Do you ever take a look at your own life and ask “why?”
If so, welcome to the human race. It’s something we all do. Especially when times are hard. That is when, often more than anything else, we want to know why. Why this? Why me? Why do I have to suffer this distress?
Viktor Frankl, the great Jewish Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor understood trauma far better than most of us. During the years following his deathcamp experience, he served as a guest professor in several different American universities. Prior to his own suffering at the hands of the Nazis, which included the death of his wife, father, mother, and brother, he worked a great deal in the area of suicide prevention helping his patients discover their “why” to survive their own distress that followed the First World War. Why go on living? He called it “logotherapy” and he was instrumental in saving the lives of a number of his fellow concentration camp inmates during his imprisonment at Theresienstadt, then Auschwitz, then Kaufering III, and finally Türkheim. Having lost his entire family, to his knowledge (though his sister was able to miraculously attain refuge in Australia), Dr. Frankl had to find a new reason for surviving the horrors and tortures of daily trauma. That reason became the care of his fellow prisoners. His family gone, these other suffering souls were all he had left to live for. Helping them survive helped him survive.
I ponder such a life as that of Viktor Frankl and his substantial contributions in the field of psychotherapy during the transition from psychoanalysis (why do I have to SUFFER this distress?) to existential logotherapy (why do I have to SURVIVE this distress?). And I wonder if he does not still have much to teach us here in America.
It is said that when Frankl was teaching in our American universities, he often took issue with our Declaration of Independence. He believed our notion of “the pursuit of happiness” as a right was going to be self-defeating. To Frankl, the only way to be happy would be to help other people be happy. As a therapist, he coined the term “paradoxical intention” as if to explain why trying to make ourselves happy would make us miserable. Legend has it he once told a patient who called requesting treatment for insomnia that he could not be seen unless he had gone 72 consecutive hours with no sleep. Frankl understood that trying to get to sleep was a cause of staying awake, and only by trying to stay awake could this person actually fall asleep. For Frankl, the idea of pursuing happiness, or pursuing sleep, or pursuing answers to our “why do I have to suffer” questions was self-defeating.
When happiness is thought to be a norm, or even a right, then anything else will have a traumatic effect upon us emotionally. When we consider ourselves entitled to victory, then actual defeat will motivate us to insurrection. January 6th is exhibit A for such a “self-defeating” dynamic as Frankl seemed to so easily understand.
Maybe it’s time we tried again to understand Dr. Frankl’s point.
The Gallup World Poll on personal happiness in 2022 found the United States trailing 15 other countries. And while I’m unaware if any of those other nations consider the pursuit of happiness itself as a right for their people, such a pursuit here in America seems not to be working as well as expected. When expectations, whether realistic or unrealistic, actually fail we humans experience some degree of trauma. Unexpected losses are traumatic. And when traumatized, the first question we are inclined to ask is “why did this happen to me/us?” The very question Dr. Frankl knew not to ask when trying to help his traumatized patients.
The question of “why do I have to SUFFER this loss?” is one we can easily get stuck trying to answer for the rest of our lives. Beyond ruling out that "we deserved it" in any way, there’s no point in asking it all. The far more liberating question by which we can get unstuck from our traumas is that of “why did I SURVIVE this loss?” and “why did I want to survive it then?” Questions like “What was I living for at that point? What kept me from killing myself at that time? Why did I choose to go on?” Answers to these questions come much faster than those pertaining to why something happened to us in the first place. “Why did I then want to stay alive?”
Yet, Frankl’s “why” questions went further.
And were he still here for today’s Americans traumatized by failures in our pursuit of happiness, his next question may well have a powerful effect in reducing our individual suicide rate as well as our larger self-defeating national pursuits. “Why do I want to survive now?” Questions like “What am I still living for at this point? What is keeping me from killing myself today? Why might I choose to go on now?” Answers to these questions help us to move not just from trauma to some unstuck liberation. They help us achieve the actual victory we were expecting in the first place. They replace our defeat with our triumph.
Frankl himself knew that in his early days of Nazi imprisonment, he had to survive to see his family again. That was why then. But when his family members were killed, he needed an updated “why now?” answer. For him that became his fellow prisoners. And later on his freed patients, and then his new family, and then his new students.
Now it’s our turn.
Surviving yesterday was good. But not good enough to transport us from trauma to triumph.
Why are we wanting to survive now? Today? In 2023? If we can keep our “why” answers updated, then we Americans may be able to actually fulfill our Declaration of Independence: with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.