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A Thought for Today

by Terrell Tebbetts                  

Viktor Frankl survived the Holocaust. He was a Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist caught up and sent to a death camp when the Nazis took Austria. He survived because, as a physician, he ended up in charge of the little clinic at his camp. Yes, though those imprisoned there were doomed, the Nazis didn’t want to lose their enslaved laborers until they became so incapacitated they couldn’t work at all, so they had clinics to treat minor wounds and illnesses. Frankl thus occupied about the safest place a Jew could find in a death camp. After the war Frankl wrote a book about his experience titled The Will to Meaning. In it he discussed the differences between those who endured and survived the horrible conditions of the death camp and those who succumbed. In that book Frankl challenged two explanations of human behavior dominating the culture before World War II. Sigmund Freud had provided one explanation. In works like his The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud had proposed that human behavior primarily stems from the “pleasure principle.” He said we mainly act to avoid pain and seek pleasure, the drives to do so being part of his famous “id.” As we mature, he acknowledged, we learn to endure a little pain and delay immediate pleasure, doing so in order to gain greater pleasure in the future. Frankl said some entered the death camp as pleasure-seekers. But in a place where they neither had nor could hope for pleasure, they quickly succumbed, goners from the beginning. Pleasure-seeking was literally a dead end. Friedrich Nietzsche had provided another explanation. He had argued that human behavior stems primarily from what he called the “will to power,” a drive associated with ambition, achievement, and dominance. Frankl said some entered the death camp as power-seekers. But like the pleasure-seekers, they had and could hope for absolutely no power whatsoever, so they too were doomed from the beginning, power-seeking soon leading them to the same dead end the pleasure-seekers reached. Frankl said only one kind of people had the strength to endure and survive. He characterized them in the title of his book: they primarily lived by a “will to meaning.” Meaning, Frankl said, came from connections. Men of faith who felt closely connected to God found meaning in Him. Family men, especially if they knew their families had escaped the Nazis, found meaning in their life with their loved ones. Others, including Frankl himself, found meaning in the contributions they’d been making to society through their callings. Our deepest and most important need, Frankl asserted, is to be connected with a body beyond ourselves, whether it’s spiritual, familial, or social. When we live for Freud’s pleasure and Nietzsche’s power, we live for ourselves alone. Like sirens, pleasure and power tempt us to destruction. When we live for Frankl’s meaning, living for others, we truly live. Terrell Tebbetts is the Martha Heasley Cox Chair in American Literature at Lyon College. He can be reached at