Viktor Frankl survived the holocaust and the concentration camps. His wife, brother, mother, and father did not. I can only imagine the physical and emotional suffering he endured, and I’m in awe that because of those experiences, he became convinced that life has meaning under all circumstances, that man’s main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life, and that we always have the freedom to find meaning.
After being freed from the concentration camp, he returned to his work in psychology and wrote one of the most influential books in the world: “Man’s Search for Meaning”. In it, he writes about “Tragic Optimism”. He acknowledges that life is tragic; pain, guilt, and death are inevitable. But Frankl doesn’t stop there, because Frankl is an optimist. In spite of the “Tragic Triad” of pain, guilt and death, “life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are the most miserable.” That is to say that no matter our circumstances, it’s our choice how we feel about it.
What do you do with the Tragic Triad?
- Pain: Turn suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment.
- Guilt: Use guilt as the opportunity to change oneself for the better.
- Death: Take the ephemeral nature of life as incentive to take responsible action today.
How do you do that exactly? Frankl offered three ways, and all three of his suggestions require that you give something of yourself.
- 1. By creating a work or doing a deed. What work or deed will you give your time and talent to? Is it a book, a painting, raising your children or some other accomplishment you can turn your efforts towards?
- 2. By experiencing something or encountering someone. Will you give your attention to what you’re experiencing? Will you give something of yourself in an encounter with another being or really appreciate that sunset?
- 3. By taking an attitude of courage and dignity towards unavoidable suffering. Will you act with courage and dignity as you go about your daily life? A parking ticket can be a cause for complaint or an opportunity to practice grace.
In the midst of some of the worst suffering imaginable and without hope of being freed from that suffering, Frankl found meaning by giving. If he can do it, I can, too. Can you?
Give, because you’re a Tragic Optimist, and you create a meaningful life by giving.