be destroyed but it can be disturbed. So then if a person seeks your advice who trust has been shaken, what is your advice? How could one correct this?

EL: One question is how I could help someone, as you say, “correct this.” The other question is, how can one help oneself? Two different questions. How would I help a child, for example, shall we start with that?

SL: Yes.

EL: Children are by nature incredibly robust. Nature built them incredibly strong. When they come into contact with a person who has a positive influence of them, they can easily relax and open up. What one can offer, on the one hand, is caring conversations in which one points out connections. For example, a parent is under extreme stress, or ill. By this, what I mean to say, not to gloss over but to speak frankly and honestly, so they can process what happened. To illustrate connections and links, so that they can understand is helpful. When we understand things, we can process them better and is such way one fosters insight that is age appropriate and possible. The second point I wish the emphasize is the importance of building on children’s strengths. You see, children are capable of becoming very enthusiastic and when one notices and encourages their strengths and talents in the areas it may be in, technical, musical, sports, cooking, dance, arts and crafts, then these activities let them remain enthusiastic while their wounds are healing. They discover that they are good for something, they are good at something, and enjoy their activities, which reinforces the view that there are nice things in the world, not only the bad they experienced. Then they go on with life and grow with more elasticity and this is not an exaggeration, but a very helpful bandage for the wounds to grow with.

SL: For us to go on with our tasks, we need to believe that the world is good place, that for me personally, the world is good place, for me it is meaningful, that there is a meaning to discover. Do we need such a sentiment to be able to keep on living?

EL: I will start with the first part of your question, “do we need to know that the world is a good place” I would like to question this. Our world is not a very good place. It has good sides and bad sides. It is not about if the good in the world needs to outweigh the bad in the world. There is a lot of suffering it the world. There is a lot of grief. Frankl spoke about the tragic triad of grief, death, and pain. We all have sorrows, we all make mistakes, and we will die. Realistically, about whether the world is a good place, I do not know. About the other part of your question, if being has meaning, that is a different question. This has to do with a very deep search in people, a wish to find meaning in everything that there is. This is a quite deep search engraved in the human soul. The question is there is a last or ultimate meaning, despite all the grief and suffering. Basic trust is not at all the belief that at the end, everything will turn out fine. Basic trust is the conviction that there is a higher dimension, beyond our dimension, in which even our suffering can have meaning. It is the question if all the uncertainty of our life can culminate in a final harmony, even if we may not be able to grasp the individual pieces. Dr. Frankl, who was a survivor of the holocaust during the Second World War, explained that the prisoners walked to the gas chambers with their heads held high and a prayer on their lips. The prisoners did not think that God will appear and intervene and save them from the gas chambers. They knew that God will not intervene to stop this great injustice, but they entered the gas chambers with a prayer on their lips. This is basic trust. It remains a mystery why there is so much misery in the world and suffering. Frankl said we need to bow in front of this mystery. And we need to trust that in this higher dimension everything retains its meaning.

SL: Do you think it is easier for religious people to accept that there is such dimension? The reality of God in a higher dimension would be perhaps easier to grasp for someone who is religious.

EL: Frankl offered a very beautiful metaphor to illustrate this. Imagine a scale with two arms, an antique scale, with two wide arms. He said, take one side where one can place the idea that the whole entire reality is a nuisance with no meaning. Everything will be lost, the planets will disappear, the suns will get sucked into a dark hole, everything is nothing and leads to nothing. This is on one side of the scale. One the other side of the scale is the conviction that everything has meaning, beyond even human comprehension. This entails the belief that the reality of creation is more that what is available to us and that the whole of creation expresses the will of God. And Frankl said, with logic and reason one cannot decide for one side or for the other. The two sides weigh the same.

SL: Life would be nicer, if this side weighed more.

EL: Well, yes, but Frankl said that the only way to make one side weight more than the other is to place one’s entire existence on one side or the other. This side will, for this person, personally weigh more than the other. There are simply no statistics that will help with the decision. There are statistics of other kind, however. Two of them can be found in my book. One of them is by Stephen Covey who wrote a bestseller that you may be well familiar with, on the habits of highly effective people. These people who do very well in life, Covey found in his research, believe that there is such an ultimate meaning. They affirm the meaningfulness of life. The other research is by Leonard Sargon who followed a large group of people with longevity and found that many factors played a role, and among genetics and lifestyle, he established that a personal outlook on life also played a role. People who lived very long lives confirmed the meaningfulness of life. It appears that it is more helpful to believe that life is meaningful than it is to think that it offers no meaning, or nihilism.

SL: Can we establish then that those people who see a general meaning in life are more likely to experience their own lives as meaningful?

EL: When everything has meaning than of course every small part must have a meaning. Yes.

SL: When someone opts for the other arm of the scale, how do you help them? When everything seems absurd? Where does one reach then? One sinks into depression, or anxieties, or sadness?

EL: We need to know that everyone needs to make a decision for themselves. We can bring arguments, illustrations, and examples, but at the end the decision lies with every person. But every person can have time when they wrestle with the question. At these times it is very helpful what has been recognised in psychotherapy, a method, or the knowledge of the possibility of taking a “leap of faith.” How can one take a leap of faith? One has the capacity for self-distancing. What do we mean by self-distancing? One can step away from oneself and one can observe oneself from a distance in the present or in the past. One can also place oneself into the future and observe oneself there. One can look at oneself from the position that one is in right now and look in the future; my very best version of myself, for example in the future, and see what that would look like, and step by step advance towards that image that one wishes to become. This is the concept of the “leap of faith” [to advance toward something that is chosen and desirable out of one’s free will, to make that a reality when it is yet only in the future as an ideal].

For example, a person addicted to alcohol. How can she step out of tis habit? She must imagine, “One day, I will be sober, and I will stop drinking.” One can give help, but ultimately, people need to do it by themselves. This “one day” they need to live it as if they were already free. But it is not in the reality. They can set it into the reality step by step. The body is still dependent on alcohol but the “one day” can be already alcohol free. Maybe a day, maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe a year. One day, this can become reality. Or an overly anxious person. How can they break the disturbance? One can help them. But again, there is a point at which they need to do it themselves. They need to go into the depth of the deep of the anxiety and face it. Entering the situation and the moment one dares to face anxiety and realizes that one has strength and freedom that one did not know existed before. He or she may go with trembling knees, and perhaps the second time will be a bit easier than it was the first, and then one can elaborate it in the context of a story such as entering the lion’s den to find out that the “roaring lion” was a in fact a “pussy cat.” The courageous facing of anxiety allows this leap of faith. When I come back to your question about how one can help someone who is experiencing a lack of trust to re-gain that trust, we need to establish that there is nothing that one can do, because one can not force oneself to trust, one can only advise or challenge oneself to live as if one had trust. One leaps into a life of trust and lets oneself be surprised.

I often work with women who have difficulty trusting men because they had a bad experience in a relationship. They may have felt take advantage of, betrayed, used, you name it. Now they have a new man in their lives, and they do not trust this friend. They tell me they have pictures from the previous relationship come to their mind, they fear being taken advantage of, etc. So, I tell them, “But your new friend is of course entirely not guilty of your previous experiences.” The women conclude it themselves that “He does not deserve to be mistrusted,” and “I deserve to get to know a nicer side of life.” At this point then I advise them to take a leap of faith and proceed by being open to the other person with this self who is still experiencing suffering because of the repeating images in the mind, but the “I who I want to be, and can be” in the future. This often works. If there are no further disappointments, the relationship succeeds.

SL: Trust for adults it is a decision-making process then. An adult can decide in their freedom to want to trust and hold fast to this decision. Is this so?

EL: No. To want to trust is not the right word. But to decide to trust is the right word. Decision and trust belong together. This is a pair. When you decide, you must trust. When you trust, you must reach a decision. That is, you would not have to trust if you were always sure that something will work out fine. Thus, always in the uncertainty is that we need to have trust, and in the uncertainty the possibility of a decision is there. When you are applying for a job, you do not know yet if everything will work out fine; when you start a relationship and choose a partner, you do not know if everything will work out fine, and the relationship will be viable. At each point, you need to make a step into the uncertainty, and make a risk and a leap of faith; this is what is basic trust. Trust and decision work together just like uncertainty and taking a risk do. People who lack trust have a hard time deciding. Professor Frankl used a very beautiful expression about trust when he spoke to his American students: One has to act “half sure but who-hearted.” Maybe not sure, but with full trust.

About the subject of will, I like to mention that there are phenomena that cannot be intended. They can not be brought about by will. For example, one cannot intend to intend, one cannot “will” to love; one either loves or not. One cannot want to believe. One can not want to trust. These phenomena have prerequisites, from which they flow. For example, something valuable, brings forth valuing. Something loveable, brings forth to love it. Something believable brings it forth belief. Something trustworthy brings forth trust.  So, will is intended toward these prerequisites. This is what we can intend for, to want. We can look for something valuable in the world; something loveable; something credible; something trustworthy. This is what we can want to intend for. This is what we can “will.” We can look in the world to find them; we can seek them out. We can search and find. Whoever searches, finds.

There are a lot of things that are worthwhile in the world. When I find this what is worthwhile, beautiful, and trustworthy, it will automatically elicit my will, and elicit my trust.

SL: How is it with self-esteem?

EL: This is an exciting topic in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy has to do with a lot of people who suffer from their confidence being shaken. Self-confidence has to do with the evaluation of one’s own inner resources. Self-esteem can be too low or over-inflated and neither of these has a good outcome. Either one’s level of performance will be low because of low self-confidence, and one does not develop one’s potentials as much as one could, or one over-estimated one’s capacities and one needs to touch ground at some point. However, self-confidence has another aspect that I would like to address. When one accomplishes what one committed oneself to do, this correlates highly with inner satisfaction and well being. One can plan a lot and accomplish little of those plans. Or one can break one’s promises, change one’s decisions, sabotage oneself from accomplishing the tasks that one set out for oneself, and this will have a negative impact on self-confidence. Imagine the example that one orders some work being done and the handyman says he will be there at such and such time on such and such day. You wait the whole day, but they do not show up. You phone them, agree on a new date and time. The time, comes, and they do not show up, but give you all sorts of excuses. The following time, when they do not show up, you will not take any of the excuses but really get mad at them. This is how people who sabotage themselves or let themselves down feel about themselves. When people sabotage their own plans, the feeling is a sense of failure, or impotence, “I can’t do it,” “I can’t do well anything.” So, in therapy how this plays out is not that we have to persuade people who do not trust themselves to make a leap of faith and convince themselves to accomplish small tasks that they can feel good about. Rather, often we have to advise them to request from themselves as little as possible, and as less demanding as possible, but that little that they then really make a commitment to fulfill, regardless of their feelings, as much as possible, so they can develop a healthy stand.  

SL: For healthy self-confidence we have to have a realistic view of ourselves and know what we can do and what we are not so good at, right? For example, if I think that I am a great cook, but experience shows otherwise, I need to adjust the view of my abilities.   

EL: Yes, for those who over-value themselves, there can be a series of disappointments, and sometimes they need to learn the hard way. The question is how one can learn from experience and adapt self-experience. For example, it could be a learning process for someone who thought they were a great cook but found out that they are not such a great cook after all, to start with something small, a salad and a simple menu that they can pull off with no difficulty. So, it is important that one does not give up and says, “I can not cook at all,” but make it little by little, step by step, try out this and try out that, and end with the conclusion that “Well, not so bad after all.”  I think that the more one can learn from one’s experience about the difference between one’s self-confidence and the requirement of situations, the more one can use this knowledge to one’s advantage. In this sense, even negative experiences can be helpful because they can lead to development and growth.

SL: Do we need to be able to trust ourselves to be able to trust others?

EL: You pose very good questions.

SL: Do I need to have a firm anchor in myself to trust others?

EL: Well, maybe not if you take a leap of faith.

We can not say that only those people who have been loved can love. Maybe one is still able to give a positive attempt and make an effort to be positive towards others and, as a reward, receive self-confirmation. To come out of the difficulty does not require convenient circumstances. But to get back to your question, do we need to trust ourselves to trust others? That is a very good question. 

I have spent thousands of hours in therapy with patients and I noticed that the pictures that they formed had something in common. Those who had a more positive self-image, had more likely a more positive relationship with others and a more positive relationship with God. Those who had a negative self-image tended to have more unfavorable interpersonal relationships and an image of God as unforgiving and punishing. So, I could conceptualize it in this way: Imagine that in the course of the life of a person one could unroll a transparent film that is lighter or darker in color. All the experiences in life are projected onto this transparent film. The difficult experiences that get projected to a lighter part of this transparent film can still retain their sparkle. While even nice experiences that are projected onto a dark part of this film, loose from their sparkle somehow.

A man who takes a higher position and projects everything onto a dark film, will think of the downside of the new job: the mishandling, the rivalry, the incompetence, etc. But a man who loses his job, but this experience falls onto a bright film, that man may look at this experience as a good thing: “I will find a better job.” So, it has to do with this “the glass is half-full or half-empty mentality.” This is the background onto which the experience is projected that can differ and determines how it will be interpreted. So, self-confidence, confidence in others and in God can fall on a dark film or a bright film. This is what makes the difference.

SL: Very interesting. This far we have only talked about the positive side of trust. Now I would like to bring up its opposite side, naivity. There is an expression that goes with it, we say someone is “gullible.” Are some people gullible because they trust too easily and too much, and they fall for swindlers and robbers and you name it. How can gullibility be avoided and trust somehow trained?

EL: Even in the fairy tales there is a warning about not to trust everyone. Not to trust evil. But I think that today being overly trusting is not a virtue anymore. The internet is full of deceiving advertisement, the news full of fake news. One needs to learn caution and measure one’s trust. Whom to trust and not to trust, which was you question, and how to prepare for making good decisions, has to do with critical thinking. One needs to form opinions and informed choices based on credible sources. Such choices can be made in conversations, observing different options, perspectives, which is possible in democratic countries. Even in democratic systems there is one challenge with finding space and time to calmly consider options and alternatives. This happens when parents in a family are very stressed than perhaps there is little time for such earnest discussions of different sources and information. Honest discussions with others have great advantages.  For example, it has been shown that is schools, violence could be reduced through the introduction of a course on rhetoric. It is important to be able to express oneself and put into words one’s feelings; what one hopes for or what one is bothered by. Round-table discussions in politics can also lead to de-escalation. If one can express one’s inner self better, one gains trustworthiness because of the word. Words can be used for lying as well. One can see if one’s words are consistent with one’s actions and vice versa.

SL: Can we apply this in the society about people’s trust in institutions? It has been reported in sociological studies that the trust in major institutions such as the church, government institutions and agencies has dramatically decreased. Do you find this dangerous?

EL: I find this a pity. “Errare humanum est.” When one is human, one makes mistakes. As long as the responsible individuals are making an effort to correct the mistakes that have led to the decrease of trust, I think that is a good sign. I think in most instances there is a willingness to look critically at making good decisions. The understanding of a problem and capacity to solve it go together. Sometimes the attempt to solve certain problems can bring new problems that were not there before. For example, a new road can pose some inconvenience to the habitants. One arrives to the next problem. So, it is not that politicians, or church persons can not do anything at all well, rather they cannot do everything always well. I think it is these instances that need to be corrected because things have many perspectives. In addition, no one can have the capacity to foresee the future. Sometimes, in hindsight is easy to see and to make a judgement, but in foresight it is hard to always see the full consequences. When protesting, one should consider these facts and try not to just negate people in the position of power.

SL: Who I trust and whom I trust, is it then a personal decision?

EL: One can trust institutions, but not to forget that they are led by individuals. Certain individuals are corrupt.  Certain individuals are untrustworthy. To make generalisations and to say “all” politicians, or all theologians, etc. is not helpful because it does not correspond to the truth. One can seek out individuals and examine their credibility on the basis of what they say and what they do. I think that it is all right to let oneself get disappointed at times. We also may have at some point let someone down. It is not always that we may have kept the confidence that was invested in us. Wittingly or unwittingly, there are so many misunderstandings that can happen. It is better to look at individual cases because out of these individuals is that the system is made of. The individual influences the system and the institution is expressed in society that influences the institution.

SL: For the final question: Whom or what do you personally trust?

EL: I think that I am fortunate that my chosen film is bright. Therefore, my self-image, and my image of God, carry a rather bright tone. I have also no fear of disappointments. I think I can deal with them well because I am mild on people. In my profession I worked with thousands of people, and I have seen that we can all have weaknesses. A very nice saying comes to my mind, it was said by an author, whose name I now fail to recall, but it goes like this: We are all angels with one wing. One wing that represents all the good and the beautiful we can do. What makes us grand. We have another wing that is just a small stump, that is not well formed. There is something wrong with it. And so, the author continued, if the angels once decided that they embraced each other, then they could have two wings and they could fly. This is what I trust in: that if we embrace each other, and we are not too hard on each other, and we understand that the other also has a wing that is not perfect and has weaknesses, but if we hold on to each other, we have two healthy and strong wings, and, together, we can fly.

SL: Let’s keep flying together. Thank you very much!

“We are each of us angels with one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another” (Luciano de Crescenzo, Italian writer 1928-2019).

Elisabeth Lukas, PhD, with Stephan Baier (2022)

A Snapshot of Meaningful Moments with Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Lukas

Maria Marshall, Ph, RP

If I was to arrange my memories with Dr. Elisabeth Lukas in a photo album, the album would span several decades. In this essay, I will draw out my favorite pictures from the album and share them with you.

My first memory reaches back to 1982. There is a beautiful Christmas tree in my grandparents’ home. It is set on a table with glorious decorations and best of all, marzipan candies covered in chocolate and colorful, shiny wrapping paper. It is comfortable to sit under the tree and listen to the conservation of the adults sitting around the dinner table in the kitchen, adjacent to the living room. My father leads the conversation. He talks about Dr. Frankl and Dr. Elisabeth Lukas. He visited Dr. Frankl a few years earlier and is in touch with him about setting up a local telephone hotline for the prevention of suicides. It is the first initiative of this kind in our region. A lot of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers will collaborate under my father’s guidance. The line will be available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so many volunteers are required who are willing to help. The discussion shifts to Dr. Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” and the second world war. The memories of my grandmother are still vivid from the time when children she used to play with on the street were forcibly taken to unknown locations, neve to be seen again. The memories are fresh for my father as well, since his great grandfather perished in Auschwitz and his father came back alive from the forced labor camps. Everyone is silent for a while. My grandmother wipes tears from the side of her eyes. Then, my grandfather proposes to try my grandmother’s pie.

The second picture is from 1989. It is a chilli but sunny, beautiful, spring morning. My father leaves to work on his bicycle early in the morning to start work at 7:30 a.m. at his hospital. I have some time before I need to leave for school. There is a noise at the door as the flap of the mailbox closes. I run downstairs to empty the contents and retrieve a brown envelope with my father’s name and address on it. It is written with a blue fountain pen and impeccable spelling of our address 16 Vase Stajića, Subotica, Jugoslavien. The sender is Dr. Lukas and her husband, Mr. Gerhard Lukas, at the South German Institute of Logotherapy in Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany. I place the envelope on the living room table, ready for my father to open when he comes home from work. That evening, I see for the first time some images of Dr. Frankl and Dr. Lukas in the Jahresbericht (the Annual Report) of Dr. Lukas’ Institute. I sit in a comfortable armchair covered with grey velvety fabric and spend hours taking in the images.

The third picture is from 1991. There is a war in Yugoslavia. Everyone suspected that war would break out, but no one was really prepared for it. As soon as I arrive home for the summer holiday after my first year of university, my parents send me back to Hungary with the earliest train in the morning. All I can take with me is a backpack. They reassure me that they will join me later that day, when they cross the border in their large van with my six siblings, pretending to go on a holiday. They give me the address where I should go and wait for them. The day seems like an eternity. Finally, late in the evening, they arrive. They made it and got through the border safely. The van is packed to the brim. Even then, there is only one suitcase for each person. Inside mine, I discover the few books by Frankl that my father owns and used to read in the dim light at night, with pen in the hand.  The books are heavily used, and the pages somewhat discolored brown, with shorthand side notes, and some exclamation marks. The yearly reports from the South German Institute are there as well, the whole package enveloped into a few T-shirts. This is the only literature that travels with us during the next few weeks while we wait to receive the immigration papers to Canada. The waiting seems unending. We wash our clothes in rivers. We sleep in abandoned parking lots or quiet streets, in the car. Finally, after two months of hope against all the odds, the visas are granted. We book plane tickets for nine persons: two adults and seven children, to Calgary, Alberta. We are off to the “unknown.” The suitcases are boarded onto the plane. They fly with us to this new land.

The fourth picture is from 1997. Nearly ten years have passed since we have been in Canada. The date is September 2. I am in the Counselling Psychology Doctoral Program at the University of Alberta and have just received a list of signatures from committee members who approved that my doctoral research with the title, “The Applications of Viktor E. Frankl’s Logotherapy in Counselling Psychology” can go ahead. Six committee members have approved the proposal and recorded their signatures in black ink. I am beyond words, elated. I have no idea that thousands of kilometres away, on the other side of the ocean, in Vienna, Dr. Viktor E. Frankl passed away on this day. I do not have e-mail and no internet. But I do have Dr. Frankl and Dr. Lukas’ books with me, and that is enough to get me started in my work.

The fifth picture is from the year 2000. I have just finished my Doctoral Dissertation a few months ago. It is November, and I am walking toward the South German Institute of Logotherapy. Dr. Lukas has invited me to be her special student at the South German Institute of Logotherapy. After participating in several presentations that she offered in Canada, the United States and in Germany, today is the day of the final exams. The class time seems to have passed very fast. It was a stellar opportunity to hear Dr. Lukas speak and demonstrate how she applies the principles of logotherapy in practice. As she talks, my attention is all on her. I soak in every word and every movement. I feel that I understand her very well, even though when she askes me if there are any nettles in Canada, I get so embarrassed that I stutter something like: “I do not think so.,” in German. To which Dr. Lukas says that that maybe I live in places where there are no nettles! There is a wonderful book that she hands out as a present to the class, written by one of her former students.  It is about “Ortie” a little nettle who grows up to be different from the other plants around her, and must learn that she too has an important place to fill in the world. In this class, I get to know people who become life-long friends and colleagues. Among them are Dr. Alexander Batthyany, in charge of the Viktor Frankl Archives at that time, and the late Dr. Cvijeta Pahljina, a psychiatrist from Croatia, who knew my father. Everyone in the class is very supportive and I quickly forget that speaking German is not effortless. Will I do well on this final exam? I spent the entire night reading through the books again.

The sixth picture is about the final exam in Dr. Lukas’ office. It is the end of November, and Christmas is approaching fast. We are sitting around a large, round, glass table. In the middle is a candle. Dr. Lukas light it, which gives a reassuring sense of comfort and peace. She asks me a few introductory questions and then to describe the qualities of the human spirit. I do know some things, and she adds a few more concepts about the relevance of the resources of this specifically human dimension in health care. We speak about the first and the second Creed in Frankl’s logotherapy, according to which the essence of the person, the spirit can not become ill. It is a healthy core and resource. A person can become ill, but behind the mask of the illness, the spirit is always present. A person may be disturbed, but they can not be destroyed. At the end of the exam, Dr. Lukas does not tell me if I passed or failed, because this is not a pass or fail exam. I find out why. Dr. Lukas trusts me to keep learning and applying logotherapy and she has confidence in me. We walk to the front of her office where all of Frankl’s book and her books are exhibited on shelves. She invites me to indicate, from among all the books that I see on the shelves, the ones that I already have, and which ones I do not have yet. I am hesitant to admit how many books I still do not have, but I want to be honest, so I point to all the beautiful new editions, one more desirable than the other. One by one, Dr. Lukas lifts the books from the shelf and gives these books to me as a present!  I have no words for her kindness and no words to describe how I feel. I am now the proud owner of almost each of her available books, and several new editions of Dr. Frankl’s books in German.

My book collection has been growing ever since. This is thanks partially to my husband, Edward, who has the same love for logotherapy as I do. Together, we direct the Ottawa Institute of Logotherapy in Ottawa, Canada. We have five children ad we distribute our time between taking care of the children, seeing patients, research, writing, and teaching logotherapy and related topics. Our connection with the Vienna Institute is fostered through a bond of friendship and collegiality that has endured the past twenty years.

What was Dr. Lukas’s influence on me? More than what one can express in words and write in an essay. I look up to Dr. Lukas as pioneer in presenting and teaching the applications of logotherapy in clinical practice and transmitting the ideas of Dr. Frankl in their purest form. I admire her work ethic and sound judgement. I admire her wisdom and her peaceful manners. I am in awe of the number of books she has written over the years and the knowledge and experience that she has in the areas of logotherapy and existential analysis that is helpful for clinical practice and for everyday living. I like her charming sense of humor and her sophistication. More than any other female psychologist, Dr. Lukas is a role model whose influence I cherish. Despite the distance in miles, Dr. Lukas feels close in spirit.

Nowadays, I am with Dr. Lukas, each time I cite her books, articles, or presentations. She is mentioned and referenced in most all the books that we have ever published through the Ottawa Institute of Logotherapy. Thanks to technology, I can regularly follow her presentations on the television or radio and get notified about her new publications.

With Dr. Lukas, Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy and Existential Analysis continues to be an invitation to keep learning, reading, thinking, and comprehending, to be able to give and to give generously. Finally, to live, and to live to the fullest.

red leaf trees near the road

Saying Yes to Life

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 [1938], 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 [1971]. 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:]. 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.  

Obrecht, A (2021). Ja zum Leben sagen. [Say Yes to Life]. Austrian Radio [ORF] program aired on January 15, 2021. Retrieved from:

art bright burn burning

Wax will Glow—Candle Meditation

The Candle Meditation according to Dr. Elisabeth Lukas can be found in the chapter “Wachs wird zu Leuchten” [Wax will Glow] of her book “Alles fugt Sich und Erfullt Sich: Die Sinnfrage im Alter” [Everything is linked and gets fulfilled: The question of meaning in old age] (Lukas, E. 1994: 81-83).

This meditation is very timely. A challenging year is coming to its end and a new year is about to begin. This year was not an average year as we struggled with the global impact of the Corona virus. Our strength, resolve, and courage were tested in unforeseen ways. It is a wonderful gesture to invite all of us to light a candle and to hold it up witnessing our hope as one humanity.

I would like to preface the meditation with my familiarity with it. This will take us back to the history of how I got to know about the Candle Meditation and its significance in my life. I hope you will trace the steps of this journey with me.

No year passes that I do not remember my first encounter with Dr. Lukas in her office at the South German Institute of Logotherapy. I have seen her and interacted with her on several occasions before while I attended her lectures, presentations, and seminars, both in the United Sates and in Germany. This time, it was different. She has set the location of my final exam to take place in Furstenfeldbruck, Germany, where the South German Institute of Logotherapy with her leadership was operating since 1986. The year was 2000. It was a cold winter day in December. 

Christmas was near, and I was looking for a suitable present to bring her. Something that would express my appreciation and my admiration of her work that I was familiar with from her lectures and workshops and attempted to memorise word by word. But what can you buy as gift for a person who means so much to you? Dr. Lukas was a former student of Dr. Frankl, internationally recognised and accomplished. I was a budding psychologist. I had just recently finished my PhD degree and eager to work using the principles laid out in her books.

On my way, I bought a package of festive candles. The candles were neatly wrapped, and I added some ribbons and a card, wishing her and her husband Merry Christmas and happy New Year. It seemed surreal to think that after traveling from so far, soon I will meet her and have a chance to give her this humble token of appreciation.

What a surprise awaited me when, entering her office, I saw her sitting at a round table that had a candle lit on it! She explained to me that we will leave the candle burning until we talk. This will remind us that we do not only have the two of us present in the room, but our dialogue is meaning-oriented. Looking at the light made me feel much more at ease while Dr. Lukas graciously accepted my simple present and placed it on an adjacent desk. 

The oral exam consisted of one question. It was about the properties of the human spirit in Frankl’s theory. We talked about how the spirit is the essence of a person, how it can never become ill, and how it is a seat of our healthy resources. At the end, Dr. Lukas asked me to wait a few minutes while her husband filled out the certificate. In the meanwhile, she asked me which books I had in German that she had written. Anything that I did not have, she gave me a copy. When Mr. Lukas was ready, we went over to their apartment and she had a piece of cake and refreshments ready! I do not know if anyone ever in the history of psychotherapy had such a pleasant encounter with their mentor, I only know that I felt myself in heaven and left with a strong sense of mission to read her books and to help others learn about them, too.

Exactly, twenty years have passed since. When I was contacted about the project of translating Dr. Lukas’s Candle Meditation, the memories came flooding back. The “Candle Meditation” is a chapter in one of her books entitled “Alles fugt sich und erfullt sich” (Everything is linked and gets fulfilled). It was one of the few books that she gave me in Furstenfeldbruck. This book has travelled with me over countries and continents. I was thrilled to get to work at once….

I translated the chapter “Wachs wirm zu Leuchnen—Ene Kerzenmeditation” as “Wax will Glow—A Candle Meditation.” This title is symbolic of the transformation that occurs as soon as we light a candle, and the substance of its wax is transformed into light and warmth. Let us follow the steps carefully, with guidance by Dr. Lukas. I will summarize the main points below:

Most of us have a candle at home. Maybe it remained from another celebration. It was carefully saved somewhere for a special occasion or time of need. Whether on a joyous occasion, or on a sad occasion that we thought we may need this candle again, now we can use it on this occasion to reflect on life that spans between birth and a death and learn valuable lessons from a small demonstration that we will do together. 

Dr. Lukas invites us to observe our candle. It stands there new, and intact. Upon a closer look, we can see that it is made of two components, two substances, wax, and wick. The wick runs inside the wax and is almost invisible. Still the wick is essential for the candle being what it is, a candle. It belongs to the nature of the candle being what it is, a candle, and not just a piece of wax.

We could make a comparison between the nature of a human being and this understanding of the wick being all but covered by wax. Observing a human being, we see the body, the organism, “animated” by facial expressions, gestures, speech. The appearance of a person makes us infer the presence of the “soul” behind the “mask” of the body and mind. It is that part that is invisible, yet, the essence of a human being which was “breathed into the dust of the earth.” “The soul elevates the human person from the animal body of evolution and makes him or her a unique and singular wonder of creation” (Lukas, 1994:82).

Returning to our candle, we are now going to light it, and pay special attention to what happens to the wax. We observe that as soon as the flame reaches the wax, it becomes liquid and evaporates. We may experience a bit of sadness at the sight that the wax is melting in front of our eyes and there will be less and less of it as time goes by. Drop by drop, our candle will lose its height and its remaining “material” will be less and less.

Comparing this process with human life, we may observe that as soon as the “flame of the spirit” is lit, our vital functions are getting used and over time, they become less able to regenerate, more fragile and brittle. As the organism that ages, it loses its vitality, cell by cell.

Yet, we know from the laws of physics and chemistry that in the universe nothing gets “lost.” Material can change its shape or state, energy cam be found in different form. As we pay attention to the wax, we observe that it is changing into warmth and light. In other words, substance changes into function. Furthermore, there is a proportional relation between the length of burning and the amount of light and warmth given: the longer the candle was lit, the more light it gave. Similarly, the more substance it has lost, the more it has fulfilled its function. By giving more light, the candle has increasingly filled and full-filled its function. Thus, we realise that we need not “mourn” the loos of the wax that melted as it is proportional to the extent to which the candle “achieved” to fulfill its purpose. It has given light and warmth instead of remaining forever unlit and unused–a “dead” candle that “held back” all its wax. This candle, our candle that has been “awakened” by the flame –it glows.

Dr. Lukas always links her work with that of Professor Frankl. She remarks Dr. Frankl once wrote about human beings: “At the start, life is full substance that is unused; in the course of life, one keeps losing substance that has changed into function so that at the end a human life is brought forth into reality with all that one accomplished, what one experienced and what one suffered” (Frankl, 1982: 84).  To “bring forth” something means to actualise it in time. “Whatever exists in the history of time flows and merges in time where all time merges: eternal truth” (Lukas, 1994:84).

Dr. Lukas explains that before we lit the candle, the reality of the light of this candle did not yet enter time. It has not yet taken place, did not become visible. The substance of the candle was there but the function was not yet fulfilled. We could also say: the candle has not yet fulfilled its meaning. Or we could say, the candle has not yet entered time, it was not yet been “brought forth”. In the moment when we lit the wick, the function of our candle was set into motion.

The reality of our candle is that it can burn for seven to eight hours and after that, not much will be left of it.  However, even if the candle’s flame goes out, the fact that it was glowing can not be undone. What was brought forth and actualized has become eternal. Paradoxically, exactly when the candle has visibly disappeared, while there is still a trace of the burned wax or a trace of the wick, is when its meaning is once and was fulfilled once and for all.

Dr. Lukas again makes reference to Dr. Frankl’s work who reminded us that all that remains in human life after death is what we have “brought forth: what we accomplished, what we experienced, and what we suffered. He stated that whatever we accomplished and experienced or suffered during the course our lives enters truth where it is safely and securely stored against any distortion or destruction. “Only when our bodies have changed and become feeble does that what we caused and accomplished with its help become forever “young,” since the truth into which all time merges is itself timeless, without beginning and without end” (Lukas, 1994:86).

Next, Dr. Lukas instructs us to extinguish the light and let the wax of our candle cool down. We want to do a small experiment in which we have to break the candle. We want to philosophically think about these broken parts that represent human brokenness. We do not need to understand the philosophers in detail to relate to the fact that every human life has its challenges, its twists, failures, losses, unfulfilled meaning potentials. What was accomplished, experienced, suffered and brought into reality in the course of time is often not without pain. Coupled to this are the physical and psychological injuries to of the organism whose substance could still be changed into function. These injuries can be caused by ourselves or others. We are going to symbolise this brokenness by breaking off the top third of the candle. If this task is a bit difficult to do by hand, we can use a knife to help us as we merely want to make cut on the candle so that the wick is not severed. The candle should still stay in unity and wholeness just as injured and ill people still are.

As the candle lies in front of us on the table, Dr. Lukas invites us to lift it up by one end. We observe that the piece where we made cut is hanging down with some tiny crumbles of the wax around. The “wounded piece” hangs on the invisible wick that runs in the middle of the candle. The candle in its entire entity is not broken, only the wax: the wick is still intact. Thus, we observe that to call the candle “broken” is not really accurate. Well and unwell parts are mixed; wax is “unwell” only at a certain location where it shows a cut, and it does not hold together. It may be scratched or dirty in other parts as well, but these shrink in significance to where the brokenness can be observed.

Here lies a valuable lesson about injured and ill people: It would be wrong to call them “broken” people because in each person there is something that is in principle healthy and indestructible such as his or her spiritual origin and reason. The “Divine Breath,” as it is called in theology, is the basis of the unlimited dignity of the human person in Frankl’s anthropology. “Whatever is of spiritual nature is not born, it does not die, it does not stay healthy or become ill since it stems from an entirely different dimension” (Lukas, 1994:89).

We have likened the human spirit with that of the wick in the candle—inseparable from the organism through which the flame of life burns through earthly time into eternal reality.  We have also learned something else: “The spiritual person can be disturbed but not destroyed” (Frankl, 1990: 173)—it can be broken but not annihilated. Through this example we can see that people with severe physical or mental challenges, “…people with severe handicaps or limitations can still fulfill meaning in the world through the exemplary way in which they carry their heavy burden” (Lukas, 1994:89). 

With a bit of effort, it is possible to prop up our “wounded” candle and light it again. We may have to hold it so it stays up right, just for a while, with help, with care, with attention, and light it again to observe that even this candle, whose substance was damaged, can still fulfill its function and its reason. The same applies for a wounded person.

Yet, Dr. Lukas explains that mystery of meaning fulfillment goes even deeper. It will reveal itself if we are patient and keep waiting a bit longer. “The fulfillment of meaning is the absolute antidote of brokenness, which in the context of our meditation means: not only will the wax glow but the glow will redeem the broken parts. In other words: a life that glows, glows through its breaking points…” (Lukas, 1994:90).

As we remain relaxed and concentrate on our candle, we observe that it is growing ever smaller and smaller and the tiny droplets of wax flow over the point of the damage as if to smoothly cover and glue it together again. As the flame keeps glowing and nearing this breaking point, the edges will soften and soon the fracture melts into light and fulfills a function, despite everything. Observing this mystery opens a new perspective. Does the sight of this once broken candle that has overcome its brokenness not warm our hearts even more than the sight of the intact candle? Perhaps now it is easier for us to see that a person who with some help manages to “straighten up” and “radiate” something positive into the world can heal him or herself. We may choose to remain with our candle for a few more minutes and ponder this thought.

Reaching the end of our meditation, Dr. Lukas proposes that we can reflect on the process: We lit our candle, extinguished it, burned it, and observed how its light can be “restored.”  We have seen that the longer it fulfilled its meaning, the smaller it became, and this shrinking held intrinsic value.

At this point, we will add a few final considerations: Friends and relatives, who were not in our house, have not seen any of what happened. They know nothing about the light of our candle. If they come to visit one day, there will be nothing left from our candle, nothing left from the light that they can experience. Will this alter the fact that our candle gave light? –The answer empathetically is: “Certainly, not!”

We know about the light shine of our candle. What would happen if we decided to turn our backs to the candle, left for the other room and closed our eyes? Would the lack of perception of the light or our lack of attention to it make it not real? -Again, the answer is: “Certainly not!”  

Thus, we may conclude that “…the truth is truth and remains the truth even if not perceived” (Lukas, 1994:93). The truth is not dependent on our perception. The truth is not dependent on awareness or knowledge. The role of the candle does not in the least depend on the fact if anyone can see it, perceive it, or appreciate it. The most important fact is that the candle is in fact glowing and the light and warmth are true. Since this truth entered reality, it is eternally true, regardless if someone knows about its truth or not. In a dimension greater than our limited human perception, or different than our finite knowledge, everything dwells safely in the truth.

Before we blow out the light, Dr. Lukas instructs us to briefly recall the all the bright and meaningful events that we have accomplished in our lives and hold on to the thought that it does not make any difference if anyone else knows about these events, recognises them, or grateful to us for them. And when no one can see it: “Light remains light and meaning remains meaning” (Lukas, 1994:93). Or, in Frankl’s words: “The act of looking at something does not create that thing; neither does the act of looking away annihilate it” (Frankl, 2019: 110).  –Could it be that, even if the whole world ignores our good deeds, they can not be destroyed?

These words may summarize our conclusions: “In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored” and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the “stubble fields of transitoriness” but overlook and forget the “full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives:” the deeds done, the loves loved, and last, but not least, the suffering they have gone though with courage and dignity. “Nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with. I should say having been is the surest kind of being (Frankl, 2014: 113).

As the person who had the honor of presenting this text entirely in gratitude and crediting Dr. Lukas and Dr. Frankl, I would like to add the affirmation of a personal belief that every life is a gift and an opportunity for something. Every life offers the possibility of bringing into reality truth, beauty and goodness that merges into eternity.

May the Light of this World, illuminate our paths as “Light from Light” bears light, and quenches the thirst for meaning.

To use our resources to soar above the ground,

To seemingly defy gravity,

To fly, sometimes, despite the odds,

To accomplish what we were meant to do,

To leave a gentle presence over the peaks,

And to land where our home awaits,

While we glow and share the light that is entrusted to us.

My husband, Prof. Dr. Edward Marshall, joins me in wishing you a joyful New Year!

Maria Marshall, PhD, RP

Ottawa Institute of Logotherapy

Ottawa, Canada

December 31, 2020


Frankl, V. E. (1990). Der Leidende Mensch. Munchen: Piper Verlag.

Frankl, V. E. (2014). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Frankl, V. E. (2019). The Doctor and the Soul. New York: Vintage Books.

Lukas, E. (1994). Alles fugt Sich und Erfullt Sich: Die Sinnfrage im Alter. Stuttgart: Quell Verlag.