We have to be idealists to be true realists

What is the difference between people who are able to pick themselves up and get over tragedies and those who are not?


‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ was written in nine days. Photo: Natasha Badhwar
‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ was written in nine days. Photo: Natasha Badhwar

I don’t always understand or remember why I carry this book everywhere with me, but I notice that I have been packing it in my suitcase or backpack rather compulsively in the last decade. My copy of Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl is damaged from all the travel and has three bookmarks in it. A bank deposit slip, a boarding pass and a fraying note from a friend—all from the 1990s.

I forget my own backstories, but my subconscious seems to hold all the connecting threads together. Somewhere there is an explanation to why this book with its blue cover and yellowing pages has become my security blanket. I don’t read it as often as I handle it, always keeping it somewhere close to where I am.

Dr Viktor E. Frankl was a prominent psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna when he and his family were arrested and transported separately to Nazi concentration camps in 1942. Three years later, he was liberated, but his parents, brother and pregnant wife had all died. He and his sister were the only ones from their family to survive.

What is the difference between people who are able to pick themselves up and get over tragedies and those who are not? What is it that prevents people from committing suicide despite abject despair and little hope of a better tomorrow?

In 1946, Frankl wrote about his experiences in the concentration camp, both as an inmate as well as a psychiatrist. Written in nine days, the first edition of his book in English was titled, From Death-Camp To Existentialism.

Frankl writes of the physical and psychological brutality of life in the concentration camp. There is an acute longing for one’s home and family and disgust at the ugliness and humiliation of everyday life. There is fear, hunger and pain, and finally an apathy sets in. He writes that the blunting of one’s emotions, a lack of feeling, was a necessary mechanism for self-defence against daily beatings and the uncertainty of survival.

Eventually there is an intensification of inner life that helps the prisoner to find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence.

“My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing—which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”

Frankl repeats this in almost all his interviews: Everything can be taken from a man but one thing. The last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. No one can take away your conscience, your morals, your individuality from you unless you let them. They can take everything from you in material terms—your house, your job, your ability to speak and move freely. They cannot take away who you truly are. They can never truly know you, and that is your power.

Frankl is a master of analogies. In a taped recording from the 1970s, he takes to the blackboard to explain how a pilot who has to land a plane from point A to B in the east of an airfield, must actually attempt to aim to a point to the north of B to be able to beat the crosswind that will make the plane drift involuntarily. By aiming higher, he will reach the intended destination. With great excitement and to the sound of applause, Frankl notes that the same holds true for man.

“If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him…if we seem to be idealists and are overrating man, expecting him to be higher than he can, you know what happens? We promote him to what he really can be. So we have to be idealists in a way, because then we wind up as the true realists.”

If we take man as he is, we make him worse, but if we take man as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”

Frankl credits this wisdom to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and asserts that this is the most apt maxim and motto for any psychotherapeutic activity.

Frankl also quotes Friedrich Nietzsche to make his point, “He who knows the ‘why’ for his existence, will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.”

In 1984, he added another section, titled “The Case For A Tragic Optimism”, to his book.

“Is this to say that suffering is indispensible to the discovery of meaning? In no way. I only insist that meaning is available in spite of—nay even through—suffering, provided that the suffering is unavoidable.”

As I leaf through my copy searching for the parts that have always resonated with me, the book has begun to come apart at the seams. The back cover will fall off soon. The search for meaning is not without consequences. This book that is inescapably about death is actually a book about the defiance of hope and life. It is like a therapeutic equivalent of a Swiss army knife. A handy toolkit with multiple solutions, one of which will always help to show the way.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar. Read Natasha’s Mint Lounge columns

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