The Gift Of Quest

“If we hope to live not just from moment to moment, but in true consciousness of our existence, then our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives.”  Bruno Bettleheim                                                          

Unfortunately, meaning does not always present itself wrapped in a bow like a birthday gift. Sometimes it does of course and those blessed with such certainty have a clearer roadmap. That too can mislead, though, because, as we come to realize, events happen. Bruno Bettleheim discovered that as he entered the Nazi terror system for his outspokenness and Jewish ethnicity, spending most of a year in the late nineteen-thirties as a forced laborer at Dachau and Buchenwald. Released in a general amnesty on Hitler’s birthday he emigrated to join his then wife in America and soon to re-establish himself as a scholar and practitioner in the field of child psychology.

There would be no such early reprieve for Viktor Frankl. Although he too would be cruelly confined in several Nazi camps, he mostly subsisted at Auschwitz where he was expected to die as had his wife and parents, which he would only discover much later. Frankl too had a chance to leave Europe before the war and the final solution became policy, but he refused to abandon his family. Nor was that the only significant difference between the two men. Their approach to discovering the basic reason for a person’s being also diverged. For Bettleheim it was always an uncertain exploratory voyage. In his case, later to be dogged by controversy, accusations and inconsistency. Frankl’s route would be more purpose-driven, matching deep conviction with his practice and observations of human psychology in society.

On his release when the camps were liberated, Viktor Frankl found himself among the 1 in 28 who lived through the torture, deprivation, arbitrary executions and dispiriting horror of total dehumanization. Although it seemed only by chance, he missed certain death several times. Still, he could not have withstood the unrelenting desperation of his constant mistreatment without the purpose which kept him focused on survival nor that one freedom still left to him: to choose his response to what he endured.  Disciplined self-leadership made possible by deep gratitude for his nearly invulnerable sense of purpose kept him alive, when so many others either surrendered to the despair of self-abandonment or found ways to nourish a reckless soul-devouring grievance.

On entering Auschwitz, Frankl was forced to surrender the concealed manuscript summarizing his life’s work and theories. To most of us, such a sacrifice would lead to total demoralization. But for Frankl ironically, it was a life saver. From that day forward he drove himself to reconstruct his lost pages first in his mind and then in tangible form. He would use what he saw in the extreme world unfolding around him to illustrate, refine and better rebuild his framework. After his release, in nine short days of writing, Viktor Frankl captured both his precarious, though cherished subsistence inside the death camp, while sharing his ideas in Man’s Search for Meaning. He first wanted to publish this brief, jargon free modern masterpiece anonymously, hardly expecting sales in the millions worldwide and continuing popularity 75 years later.  

One observation Frankl makes in Man’s Search for Meaning really stands out for me, an observation far too many in the helping professions and society in general often brush aside. Not all emotional discomfort is a symptom or harbinger of mental illness. Some suffering, the most important fundamental part is what human growth looks like – an existential moral struggle. Indeed, one way mental illness develops is through denial of or reaction to the thwarting of a healthy if painful fight to become what the individual was meant to be. This is a central tenet of logotherapy, Frankl’s self-tested contribution to the treatment of human beings in anguish.

Many astute observers including Bettleheim, one of the first to note Nazi evil clearly and up close from inside its terror-making machinery, recognized cruelty as policy while it steadily grew. They have detailed how fascist states devise templates adaptable to just about any human culture. Today we see these templates being refashioned around us as 21st Century authoritarians attempt to mold captive populations to their own brands of compliance. This spectacle leads many witnesses to stereotype the multitudes forced or driven to conform.

Frankl saw all that plus something else. He witnessed individuals at every level of the camp hierarchy show compassion even at personal risk. Neither could he miss others scrabbling for advantage with no regard for consequences to others. His conclusion was to refuse to give in to temptation by assigning collective guilt. And for roughly 50 years after his release, he remained in Vienna to work in the very medical system that had once rejected him. 

Our new tyrants are prepared to build with whatever materials are at hand: tired democracies, folkloric or religious ritual, ingrained despotic habits, lost livelihoods and lifestyles or lingering nostalgia. What they can not rework are the fundamentals of autonomous purposeful character:

Generous deeds and creative efforts for the benefit of all; accumulated lifetimes of experience; and, the courageous endurance of unwarranted suffering. All people should form their purpose honestly and passionately, but the above constitute the central ways a person achieves meaning according to Frankl, and to many who have come to believe personal meaning truly matters.

In this society that lauds pain-free existence above any other, we tend to forget that last source of meaning. When you as a leader seek to bestow your gratitude and rightfully acclaim the achievements and sound advice others have provided, do not forget those who struggle to make their contributions in life. Acknowledge them, as they, too, are worthy. In a recently aired clip from an interview he gave a year ago, I heard the late Rep. John Lewis state unequivocally: “I believe in the redemptive power of undeserved suffering.” He said it so emphatically you could scarcely ignore his words. Remember them at the same time you consider Viktor Frankl’s exemplary life of courage in these shocking months when so many thousands were  perishing alone and uncomforted. Let us hope they too are neither unloved nor unappreciated.


What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning, Inc. Senior Vice President, Judith Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.