Excellence Reporter: Dr. Batthyány, what is the meaning of life?
Alexander Batthyány: According to Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy—the one pioneering psychological school which single-handedly put meaning on the landscape of psychology and psychotherapy—life is meaningful – not so much because there is one single Meaning of Life, but rather because each moment potentially is “pregnant” with the promise of meaning.
Put differently, every single situation comes with a number of very personal questions life poses to each of us: What will you do next? What will you make of me? How will you choose?
If we are able to decipher this question, we soon discover that the future is open. That it at least partially depends on us what the outcome of a situation will be. Even if the situation itself may not be negotiable, at least our reaction may be, i.e. how we handle that which we cannot change; and how we steer and shape those situations which we can change and affect.
In the end, you may not be able to change the world; but you can change your world, and that alone is enormous. But rather than weighing us down, this freedom and responsibility lifts us up–because almost paradoxically, the real treasures of existence are free, and in contrast to physical ressources, existential ressources are almost without limit.
To get an idea of the implications for our own everyday lives, look at what existence is telling us about us and itself and about that which is truly valuable—and free for all: In a material sense, the more we give, the less we have. But on an existential level, the more we give and share, the more we have. Hence when we give away money, we will, after a while, inevitably end up with less. But, for example, when we share attention, love, affection, it is not that we are running out of it after having shared our affection with a certain number of people or sent out a certain number of smiles, helping hands, or kind words to others. Rather, we are setting off chain-reactions, and while we may never know whether what we sent out will return to us, we at least will know that we made a difference—that somewhere in the world someone is affected by what we sent out. If you followed the journey of a kind act, you may be surprised how far it can travel. In living up to the meaning of the moment, we also affect ourselves, too. We re-connected with existential ressources which were just waiting for us to tap into.
A related, and equally important point here is that this type of everyday meaning is open to everyone. It is not that existence asks us to be healthy, happy, and wealthy to tap into these ressources. Existence is not so picky and selective in whom it offers its promise of meaning. Here’s a small example which taught me a profound lesson on Frankl’s dictum that meaning can be found everywhere and until the very last breath: A few months ago I visited a hospice in Moscow. In one of the double rooms, there were two elderly men with end-stage pancreatic cancer. When I entered their room, I saw that one was consoling the other, while the other was listening gratefully and attentively. It is hard to find appropriate words for the humaneness, density, and simple beauty of this encounter, but it reminded me of the fact that even in this situation the promise, or potential, of meaning was there: It is never too late.
One metaphor which I heard many years ago on a logotherapy conference, and which helps me, and may help readers, to remain attentive and mindful to the meanings of each moment is the metaphor of the candle—wax turns into light. Our life, transitory as it is, can turn into light, too—and yet, in contrast to the candle, this transformation doesn’t happen automatically. Rather, we have the freedom to choose to, and we may or may not turn our lives into light. However, if we do so, we made it easier for others to let their lives shine, too. And that would make for a wonderful meaning of life by living the meaning of the moment.
~Alexander Batthyány, PhD, is director of the Viktor Frankl Institute and the Viktor Frankl Archives in Vienna. He holds the Viktor Frankl Chair for Philosophy and Psychology at the International Academy of Philosophy in the Principality of Liechtenstein. He teaches theory of Cognitive Science at Vienna University’s Cognitive Science Program and Logotherapy and Existential Analysis at the Department of Psychiatry at Vienna Medical School. Dr. Batthyány is first editor of the 14-volume Edition of the Collected Works of Viktor Frankl.
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