In addition to crimes against humanity, the irreplaceable cost of the loss of countless lives, the displacement of millions of people, economic downturn, and sending shock waves through the entire human family, the current war in Ukraine rests on a fundamental error and faulty attitudes that lead to a vicious cycle of destruction and self-harm. While the implications of this harm to the self, in addition to others, may not immediately perceptible, its consequences are far reaching and deeper than physical wounds. These are the wounds of the soul. (6) The purpose of this article is to describe the nature attitudes that lead away from meaning and propose and to present possible meaning-centered interventions for altering course.
According to Viktor Frankl, MD, PhD, (1905-1997) an Austrian psychiatrist, a survivor of the Holocaust and the founder of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, the fundamental motivating force for human beings is not the will to pleasure, or the will to power, but the will to meaning. (4) His most well-known book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which sold millions of copies around the world, testifies to the endurance and resilience of a human being to find meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable. LTEA is a meaning-centered and evidence-based approach to psychotherapy that rests on three fundamental assumptions: (1) The Freedom of Will; (2) The Will to Meaning; and (3) Meaning in Life. (1,8)
The first concept, the Freedom of Will, rests on Frankl’s three-dimensional conceptualization of the human being as a body, mind, and spirit entity. In the “Ten Theses on the Person,” Frankl, asserted that the dimension of the spirit is an indelible aspect of human existence that is not a substance but a dynamic.(2) The spirit is the source of the will to meaning, the human capacity for searching for and finding meaning, self-distancing, the capacity to distance oneself from the self and to observe oneself from the outside; self-transcendence, the capacity to reach out toward meaning, and other meta-physical phenomena such as love beyond the physical, gratitude, humor, kindness, forgiveness, hope, and faith. These capacities of the human spirit are, like an inner reservoir, the well spring of resilience, self-transcendence and growth that have a protective effect in crisis prevention and curative effect in crisis intervention. (3)
The first basic tent of logotherapy, Freedom of Will, asserts that humans are not fully subject to their conditions and the circumstances that surround them, but they can, within the limitations of those circumstances, and in view of being a fallible, vulnerable and finite human being, take a stand toward both internal conditions (such as one’s own biological and psychological state, instincts, drives, genetic makeup, thoughts, and emotions) and external circumstances (social factors, the past and what others decide to do). (1) The freedom to take a stand derives from the dimension of the spirit, which in Frankl’s holistic view of the person is conceptualized as the essentially human realm. The spirit is who we really are, over and above the dimension of the body and mind, of what we have. Body and mind are the instruments of the spirit. (1) As spiritual persons humans are infinitely more than reacting organisms, they can choose their stand toward their circumstances and shape themselves and their lives. (2)
The second concept, the Will to Meaning, asserts that, in addition to being free, human beings are free for something, they are free to reach their goals and accomplish purposes. (1) These goals and purposes are present in reaching out for meaning that is present in values that stand in relation to every person in each situation. Realizing meaning is seen as a fundamental motivating force of human behavior. (1) When the Will to Meaning can not reach its target, the feeling is experienced as a nagging feeling, followed by a sense of meaninglessness. (4) There are other forms of existential manifestations of the Will to Meaning being inhibited in its natural dynamics. The term “existential frustration” describes when values that used to be actualized, can no longer be actualized for some reason, and a person feels an inner sense of exasperation. (4) “Existential vacuum” is the feeling of inner emptiness that follows long-standing feelings of existential frustration. (4) “Existential struggle” results from not living up to one’s values or trespassing them. (7) “Existential distress” accompanies existential frustration and existential vacuum characterised by a feeling of despondency. (8) “Existential Angst” has been traditionally used by the existentialist to refer to a sense of meaninglessness (8). “Existential Threat” is used to refer to one’s existence and fundamental values being in jeopardy. The frustration of the will to meaning can lead to the pursuit of avenues that may mimic the effects of finding meaning, such as pleasure, success, or power seeking. (5) It can also result in aggression, addiction, depression, self-harming, and self-defeating behaviors as well as increase the severity of psychological and emotional distress. (1)
LTEA was specifically developed to help people become aware of and to tackle the obstacles that hinder the accomplishment of meaningful goals. (1,4) In LTEA, people are led to areas of freedom where meaning potentials can be found. However, they are not given or offered specific meaning contents because they need to discern and discover these for themselves with help from their conscience and will to meaning. The will to meaning is the strongest ally of the helper because it is that source of vitality and elan that is aimed at detecting realistic meaning possibilities that one can accomplish. (8)
The third principle, Meaning in Life, asserts the belief that life offers purposeful goals worth accomplishing in every situation. (1,4) Meaning is a thought of as a trans-subjective value standing in relation to the person. Thus, meaning is an objective reality that addresses the person, not an invention or figment of imagination or wishful thinking, arising from the soma or mind of the person. (1) Meaning is intuited through conscience and discerned in the dimension of spirit. (2) A person is invited to use their freedom of will and responsibility to make the best of a situation and of themselves. While ultimate meaning is abstract and impossible for humans to fully comprehend, as it is only with faith that one can approach its mystery, the meaning of the moment in harmony with ultimate meaning is a concrete possibility and task that is awaiting each person, linked to their specific circumstances and situation and in a state of change from moment to moment. (5) Thus, instead of finding a general meaning in life, one is invited to keep an open mind and remain flexible to accomplish the call of the moment, and thus shape oneself and one’s life moment to moment and day by day. (1)
There are three therapeutic techniques that form part of the non-specific tool kit of LTEA. These methods have been developed to deal with patterns, tendencies, and attitudes that can block the will to meaning and cause emotional and psychological suffering. Each of these techniques are evidence-based practices. (8)
Paradoxical intention has been used since the early 1930s in the treatment of obsessive and compulsive tendencies, and anxiety. (4, 5, 6) The basic premise of this method is that excessive avoidance of anxiety provoking stimuli can lead to excessive fear. Attempts to ward off this fear can be coupled with fear of fear. Fear of fear leads to a vicious cycle in which self-observation, hyper-vigilance, and hyper-attention, bring about the feared symptom. (4,8) Thus, excessive fighting against, leads to symptom amplification. The way to break the vicious cycle is to create a distance between the self and the fear, face the fear instead of running from it or warding off from it though safety behaviors, identify the trigger of fear, learn how to tolerate fear, and employ humorous formulations to exaggerate it to create even more distance between the spiritual self and the fear, which breaks the vicious cycle and symptom amplification. (1,8)
De-reflection has been used in the case of sleep disturbances, sexual dysfunctions, and anxiety disorders, where the root of symptom amplification had to do with anxious self-observation, anxious rumination, and hyper-intention. (1,5,6) The increased attention and intention, coupled with increased anxiety led to a vicious cycle of hyper-arousal that interfered with spontaneous functioning. Right passivity, though drawing attention away from the physical and emotional self toward areas of freedom and values allowed the spontaneity and natural flow to return. (8)
Modification of Attitudes is focused on identifying and altering attitudes and expectations that block meaning fulfillment. (1,8) Such patterns can be habit forming and alienate a person from being in touch with themselves, with their aspirations and meaning potentials in life, thus alienating them further and further and reinforcing maladaptive a poor choice that are causing suffering to themselves and others. Rather than value impositions, telling people what to do, ordering and commanding them how to alter their maladaptive patterns of behavior, therapists reach to the root of these behaviors in attitudes that are unrealistic, exaggerated, counterproductive, or self-defeating to help them gain new perspectives and outlook that may offer a fresh path to a productive and fulfilled life. The Socratic dialogue is used to challenge old and maladaptive assumptions and to bring up the possibility of re-thinking and re-committing oneself to new ways of seeing and doing that brings meaning into the world. The aim of the Socratic dialogue is to help to re-connect with universal values, and to re-connect with truth, beauty and goodness, aspects of meaning that one can bring into the world. (1,8)
The faulty assumptions underlying the idea of war can be seen in collectivistic thinking, reductionism, and fanaticism. (3) Collectivistic thinking requires to relinquish the individual agency and freedom of the individual to the thinking of the group. (3) In the case of an autocratic style of leadership, individual freedoms and responsibility is required to be relinquished to a central figure.
Reductionism is the idea that complex realities can be understood along lower levels. (3, 5) Such thinking denies the freedom of will of the individual.
Fanaticism is manifested in the elevation of a relative value to the absolute. (3) The danger of fanaticism is an “all or nothing thinking” in which the value on the of a pyramidal system is absolutized, idealised and quasi “worshipped.”
Three vicious cycles are created by the wrong attitudes: (1) “Existential threat,” the one’s values are in jeopardy, are exacerbated by a fanatic attitude in which one value is idealized and absolutized. Fanaticism evokes a feeling of “existential threat,” and the feeling of “Existential threat” reinforces the fanatic zeal to protect this value from being lost. (2) “Existential Angst,” a sense of meaninglessness fostered by reductionistic thinking provokes a fear of fear. The fear of fear reinforces the existential angst. (3) The perception of “existential threat” of the autocratic style evokes “existential angst” and the existential angst reinforces the perceived existential threat.
The will to meaning is temporarily blocked by these three obstacles. Existential frustration surfaces, but the voice of conscience is ignored and continually supressed. In the absence of meaning, the motivation may change to seeking pleasure and appreciation of utility instead of inherent value. Since this path des not lead to meaning, it is frustrated and leas to existential vacuum. In the vacuum aggression, violence, abuse, and harmful behaviors flourish.
In the continued absence of meaning, a will to power may predominate. It reinforces the fanatic zeal, but ultimately, fails to bring a sense of fulfillment and leads to frustration and despair. The consequence is existential despair.
From the perspective of LTEA, without restoring a healthy meaning-orientation, suffering amounts. Pain is inflicted in the self and on others. There are three points of intervention that can help to remove the obstacles from the path of the frustrated will to meaning: (1) breaking the fear of fear through paradoxical intention; (2) modifying the fanatic attitude through the method of modifying attitudes; and (3) re-instating a three-dimensional view of the person in one humanity by de-reflecting from self-interest and considering others. This will fully re-instate the dynamics of the will to meaning.
Paradoxical intention to break the pattern of existential angst and fear of fear can focus on being able to face fear and tolerate it without lashing out and hurting others. It is a normal phenomenon to experience fear of meaninglessness. The fear itself points to the significance of finding meaning. Excessive fear leads to a paralyzed sense of rigidity or attempts to fight the fear by frantic action and acting out. It is a human prerogative to take a distance from oneself, from one’s inner state. It is a human achievement to look fear straight in the face and deal with it, like the bull fighter tackles a bull by its horns. “Take the bull by the horns.” “You are in a unique position like no one else in the history of this world to effect change, and defeat fear by looking not its eyes and defeating it through your resolve to be stronger than it.”
Modification of attitudes can tackle the vicious cycle of fanaticism and the feeling of existential threat. Whenever we idealise a value, and place it on a pedestal, we place it in a position that if it is not possible to achieve, we are risking having no value because we put everything on the line, “we put all our eggs in the same basket.” An idealized value makes us loose sight of the fact that we are not the one wo assign values, but it is life. Rather than placing values, we need to live them. The Socratic Question helps us to reflect on: “Rather than us asking what we an expect from life, we need to ask, what is life asking from us in this moment?”
The third vicious cycle between existential threat and the existential angst that blocks the will to meaning can be alleviated through de-reflection. We think of the future beyond our self-interest. What is it that we want our legacy to remain in the world? According to Albert Einstein, if all the resources that are invested into the war could be put to a good use, the world could be a much better place to live in. Let us imagine and build such a world.
Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust believed that when the basic need for meaning is ignored, disregarded, and shunned, then even success, power and fame will feel empty and futile. (5) In the absence of meaning, falls into the abyss of despair. In the presence of meaning, however, even a perceived failure can lead to a sense of fulfillment. (5)
He outlined three avenues through which life can be made meaningful. (1) Through creative values, to which category belong everything that we bring into the world through work, and creative activities. (2) Experiential values, though which we can find meaning in what we receive from the world, such as its beauty and the relationships we cultivate; and (3) through attitudinal values, the possibility of facing unavoidable suffering with courage. (4, 5) This latter in the highest form of human accomplishment because it offers the deepest possible meaning until the last breath. The attitudinal values are subdivided into another triad: meaningful attitudes to pain, guilt, and death. (5)
As human beings, we are fallible, vulnerable, and finite. However, our essence is not what is fallible, finite, and vulnerable, but that what is eternal—our essence. Surely, what we have done, cannot be undone. However, the attitude toward pain confronts us with the possibility of taking a stand toward fate. In the case of guilt, one has the chance to take a stand toward oneself. Because of our freedom of will, it is a human prerogative to become guilty of a wrongful act, and it is a human imperative to overcome this guilt, to have a change of heart. (5)
As for the third aspect of the tragic triad, life’s transitoriness, Frankl remarks that we usually see only the partial picture:
“Usually, man only sees the stubble fields of transitoriness and overlooks the full granaries of the past. In the past nothing is irrevocably lost but everything is irrevocably preserved and saved, safely delivered and deposited. Nothing and nobody can deprive us of what we have rescued into the past. What we have done can never be undone. This adds to man’s responsibleness. For in the face of transitoriness of his life, he is responsible for using the past opportunities to actualize potentialities, to realize values, whether creative, experiential, or attitudinal. In other words, man is responsible for what to do, whom to love, and how to suffer. Once has realized a value, he has fulfilled a meaning, he has fulfilled it once and forever” (5:52).
“Man’s Search for Meaning” expresses trust in the realistic optimism that change is possible. Through the freedom of will, a human being is uniquely in the position to shape and to mold him or herself.
“I speak of a tragic optimism, that is, optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action” (4: 129-130).
It is possible to follow a path that does not lead to meaning. It is possible to recognize that that path is dead-end, and at any moment, it is possible to choose another path that leads to life. A human being can become aware of meaning and has the capacity to defy inner or outside obstacles to fulfill the meaning of the moment, if they maintain their vitality, and exercise their spiritual muscles.
(1) Batthyány, A. (2022). Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. Open document available from: The Viktor Frankl Institute, Vienna. https://www.viktorfrankl.org/logotherapy.html
(2) Frankl, V. E. (1950). Logos und Existenze. Vienna: Amandus Verlag.
(3) Frankl, V. E. (2010). The Feeling of Meaninglessness. A Challenge to Psychotherapy and Philosophy. Edited by: A. Batthyány. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette Press.
(4) Frankl, V. E. (2014). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston. MA: Beacon Press.
(5) Frankl, V. E. (2014b). The Will to Meaning. New York, NY: Plume.
(6) Frankl, V. E. (2019). The Doctor and the Soul. From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
(7) Marshall, E. & Marshall, M. (2021). Logotherapy for the Management of Moral Injury. Ottawa, Canada: Ottawa Institute of Logotherapy.
(8) Marshall, M. & Marshall, E. (2022). Viktor E. Frankl’s Logotherapy and Existential Analysis: Theory and Practice. Ottawa, Canada: Ottawa Institute of Logotherapy.