I do not forget any good deed done to me,
and I carry no grudge for a bad one. [ 1]
It seems that I have known Viktor Frankl most of my life. It was in the late 1960s when I first became acquainted with his work and read his now-classic book, Man s Search for Meaning. While on active duty with the U.S. Army, I received formal training at Walter Reed Army Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, as a social work/psychology specialist. In addition to the opportunity to work side by side with some of the best mental health professionals in the field, this unique learning experience fueled my passion for studying various schools of thought and practice in psychiatry and psychology. Frankl s work, in particular, had great resonance for me at that time and eventually became an integral part of both my personal and professional life.
Over the years , in fact, I have had many opportunities to apply Frankl s teachings in my own life and work. In effect, I have been able to field test the validity and reliability of his key principles, often in comparison with competing schools of thought and in situations that tested the limits of my personal resiliency. Because it didn t take me long to realize the efficacy of his philosophy and approach, I became a de facto practitioner of Logotherapy long before the idea for this book surfaced in my mind.
I can recall many decisive times in my life, including situations that involved my work or employment, that could easily be described as turbulent and challenging. Such formidable, life-defining moments (although admittedly they often lasted much longer than a moment!) required a great deal of soul-searching for answers, and I remember how truly out of balance ”and, yes, even lost ”I felt at those critical times in my life. Parenthetically, I learned not many years ago from Thomas Moore, psychotherapist and author of the bestselling book Care of the Soul, that our most soulful times are when we are out of balance rather than when we are in balance! In any event, it was especially during these meaning-centered moments that I found myself putting Frankl s philosophy and approach to practice.
Let me now share a work- related example of when my personal resiliency was put to the test and how I applied some of Frankl s core principles to deal with the situation in a responsible manner. This life-defining situation involved my full-time , albeit summer, employment with a large engineering and construction firm in New Jersey. I had recently graduated from college and was contemplating going to law school after my military service. With the help and urging of my father, I took a job with the contract administration department at this company with the expectation that it would provide me with some useful legal experience and assist in my decision to pursue a career in law. My father, who was an engineer by profession, envisioned that some day I would work for him and his company as an attorney specializing in contract law.
This type of career path , I should note, was a far cry from what I had envisioned for myself, and the only interest that I had in law at the time was how it could be used as an instrument for social policy and societal change. To be sure, such a perspective, especially during the Vietnam War era, did not bode well for my relationship with my father and my employer. I didn t feature myself as a corporate attorney. I felt trapped and needed to resolve the situation quickly if, in my mind, I was going to survive the summer. Because I was keenly aware that working in the contracts administration department of this company was not the same thing as being a prisoner in a concentration camp, I began immediately to visualize and plan my escape route. Although my father had always been an authoritative figure in my life, I also realized that my situation, no matter how unbearable and confining it seemed to be, could never be compared to imprisonment in the Nazi death camps!
So, because of my familiarity with his work, I have Frankl to thank for helping me first assess my situation and then choose my response to it. First, I decided up front that I would maintain a positive attitude toward the situation, especially since I had an undeniable faith in my ability to orchestrate an eventual escape from my perceived predicament. Second, in no uncertain terms, the situation presented me with an opportunity to clarify and confirm my values toward the kind of work that I wanted to do, as well as not do. To use Frankl s words, I was determined to realize my will to meaning and only do work that was aligned with my core values.
Third, during the short time that I was employed by this company in New Jersey, I was able consciously to practice both the de-reflection and self-detachment principles of Logotherapy by shifting my focus of attention onto things that mattered to me and by maintaining a sense of humor, respectively. Fourth, my experience at the company and in my particular job assignment helped me to identify and weave together the various strands of meaning that seemed most important to me ”both in terms of the kind of work that I wanted to do and the kind of life that I wanted to live. Even if it meant , which it did, standing up to and engaging in many heated arguments with my father so that I could declare the path that I wanted to pursue, I learned from this situation that it was worth the risk and effort!
In the end, my passion to realize my will to meaning translated into straining the relationship with my father, quitting my job, and changing my academic program objectives. In hindsight, however, the way that I chose to handle this particular situation ”clearly a life-defining moment ” also increased my personal resiliency for handling similar challenges in the future.
As you can gather, Frankl s thinking has profoundly influenced my life and work paths over the years. I ve also had the great privilege of meeting Frankl personally and seeking his counsel. This book, in fact, is a product of Frankl s guiding influence and his personal encouragement.
[ 1] Viktor E. Frankl, Viktor Frankl Recollections: An Autobiography (New York: Plenum Press, 1997), p. 35.