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Psychiatrist's Legacy Continues the Search for Meaning in Life

November 3, 2005 By:
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Viktor Frankl would have turned 100 this year. The psychotherapist's work was the subject of a conference at the University of Pennsylvania.

A century after the birth of Viktor E. Frankl - who spent three years in four Nazi deaths camps, and used his experiences to transform psychotherapy into a discipline that encouraged patients to resist despair and embrace life - proponents of his ideas are using his approach for everything from treating terminally-ill cancer patients to improving workplace dynamics.

This was the central theme running through an Oct. 30 conference held at the University of Pennsylvania that celebrated the life of Frankl, an Austrian-born Jew who died in 1997 at the age of 92. He would have turned 100 this past March.

Frankl taught that the primary cure to mental illness and spiritual anguish was for a person to find purpose in their life.

"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread," he wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, a widely read work first published in 1944 that detailed his experiences in camps like Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, and outlined the ideas behind logotherapy, or meaning-centered therapy.

"They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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."

Examining the Subject
Speaking before roughly 80 people, Dr. William S. Breitbart, chief psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, reported that he had adopted logotherapy to create a program that aims to fight depression and hopelessness in terminally-ill cancer patients.

"The basic principle is that life has a meaning and never ceases to have meaning," said Breitbart at the conference, sponsored by Lubavitch House's Healthy-Living Advisory Board and Penn's Office of Health Education.

Breitbart, a child of Holocaust survivors, played a video clip of a prostate-cancer patient who described returning to synagogue after an absence of many years.

In the video, the patient explained he was able to find a measure of comfort and connection through prayer. Although he said the link was not necessarily with God, it was with his father and grandfather, who, no matter what, made it to shul on Saturdays.

Though Frankl himself was apparently estranged from Judaism for many years, several of the speakers at Penn credited him with working to reconcile the chasm between psychology and religion, a breech the speakers attributed to Sigmund Freud.

According to Rabbi Reuven Bulka, who earned a doctorate with a concentration in logotherapy from the University of Ottawa, religious leaders have historically been wary of Freud's teachings. The rabbi noted that Freud held a disparaging view of faith and believed that biological and sexual desires dictate human behavior, instead of a sense of higher purpose.

Bulka argued that by helping people seek purpose in their lives - by professing a belief in God, and talking openly about the existence of souls and the possibility of an afterlife - Frankl opened the door for people of faith to explore psychotherapy.

"His plea for meaning is a passionate call from a combination psychologist, psychiatrist, theologian, philosopher who is desperate to save the world from itself," said Bulka.

According to Rabbi Levi Haskelevich, the Lubavitch House at Penn co-sponsored the conference because the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson held Frankl's writings in high esteem.

A monograph printed for the conference quotes a letter from Schneerson that said: "To my astonishment, his approach has not been as widely disseminated and accepted as it should."

Haskelevich said that part of the goal of the conference was to spark more academic interest in Frankl's work.

Still, a number of speakers and panelists described how his work has already been applied directly to social work and pastoral counseling, and even political and social organizing.

Without delving much into specifics, Alex Pattakos, founder of the New Mexico-based Center for Personal Meaning, said he has used Frankl's work to come up with ways to create more meaningful and happier office environments.

But, with this in mind, could the search for meaning mean pretty much a search for almost anything?

Bulka explained that Frankl was not a moral relativist - and that not all meanings would have been acceptable in his view.

After all, explained Bulka, the suicide bomber certainly believes there is meaning in his or her final act of life.

"There's a critical litmus test for what is meaningful," he said. "Is the world better off by what you have done? Are you engaged in construction rather than destruction?"

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