My recent discovery of a collection of lectures by the famous and influential Viktor Frankl – Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything – has offered a compelling invitation to think about history’s refinement of our perspectives on life at one of its significant thresholds.
Delivered less than a year after his liberation from the experience so pointedly described in his Man’s Search for Meaning, these lectures address an audience of survivors of the Holocaust, whose condition in the aftermath he describes as being “spiritually bombed out.” This is the challenging beginning point for his making a case for the importance of finding meaning as the key to living.
He reviews the impact of what he calls the “big lie” (Yes, he calls it that.) of the propaganda that led to the loss of a moral and philosophical compass in Germany in the 1930s and early ’40s, and he focuses attention on the circumstance of those who now stand at the threshold of a different future in the wake of its defeat.
His challenge: What does a survivor of such an experience, who happens also to be a psychiatrist, offer to his companions as a means of living forward?
The answer to this question becomes the core tenet of his well-known philosophy, embodied in his practice of logotherapy and captured in his frequent quote from Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
The condition to which he is speaking is the result of having watched and experienced the erosion and breakdown of a moral and spiritual foundation on which a wholesome community can be built. This can happen on large scale, as is obvious in his context, or on smaller scales, even in unhealthy and abusive personal relationships.
The exhaustion that results from such a breakdown can lead to a “giving up” of any remnant of optimism and of finding encouragement to be hopeful for a future. To this condition, Frankl has earned the right to speak and be heard. Also, he has something to offer to any person or society that feels “bombed out” by the effects of such a breakdown.
Frankl’s suggestion to his fellow survivors is neither a nostalgia that forgets the trauma nor an apocalypticism that fantasizes a perfect future. Instead, he sets forth a hopeful activism that draws wisdom from experience and vision for a different kind of future beyond the horizon of their present condition, tempered by the resilience that their very survival testifies to.
The parallels are not hard to see in other contexts dominated by the intoxication of power unconnected with any sustainable value beyond its own preservation and advancement. History seems to teach us about the long-term unsustainability of the ambitions and illusions fueled by that intoxication.
The biblical testimony of the covenant community and its legacy down through history illustrate this eventual demise of imperial illusions – biblical Egypt, Israel’s monarchy, Babylon, Rome and beyond.
Empires have impressive power and wield it effectively; but, like the geologic process of erosion, history eventually reveals the difference between things that are temporary and those things with more permanence.
I find myself drawn to the prophets of the biblical tradition as I anticipate the experience of liberation from the ideological bondage that has resulted from a crusade for control of our national consciousness in an effort to restore and establish a social and moral framework that turns back the clock on certain features of our common life.
The prophets do not offer panaceas of comfort that enable a denial of the threatening realities that are a deeply rooted infection. They call those lapses of covenant faithfulness (especially superficial religion that sanctions the power quest of those who promise shared domination in return) for what they are, and they hold back little in their forthright condemnation.
But this prophetic perspective does something else, too, which stands in contrast to appeals to restore a “greatness” that is wrapped in nostalgic comfort of less challenging ideas and frameworks of an earlier time. They find hope, not in that kind of restoration but in a vision that reaches beyond the horizon to an image born of faithful trust in a God of ongoing creation.
Isaiah 43:18-19 declares: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old [says the Lord]. … Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
Frankl’s counsel to his fellow survivors and the call of prophetic hope both seem quite similar – to believe in a world beyond the horizon of present conditions, and to build with active hope vantage points from which we and others can see and live toward it.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).