Living with Purpose

In 1970 or ’71, I sat in a university lecture hall and listened to a Holocaust survivor tell his story. The speaker was psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and he talked about how to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world that makes no sense. Hearing him tell of the horrors he endured changed my view of life and the world.

Viktor Frankl

Before the outbreak of World War II, Dr. Frankl worked in Austria’s largest state hospital, taking care of patients who had either attempted suicide or were at risk for taking their own lives. In the course of treating and counseling his patients, Dr. Frankl also learned a lot from them. He observed that there was one over-riding factor in helping people to be healed of suicidal thoughts: A sense of purpose.

If people had a reason for living, they could go on living, even in very painful circumstances. If they had no reason for living, suicide became an attractive option. Out of these observations, Dr. Frankl developed an approach he called logotherapy, or meaning-centered therapy.

Dr. Frankl had nearly completed a book on logotherapy when he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. He kept his manuscript hidden in his coat. When he arrived at the camp, he showed the manuscript to a capo—a prisoner who collaborated with the Nazis and acted as a guard. He said, ‘I must preserve this book at all costs.’ The capo answered with an obscenity.

That book had been Dr. Frankl’s purpose for living—but at that moment he knew that everything, including his life’s work, would be stripped from him. He would have to find another purpose for living if he was going to survive the Nazi death camps. He later spent time in two of the most notorious of the all the death camps, Auschwitz and Dachau. He saw the human smoke rising from the ovens. He lost his wife, father, mother, and brother in those camps.

Dr. Frankl remained alive until the camps were liberated by the Allies. He told all of us in that audience that he was committed to re-writing the destroyed manuscript. That determination gave him a sense of purpose that kept him alive. Even while he was digging trenches or caring for dying prisoners, he was thinking about his book. He wrote notes of ideas, and jotted them down on scraps of paper that he kept hidden from the Nazis—and that sense of purpose even pulled him through a nearly fatal bout with typhoid.

Dr. Frankl told us his story about surviving the Holocaust, and how his theory of logotherapy was tested and confirmed during his three years in the death camps. He said that the people who survived the camps were the ones whose lives had a purpose for living—and he quoted Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

After Dr. Frankl and his fellow prisoners were liberated by the Americans, he went on to re-write the book that was destroyed at Theresienstadt. That book was published in 1946 as Man’s Search for Meaning—and it was a more complete and powerful book than his first manuscript, because it contained all of his experiences and notes from his time in the concentration camps. Dr. Frankl had a dream of helping people with their fears, depression, and suicidal impulses—and his dream was driven by a desire to apply logotherapy, meaning-centered therapy, to those problems and disorders. He proved that those who have a why to live for can survive any how—and driven by a sense of purpose, they can achieve their dreams.

As he stood there in that university lecture hall, telling about his experiences, he closed by telling us that while he was digging trenches in the bitter cold, he would visualize himself standing in a nice, warm, brightly lit lecture hall, speaking to an audience about the psychology of concentration camps. And I felt a tingle down my spine when it hit me that I was right there, in that warm, brightly lit lecture hall, witnessing the fulfillment of his dream! That was a powerful realization.

It was more than forty years ago that I heard Dr. Frankl tell his story, yet I remember it vividly. That’s the power of living with a purpose.