26 March 2005 Viktor E. Frankl – one of the greatest minds of the 20th century: the psychiatrist, psychologist and philosopher – would be 100 years old.
The life of Viktor Frankl was not a usual life. He lived three lives in one. And the three of them were extraordinary and astounding.
A humble medical student in the late 20th, a disciple of first Sigmund Freud, and then Alfred Adler, Viktor Frankl eventually challenged their authoritarianism and was expelled from both schools.
The originality and deep humanism of his thinking had enabled him to develop his own approach to human soul: he became founder of the so-called Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy. Thrown into a Nazi death camp in 1942, he, by his spiritual strength and his will to life, had managed to survive and thus became a living proof of the main thesis of his philosophy: one can live only for as long as one's life has a meaning.
When meaning disappears from people’s lives the old liberal social philosophies also fail. In his book, The Unheard Cry for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl writes:
For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for
WHY is the loss of meaning in people's lives happen? Frankl explains (Psychotherapy and Existentialism):
Unlike an animal, man is no longer told by drives and instincts what he must do. And in contrast to man in former times, he is no longer told by traditions and values what he should do. Now, knowing neither what he must do nor what he should do, he sometimes does not even know what he basically wishes to do. Instead, he wishes to do what other people do... or he does what other people wish him to do...
And the main symptom of this societal illness is BOREDOM:
What threatens contemporary man is the alleged meaninglessness of his life, or, as I call it, the existential vacuum within him. And when does this vacuum open up, when does this so often latent vacuum become manifest? In the state of boredom.
To see if society is sick one has just to observe how deeply boredom – in its many forms and manifestations – overflows peoples’ lives. Sometimes it becomes unbearable, and then its companions: addiction, depression and aggression, become the threat not only to the individual but also to society as a whole. Just a glimpse of the state of boredom among Americans – a significant segment of American society – does not leave any doubts that the crisis of meaning has overwhelmed this great nation. •Addiction to illicit drugs is one of the most pressing problems in America today. President George H. W. Bush, in 1989, called drugs “the gravest domestic threat facing our nation.” Later, President Clinton termed drugs as America’s “constant curse.” The street cocaine market in the United States has been stable for years and totals over $35 billion a year. Approximately 1.5 to 2 million people is regular cocaine or crack cocaine users. Although, in percentages, the numbers of ethnic minority drug users are higher, the market itself — and that is what is important even if one only wants to stop the spread of drugs — is sustained mainly by whites, middle and upper-middle class whites: Minority drug users simply do not have the $35 billion to buy the drugs. As for marijuana, the scope its spread among all the social strata in America cannot even be estimated. America has spent and continues to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to stop the supply of illicit drugs. But it is the demand for drugs that makes the problem so serious. In fact, it is the problem. Naïve attempts to curb the demand, like the Just Say No to Drugs! Campaign launched in 1986 by the then First Lady Nancy Reagan, have miserably failed. And America's current scare is the growing production and spread of domestic amphetamine, having nothing to do with Colombian drug cartel. Other forms of addiction are pandemic, especially gambling, through numerous state-supported lotteries, and legal and semi-legal casinos spreading through America like mushrooms after rain. To say nothing about the addiction to video and computer games (especially among children), and to the Internet. •Depression has reached the proportion of an epidemic in America. According to the American National Health Institute (NHI) some 20 million people suffer from depression in the United States. This reality has been accepted as something unfortunate but “natural.” One in five children meets the government criteria for mental health help. And depression among children grows at an astonishing rate of 23% per year!
Among the young people ages 15-24, suicide is the third leading cause of death and, according to medical authorities, in most cases the leading cause is depression.
The use of psychotropic drugs skyrockets. The pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly makes huge profit on Prozac. And no voices are heard even hinting on the possible existential causes of this epidemic. •As for Aggression, it finds its realization in the proliferation of violence both in the media and real life. The victims of domestic violence are constantly portrayed on the TV news; in 2003, 200,000 domestic-violence calls for assistance were received by hotlines and by the police. It is a general belief that indiscriminate media coverage and sensational Hollywood films provoke violence in our society, but the supply of such images is directly related to the demand for them.
Why do people like and want to watch this kind of movies and TV programs? The reason is exactly the same as that, which, two millennia ago made the Roman mobs pack the Coliseums where gladiator slaves killed each other, or were thrown to wild animals. This reason was and is boredom.
Another powerful factor that also feeds aggression in America is the proliferation of firearms. It is now threatening normal life in our cities and towns. In my view, the desire to "bear arms" is not so much a result of Americans' deep-laying mistrust of government as a potentially oppressive institution, but as a response to high level of the boredom-born aggression in American men – a vicious circle. All segments of our society have been penetrated by the existential vacuum. Frankl also calls it "frustration of meaning." This sickness, rooted in the meaning of one's existence, is nearly universal: as the post-industrial revolution spreads worldwide, it infects affluent societies, welfare states, and even the poorest countries. In America the crisis is exacerbated by the fact that our education does not help people to overcome the infection, but rather enhances its toll. Our younger generation is the victim who suffers most from the crisis. The use of illicit drugs by youths and juvenile crime are steadily on the rise in America today. Their cause is almost without exception the meaninglessness in the lives of our children. The time has come for Americans to look into the face of reality and honestly focus on what politicians fail to see in their rhetoric: the existential character of our most severe problems. The healing process, which will eventually make our society healthy and ready for the challenges of the new millennium, will be possible and can begin only if our public understands the true causes of our problems, and politicians openly and honestly address the issues responsible for our ills.