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Aging with Purpose: Man’s search for meaning

Recently, I was reminded by one of our readers that to really understand about aging with purpose we need to examine the work and real life story of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Jew in the 1940s. Frankl was captured by the Nazis, sent to a concentration camp and later wrote a book about it, Man’s Search for Meaning. This book first described his experience in the camp from a psychologist’s viewpoint and then the theory he developed, logotherapy.

In 1944, Viktor Frankl, because he was a Jew, was separated from his entire family, put on a train and set to Auschwitz. When he arrived, the selection process began and determined who would live or die. Those who looked fit enough to work on the one side and those who were not, were sent to the gas chamber. The survivors were stripped of all their clothes. Frankl had to give up his manuscript, his life’s work, which he had hidden under his coat.

“At this moment, Frankl said, he realized he would have to strike out [his] whole former life.” After this incident, shaved and stripped of everything but their ‘naked existence,’ the prisoners were overtaken by a grim sense of humor, a cold curiosity about their situation, and an ongoing surprise at how much they were able to endure. Still, many considered committing suicide by running into the electrified barbed wire that surrounded the camp.” Frankl chose not to do this.

In the concentration camp, death became a constant companion. People died of typhus, starvation, suicide, were shot for any reason, and sent to the gas chambers. The ones who survived, suffered from frequent beatings from guards and foremen, edema from working in the ice and snow in worn-out shoes, and were severely undernourished. The prisoners never knew whether they would live or die. Most, if not all the prisoners, suffered from apathy, a lack of feeling or emotion, interest or concern which Frankl determined was a survival mechanism. Daily survival and finding food became the primary reason for living.

Frankl said, despite the daily suffering, prisoners could find glimpses of happiness in simple things. For example, in situations where they might have suffered but didn’t. Frankl described “the happiness of being transported to a camp without a “chimney” or crematorium, the small mercy of being able to delouse before bed or go back to camp before dying of exhaustion in the cold, and the good luck of being able to work indoors in a factory or rest in the sick hut. Real pleasures were very few.” Frankl himself cheated death several times by the choices he made or other situations he encountered that were just pure luck.

Frankl never lost his scientific observation of human behavior during this time. He saw something in the prisoners who survived these horrors, the desire for meaning. Having something to live for (a purpose), Frankl says, was the main reason anyone survived in such conditions. Frankl explained that people who were able to find meaning in their rich inner lives had better chances not only of surviving the camps but of “lessening the damage to their inner selves.”

He himself thought about his wife and how much he loved her. He also had dreams about the future, standing on stage telling people about what he learned in the concentration camps and his theory of logotherapy. Viktor Frankl was one of the few who survived the camp, where your chances of dying are higher than those of living on any given day.

After three years in various concentration camps, his camp Türkheim was liberated. When Frankl returned to life in Vienna he found he and his sister, were the only survivors of the war in his family.

What were some of the lessons that could be learned from this experience? According to Niklas Goeke who analyzed Frankl’s work, there were three main lessons that we can learn.

“Lesson 1: Being indifferent to death allowed people to survive. Sometimes the only way to survive is to surrender to death. In order to survive, you had to be okay with dying at any moment.

“Lesson 2: Your life has its own meaning and it’s up to you to find it in any given moment. Your life’s meaning is not only unique to you, it also depends on your decisions and situations.

“Lesson 3: Try to force your fears to come true to make them go away. Use paradoxical intention and you can turn this around and take control by getting you to try and force your fears to come true. Feel the fear and do it anyway. As soon as you force the fear to happen, it won’t work and eventually you will lose your fear.”

I met with Joseph B. Gerwood, Ph.D, a retired professor living in Fargo who contacted me after reading my column on purposeful aging. He reminded me about the importance of Frankl’s work as it is related to purposeful living. He had conducted research on purposeful living using a tool called the purpose in life test.

The Purpose-in-Life Test (PIL) a tool developed from Frankl’s work, was administered to a group of 118 elderly persons from three senior citizen centers. They looked at whether there was a difference in purpose of life based upon what a person’s faith whether they were Protestant or Catholic. Results suggested that whether a person was Protestant or Catholic had no significant effect on PIL scores. What seemed to be important was how meaningful spirituality was to the person. Those who scored high on an index of spirituality also scored high on how they rated their purpose of life.

Gerwood discussed how he saw purposeful living as we age. “Life never ceases to have meaning, as Dr. Frankl stated, “in a job to do, people or places to see, education, learning, art, family and friends. Additionally, life has meaning until the last breath.”

He challenges us to answer these questions: “If we are trapped in an unfulfilling job, the question is not what I can get out of this job; rather, what does the job expect from me? What can a person do to help others? Or improve the situation? Has there been an impact made on someone, a child, another adult? Has the person led a meaningful life, with purpose? What was left for the next generation? Do we fear death or face death knowing that we have lived a fulfilling and godly life? (If not godly, than a good life.) As Captain Picard said in the movie Star Trek Generations, “what we leave behind is not as important as how we have lived.”

With aging, inevitably we are all going to experience some suffering. Whether it be from an illness, injury or watching our family and friends die as we continue on. The lessons from Viktor Frankl (and other victims) can help us find a way you learn to cope with our suffering. Frankl often quoted the philosopher, Nietzsche who said: “A man who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

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