Meaning and mattering in the age of COVID-19

By Isaac Prilleltensky

Meaning and mattering in the age of COVID-19

By Isaac Prilleltensky
How the choices made by Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl during the Holocaust changed the course of his life and many others, and the lessons we can take from this during the coronavirus pandemic.

Viktor Frankl acted according to his principles. Despite imminent danger, he chose to stay in Vienna to look after his parents. Although he could have fled to the United States, he made a decision to remain in Austria. A few months after he let his visa to the U.S. lapse, he was sent to Auschwitz in 1942.

Fifty years later, in the preface to the 1992 edition of his famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl recounts the dilemma he faced. Had he immigrated to America, he could have continued to develop his thriving career. But doing so would have meant abandoning his mother and father.

The Jewish psychiatrist chose responsibility over opportunity. He paid dearly for his choice: several years in concentration camps. He embodied a “we culture,” one in which rights are balanced by responsibilities, and the well-being of the individual is balanced with the well-being of the community. In the concentration camp, he felt it was his responsibility to look after other prisoners. He derived meaning by focusing not only on his own survival, but in helping others.

During the challenging days that we are facing in the COVID-19 era, a “we culture” is more important than ever: We are all in this together.

Before the war, Frankl had been working on a book on the pursuit of meaning. When he returned from the extermination camps, he wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” in nine days. By then, his wife and parents had perished in the hands of the Nazis. 

He credits his own survival to the love for his wife, his commitment to his work, and to the meaning he attached to his experiences. He needed to survive the horrors of the war to bear witness and share with the world what had happened.

During the Holocaust, under dehumanizing conditions and ignominious treatment by the SS, he was kept alive by two dreams: to be reunited with his wife, and to continue his work. He transported himself to a better future, a future that gave him hope. The moment his fellow prisoners gave up hope, he knew they were going to die. Many of them died of exhaustion, starvation, or disease. Those who were not assigned to slave labor were murdered in crematoria. Against all hope, he tried to infuse hope among his friends, but few could be heartened.

“Man’s Search for Meaning” became an inspirational best seller, with more than 12 million copies in print. The book was translated into 24 languages.

The main idea was that under any circumstances, people can make a choice to act with dignity and responsibility. The evil Frankl suffered was beyond his control, but his reactions to it were within his control. This concept gave birth to logotherapy, a system of healing through the search for meaning.

It is difficult to ascertain how many could endure what Frankl did, even if they did have a goal, a meaning, and a purpose. But the lesson was clear. For most of us, who are not facing the horrors of the Holocaust, the choice to take responsibility for our actions must not be squandered. He took responsibility for his parents when he could have escaped. He then took care of his fellow inmates when he was close to starvation himself.

None of us can really tell how we would have behaved under these conditions. Frankl might have been one in a million. But his point was that even under favorable conditions, people often relinquish responsibility. His message was that we have an obligation to ourselves and others. That obligation is to add value.

In other words, to find meaning in pursuing personal and prosocial goals. Frankl would argue that this responsibility holds regardless of the toxicity of the environment. During the COVID-19 crisis, all of us have an opportunity to exercise responsibility toward others and ourselves by looking after our own health and the well-being of our fellow community members. 

Isaac Prilleltensky is vice provost for institutional culture and former dean of the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami.