Viktor Frankl: Make Courage Your Daily Legacy


It’s hard to imagine a more fitting example of courage than Viktor Frankl. He made courage his daily legacy, and he still challenges us long after his death, asking the question, “What is the meaning of your life?” Few people can match Viktor Frankl’s courage, and in a life rife with ambiguity he did not hesitate to confront uncomfortable truths.

Viktor faced ambiguity throughout his life:

  • when people tried to discredit his logotherapy doctrine,
  • when he helped to keep young people from committing suicide,
  • when he was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps,
  • when he remarried outside his faith, and
  • when he spoke out against “collective guilt.”

In the Foreword to the 2006 edition of Viktor’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Harold S. Kushner writes, “The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.”[1] Viktor knew that courage grows in choices and taking action.

After enduring three years in four different Nazi concentration camps, what would be the meaning of life for prisoner 119104? Viktor had the courage to confront an uncomfortable truth: under severe suffering, what is the meaning of my life? What’s important is the attitude around suffering. Think of whatever is causing you to suffer right now—uncertain finances, lack of job security, unemployment …. Is there meaning in your life despite the suffering? “Persons facing difficult choices may not fully appreciate how much their own attitude interferes with the decision they need to make or the action they need to take.”[2]

So how do you keep ambiguity at bay? Viktor found “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 … mentally and spiritually…. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful…. The unemployed worker for example, is in a similar position [as a prisoner]. His existence has become provisional and in a certain sense he cannot live for the future or aim at a goal.”[3]

Born in 1905 in a Jewish neighborhood near Vienna, Viktor had clarity about his future by the time he was three years old—he wanted to be a doctor. Ironically, not far from the Frankl’s apartment lived a young man named Adolf Hitler. Austria’s ethnic diversity sickened Hitler, who sought to live his dream in Germany with the race that aligned with his sensibilities. “[Hitler] began to believe that the financial success of Jews was responsible for his own poverty. In reality, many Jews were just as poor as Hitler was.”[4] History tells Hitler’s story, he was an angry and obsessed man who eventually moved to Germany to become their dictator from 1933 to 1945. Hitler provides a prime example of a person dominated in ambiguity, and his irrational fears led to the extermination of more than eleven million people, from Jews and gypsies to people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Viktor, on the other hand overcame ambiguity even at a young age. Always somewhat*t lean and wiry, he was confronted by a group of boys who asked if he was a Jew. “Viktor felt they were about to use his heritage as an excuse to attack him. He replied with his own question, ‘Yes, but does this mean I am not also a human being?’”[5] Viktor overcame ambiguity even in the concentration camps where the meaning of life might itself seem ambiguous at best. Constantly speaking up in the Nazi camps, Viktor helped many prisoners survive, and he helped many more die with meaning. Only by learning to express ourselves from our own courageous identities can we truly begin to confront uncomfortable truths.

The words on these pages were written as a guide for anyone willing to “face it”—face the meaning of your life. To find meaning in your life you must slow down, as I’ve written repeatedly between the covers of this book. Slowing to allow for quiet reflection is the way to invite courage into your life and allow meaning to unfold in your heart and spirit. Meaning for your life precludes ambiguity. Does ambiguity hold you back on the job? Be careful not to confuse ambiguity with uncertainty. Life is strewn with uncertainty—it’s about how you hold yourself accountable that matters. Ambiguity is the inability to confront brutal facts and act with conviction to resolve them.

After Viktor was released from the Turkheim concentration camp in 1945, he chose to face his horrific experience without cynicism by writing Man’s Search for Meaning. To date, this small 160-page book has sold over twelve million copies.

What We Give to Life

Viktor’s signature question, “What can be the meaning of my life?” has a different answer for every person who asks it. “First, he said that it is life that asks something special of each of us human beings, not we who ask life for meaning. In other words, what we give to life, not what we take from it, makes our lives meaningful.”[6] Viktor gave tremendously to life. What about you?

(Excerpt from FACE IT! 12 Courageous Actions that Bring Success at Work and Beyond)

[1] Frankl, Viktor E., Man’s Search for Meaning, Boston: Beacon Press, 1959; 2006, x.

[2] Frankl, Viktor E., Man’s Search for Meaning, Boston: Beacon Press, 1959; 2006, 161.

[3] Frankl, Viktor E., Man’s Search for Meaning, Boston: Beacon Press, 1959; 2006, 66-67; 70.

[4] Redsand, Anna, Viktor Frankl: A Life Worth Living, New York: Clarion Books, 2006, 13.

[5] Redsand, Anna, Viktor Frankl: A Life Worth Living, New York: Clarion Books, 2006, 15.

[6] Redsand, Anna, Viktor Frankl: A Life Worth Living, New York: Clarion Books, 2006, 19.

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