While many of Frankl’s contemporaries had very negative views of humanity after witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust, Frankl remained fundamentally an optimist. He believed that even the worst men could become good, because man has the capacity to change himself at any moment. This ability comes from the fact that no matter how horrible the situation in which a man finds himself, he is always free to choose his destiny by choosing how he reacts to that situation. Frankl defines himself as a “tragic optimist,” because he believes that man always has the potential to make suffering into an accomplishment, to turn guilt into motivation for change, and to use the potential meaninglessness of life as motivation for making his life valuable. While optimism is often associated with happiness, Frankl is clear that finding meaning, not happiness, is his goal.
Frankl is able to be optimistic because he believes that man is fundamentally free, and with that freedom comes responsibility. Man does not simply have the opportunity to find meaning in his life—he must do so. It is the question life asks of him, and he is responsible to life for finding its answer. When we lose our will to meaning and cannot meet this responsibility, we must reorient ourselves toward what we want to accomplish. By making ourselves responsible to things and people outside of ourselves, we can ultimately fulfill our responsibility to ourselves and to life itself. Frankl ultimately claims that everyone has unique vocations, and we must spend our lives finding these tasks and completing them to the best of our ability.
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Freedom, Optimism, and Responsibility Quotes in Man’s Search for Meaning
Who can throw a stone at a man who favors his friends under circumstances when, sooner or later, it is a question of life or death? No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.
Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.
It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
But there is also a purpose in life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces.
Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual.
Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.
Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that within those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil?
One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he should recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
The emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in the categorical imperative of logotherapy, which is: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and if you had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now!”
Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized.
Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness.
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers at Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.