In Search of Meaning: Viktor Frankl and Logotherapy

Mans Search for Meaning
Man’s Search for Meaning

Last week I read Viktor Frankl’s 1946 autobiographical and philosophical work, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” At only 165 pages, it’s a relatively short book full of profoundly deep insights. Frankl’s objective is to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” He achieves this first by recounting his experiences as a prisoner in four different camps during WWII, then by providing an overview of the psychotherapeutic approach he developed during that time, called logotherapy.

Part I, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” is expectantly rich with examples of the unimaginable cruelty humans are capable of inflicting upon one another. What I didn’t expect were the numerous beautiful accounts of the great dignity and courage humans are capable of living with, even under conditions of extreme duress and ever-present threats to their mortality. The book is masterfully balanced in exploring both the terror of the camp, and the stalwart strength of the prisoners. In one particularly poignant scene in which Frankl longs to be reunited with his wife, he exclaims, “Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.”

It’s this balance of exploration that gives way to one of the great insights found in the book. Numerous examples are provided throughout, reminding us that so often when examining the fallout of WWII, we focus primarily on the evils humans brought upon one another (and there were many). But in our haste to shed light on the darkness of the Holocaust, we sometimes fail to recognize the sea of flickering lights on the horizon, each a shining example of human survival, resistance, and resilience. In Frankl’s words, “After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of 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.”

Part II, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” is Frankl’s condensed treatise and explanation of his unique approach to treating psychological neurosis. As he explains, “Logotherapy regards its assignment as that of assisting the patient to find meaning in his life.” Drawing from his own lived experiences over the course of WWII to develop his thesis, Frankl’s approach in practice is as much applied Philosophy as it is psychotherapy, for “it does not restrict its activity to instinctual facts within the individual’s unconscious but also cares for existential realities, such as the potential meaning of his existence to be fulfilled as well as his will to meaning.”

Logotherapy turns the cliche notion of asking “What is the meaning of life?” on its head. It is our task, Frankl claims, to instead find meaning in answering for ourselves the questions that life asks of us. And where does one find meaning? According to Frankl’s thesis, there are three possibilities: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), or in courage during difficult times.

Viktor Frankl, 1949.
Viktor Frankl, 1949.

Frankl’s belief was that neurosis isn’t necessarily pathological, but in many cases is caused by “existential frustration,” which is a kind of distress stemming from an inability to actualize one’s will to meaning. In other words, when one’s effort to find meaning in work, love, or suffering is stymied, existential angst develops, often presenting in the form of neurosis.

One example Frankl gives to illuminate his point is that of “Sunday neurosis:” a type of “depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.” It is this existential vacuum (a state of excessive cognitive boredom) where the existential frustration takes hold of an individual and side-tracks their will to meaning. Discontent emerges, and any effort at achieving meaningful existence is usurped by lesser forces: the will to power, the will to money, or the will to pleasure. But all is not lost, for Frankl reminds us that “one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them.”

For one trapped in this severe state of internal self-desolation, there is but one remedy: what Frankl refers to as the “self-transcendence of human existence.” A process which is much more easily described than done, self-transcendence differs from self-actualization in that it is a side-effect of right action, rather than an attainable end in itself. In other words, self-transcendence, like happiness and success, is something that must ensue, rather than be pursued.

Self-transcendence can ensue as the result of a number of different actions. From changing one’s perspective in order to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to changing one’s self internally when it’s no longer an option to change a situation itself, and even to show one’s courage in suffering through the outward expression of angst in the form of tears, self-transcendence is Frankl’s solution to life’s inherent meaninglessness. It is the key to his “tragic optimism,” which proclaims through the words of Nietzsche that even in the worst conditions, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

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My Tour of the Tents: a look inside Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent City Jail

Last month, July 16 – 18, I was lucky enough to attend the annual Netroots Nation conference, which this year was held here in Phoenix. This is the final piece in a four-part recap of my #NN15 experience. The previous three pieces are available here:

I want to send a huge THANK YOU to my friend Hannah Simpson for sharing the photos from our Tent City tour with me to include in this post. Check out Hannah’s recent Op-ed from Advocate.com: Why This Trans Woman Doesn’t Want to Ban Drag, But Say ‘Thank You.’


Estrella Jail, Maricopa County, Arizona
Estrella Jail, Maricopa County, Arizona

Tent City sits directly behind another detention facility, the Estrella Jail. It’s not at all a long drive from downtown Phoenix, and Hannah and I arrive right on time. The building itself resembles an elementary school on the outside, but with the notable addition of razor wire adorning the top of the perimeter walls, serving as crown molding for a facility designed to keep people in at all cost.

Not knowing quite what to expect, we enter through the main doors of Estrella to check in as instructed in the confirmation email from a few days earlier. The place is deserted. We wait for a moment at the front desk, until an office attendant behind the glass notices we’re there. We’re told no one knew we were coming. We produce the email confirming our scheduled tour, take our seats in the waiting room, and wonder if we’ll be able to see the jail after all.
Estrella Jail Waiting Room
Estrella Jail Waiting Room

Nearly 45 minutes later, a guard appears to collect us and off we go. We follow him out the door and around the east side of Estrella, toward the entrance to Tent City. A second guard appears, ready to join us for the remainder of the tour.

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Netroots Nation 2015 Recap part 3

Last month, July 16 – 18, I was lucky enough to attend the annual Netroots Nation conference, which this year was held here in Phoenix. This is part 3 of 4 of my #NN15 recap. The other three parts of this series are available here:


Day 3

Day 3 of #NN15 was not as cram-packed with programming as the first two days. Some attendees were already catching flights home, disappointed to miss the upcoming Presidential Town Hall. I wasn’t able to get away from the office that morning, but between fielding emails and returning phone calls, I was able to beam into the Town Hall by switching between a handful of live Periscope streams. This allowed me to experience the event from the unique perspective of the front row activists from the Movement for Black Lives.

After the Black Lives Matter disruption of Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders I posted a short observation about the apparent contradiction within the ideological positions of many out-spoken conference attendees. My general impression of Sanders’ reaction (or lack thereof) to the disruption was that “if this man will not address issues of race in America as a candidate, he will not lead on issues of race in America as President.”

Netroots Nation Day 3
Netroots Nation Day 3

Later that afternoon, I hopped on the train and made it back to the convention center for the last session of the conference, “Trans Organizers Are Winning the Internet.” The panel included a number of individuals currently on the forefront of queer and trans* organizing. (I got there early, and the room filled up as the panel continued.)

We heard from Jennicet Gutierrez, the undocumented trans activist who was silenced at the White House in June when she called for President Obama to stop the torture and abuse of trans women in detention Centers. We heard from Elle Hearns, a regional coordinator for Black Lives Matter and GetEqual, who emphasized the importance of funding trans and QPOC leadership as a step toward creating spaces of safety and justice. The session closed with a dynamite Q & A about how organizers can continue to create spaces for Trans* and Queer folks online, even in today’s political climate that has yet to fully recognize the unique ways in which these members of our communities are policed, oppressed, and invisiblized.

Saturday was the last official day of Netroots Nation 2015, but there was one more thing to do before wrapping up the weekend: a scheduled tour of Sheriff Joe’s infamous Tent City county jail.

Netroots Nation 2015 Recap part 2

Last month, July 16 – 18, I was lucky enough to attend the annual Netroots Nation conference, which this year was held here in Phoenix. This is part 2 of 4 of my #NN15 recap. The other three parts of this series are available here:


Day 2

Netroots Nation Day 2
Netroots Nation Day 2

I took a deep breath as I stepped through the doors of the convention center Friday morning for Day 2 of Netroots Nation. I’d had only a few hours to process the outstanding sessions from Day 1, and already here I was about to embark on a new day of #NN15. Today though, the 2nd floor of the convention center was oddly calm. I soon learned that Netroots Karaoke and bar hopping the night before may have been to blame. Or perhaps everyone was taking the time to prepare themselves for Elizabeth Warren’s upcoming speech. Whatever the case, I was determined to make the most of this conference, which meant not missing a single session if I could help it. I made my way to the first session with just as much enthusiasm as Day 1.

“New Voices, New Visionaries: Toward a Migrant Justice Movement Led from the Queer and Trans* Frontlines” began with a discussion among four panelists and a moderator, each of whom brought a unique and valuable perspective to the conversation. We heard about the Arizona Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project (AZ QUIP), and the Arcoiris Liberation Team. We heard the story of Yesenia Palencia, a lesbian woman who fled el Salvador for a better life in the US. Yesenia has been held in detention in Eloy for nearly a year, where she has faced trials not only for her immigration status, but because of her sexual orientation as well. In September 2013 Yesenia even faced sexual assault. If you have the means to do so, please consider donating to Yesenia’s crowdfunding campaign raising money for her bond so that she can be released from detention and reunited with her loved ones.Read More »

Netroots Nation 2015 Recap part 1

Two weeks ago, July 16 – 18, I was lucky enough to attend the annual Netroots Nation conference, which this year was held here in Phoenix. This is part 1 of 4 of my #NN15 recap. The other three parts of this series are available here:

Thank you

I want to first thank Emily’s List, and more locally Arizona List, for the generous sponsorship allowing me the opportunity to attend Netroots Nation. This was truly an experience I’ve grown from, and that I’ll genuinely cherish for years to come. I learned so much and I can’t wait to put that knowledge to use for the community here in Arizona.

I also want to thank Phoenix Pride for allowing me to take time away from the Center for events like Netroots for the purposes of professional development. Time and time again, this organization has shown they believe in me. First while I was in college when I became a Phoenix Pride Scholar, and again last year when I was hired as the Center Coordinator for the Phoenix Pride LGBT Center. Without them, my life would be very different, and I’m forever grateful.


Day 1

I arrived at the Phoenix Convention Center just after 8:30 in the morning. As the button from the conference SWAG bag stated, I was a “Netroots Nation First-Timer,” and thus I had no agenda and no idea what to expect. I made my way up the escalator and across the second floor, and I was struck by the number of fresh-faced millennials excitedly milling around. From the look of things, most of us were already well into our second cup of coffee, with no signs of slowing down. The place was buzzing with anticipation, and with guests like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren lined up, it was clear how much we were all looking forward to the weekend.

Netroots Nation Day 1: Netroots Newbie!
Netroots Nation Day 1: Netroots Newbie!

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An observation of NN15

  • Netroots Nation day 1-2: “Cis white men are the problem!”
  • Netroots Nation day 3: “We want Bernie! #feeltheBern”

So what is the truth?

I’m watching Bernie Sanders live on Periscope at the Presidential Town Hall of Netroots Nation 2015. Yikes. If this man will not address issues of race in America as a candidate, he will not lead on issues of race in America as President.

Carlos Maza Tweet 01

Carlos Maza Tweet 02

Prime Advice

Don’t stay up so late.

Ask authentic questions,

Smile.

Create strong and honest relationships.

Make meaningful plans,

Breathe.

Be happy to see people.

Express genuine gratitude,

Stretch.

Acknowledge how another has triumphed.

Show candid compassion,

Blink.