Homo patiens

Quote from Viktor E. Frankl, author of the bestselling book Man's Search for Meaning:

“Standing before the abyss, man looks into the deep, and what he sees at the bottom of the abyss is the tragic structure of existence. What becomes clear to him is that human existence is ultimately and most profoundly passion - that it is the nature of the human being to be a sufferer, a homo patiens.” (1)

Frankl was not only a psychiatrist and neurologist, philosopher and psychotherapist, he was also an “advocate for the suffering human”, or in Latin, the homo patiens. This right and this task fell to him after he had himself experienced unimaginable suffering in the German death camps of the Second World War. Millions of readers of his eyewitness account Man’s Search for Meaning have been moved and impressed as by few other books by the fact that he survived his torments and family losses while remaining not only physically, but also psychically intact. His account became a classic guide to the heroic management of suffering.

Writing books is one thing. To live out such things oneself is much more difficult, and this is what Frankl did after being freed from his forced labour in 1945. He literally took off his grey prison clothes, put on his white doctor’s coat again, and went to help, to the best of his ability, all sick people who needed his help, regardless of who they were. He never asked his patients whether they had welcomed Hitler’s abominable politics before the war, whether they had supported his antisemitism, or whether they had cowardly turned a blind eye to the horrific extermination of innocent people.

No, Frankl used all of his therapeutic skills to alleviate the suffering of each of his patients. He broke the “chain of evil” with worthy acts. And this is also precisely how he described his own behaviour: he wanted to prove himself worthy of this “second” life, which had been given to him as a gift. (He considered his “first” life to have been extinguished in the shadow of the gas chambers.)

This magnificent example set by Frankl was the guarantee of his credibility. It meant that people accepted his assertion that there is no situation in life that does not have the possibility to be meaningful. Many people have been forced to accept his conviction that human beings are free to choose their inner attitudes, and to make spiritual decisions about things and, if necessary, about questionable tendencies in themselves. This forces one to an understanding that the suffering one experiences does not need to be passed on to others, that the way in which it is handled can even transform it into a “human triumph”. Because people believed Frankl, they began to believe in themselves and their own human abilities.

I talked about this with Frankl in his flat in Vienna. I said more or less this to him: “Professor Frankl, your life is a testament to what you teach. But what should we students do, who have never experienced the sufferings of war, and  cannot say that we have been tested by the torments of hell.”
Frankl looked serious. “Oh, Mrs Lukas,” he answered, “everyone has an Auschwitz!(2)” I was stunned into silence.

I’ve known for a long time that Frankl was right. One must not compare one suffering with another, and the world is full of homo patiens. It is not just the horrors that people in war zones and terror zones, in regions of hunger and poverty, still experience in the present day. It is also the unavoidable catastrophes and blows of fate that can overtake us at any time. And also the “little” annoyances and disappointments that poison our daily lives and add up in a very uncomfortable way. No one can avoid suffering, everyone has an “Auschwitz”…

So Frankl’s theses, the effectiveness of which has subsequently been demonstrated by countless scientific studies, is also valuable and important for the “normal user”. Let us focus on just one aspect that plays a significant role in our digital age: preventing fatigue-induced depression and collapse from burnout. Although Frankl did not yet have to struggle with the constant availability and bombardment of social media, he was nevertheless very busy. As the head of the neurological department at the Vienna Polyclinic, he treated patients daily. At the same time he completed his second doctorate, qualified as a professor and held lectures - by the end of his life he had lectured at about 230 universities across the globe, which involved strenuous preparations and air travel. This was not enough. He wrote countless textbooks and developed his life work, logotherapy, into an anthropologically well-founded and useful form of psychotherapy that could hold its own with the methods then in use, and in some ways even surpassed them. And one must not forget that he started a family and proved to be a loving husband and father. And the fact is, that he achieved all this without even coming close to showing symptoms of overload! How could he accomplish so much unscathed?

Well, one does work well when one likes doing it. However, one cannot bring every kind of work to completion with enthusiasm. The simple slogan “change it, love it or leave it” is not always applicable. Some things can neither be changed nor loved, and also cannot simply be “left” without drastic consequences. But there is one thing one can always do: one can keep in mind the meaning of what one is doing. The moment one becomes conscious of the “what for” of something tedious or troublesome, something changes. One’s inner resistance to what is required reduces, and one’s consent increases accordingly. The will to achieve something meaningful is stirred up and swamps one’s ill-temper. It is clearly good and meaningful when the kitchen is clean, when the children are taught good values, when one’s firm is doing well, when people receive the packages they order, and so on. The “will to meaning”, as Frankl described it and by which he himself was animated, paints at least colourful streaks of “doing it willingly in spite of everything” onto our daily lives, and this gives us additional strength. Indeed, two kinds of strength. For one, we no longer need to expend a huge amount of energy on overcoming our psychic resistance to the tasks that await us. This releases energy that can be used to increase the quality of our work. In addition, energy flows from psychophysical sources into anything which we recognise as meaningful. One thinks, for example, of the emergency services and helpers in fires, floods, earthquakes, and so on, whose interventions are always remarkable and stretch the boundaries of what is humanly possible. They often work around the clock to save what can be saved. It is not difficult to guess where they get the strength for this from. The knowledge of how meaningful and necessary their work is sustains them in their tiring duties.

Knowledge of the meaningfulness of a personal task also increases our “capacity for suffering”, as Frankl called it, that is, our tolerance for frustration and our endurance. Further positive effects are willingness to cooperate and authenticity. This sounds like a contradiction, but it is not.

Awareness of meaningful projects and the growing desire to implement them creates a readiness for teamwork. Shared needs bring people together with their creative appeal. Major goals are too much for the efforts of an individual, but they can be achieved by working together. Unfortunately envy, resentment, competitive thinking and the fear of being left short oneself often stand in the way of fruitful teamwork. Thoughts, feelings and concerns revolve around the self. Having meaning in one’s sights frees one’s gaze from this captivity to the self. Frankl spoke symbolically of the “healthy eye that does not see itself but the world outside itself”. People who orient themselves towards a meaning that is to be fulfilled in the world behave much more like partners and communicators. They become open to others.

At the same time they become independent of others, insofar as they strengthen their own independence. If one is completely absorbed in the significance of one’s personal contribution and investment in a meaningful task, one is less likely to ask whether other people will praise or thank one for it, or whether they will hamper or ignore one’s efforts. Such a person neither requires to be feted by others, nor stumbles in the face of hostility. “I will not be deterred by failure, and I will not be led astray by success” was Frankl’s motto which kept him true to his path all his life, despite waves of spiteful criticism from colleagues and effusive fascination from his fans. He was relaxed and modest and his heart was not attached to his fame, and this was probably his trump card. Happiness and fame come, if at all, without being striven for or intended. People who keep faithfully to their path do not chase after success, and they do not experience burnout.

Frankl, who, as already mentioned, was not spared from difficulties in his “second life”, had an ingenious method for protecting himself. On his free weekends he went with his wife to his favourite mountain, the Rax (3). There, on climbing expeditions, he concentrated on his handholds on the cliff face, and this helped him to “switch off psychically”. Or he relaxed with meditative hikes to the summit. Everyone needs a similar “refuge” to retreat to and reflect in silence. In silence, our “meaning organ”, our conscience, speaks loudest. In seclusion we can most readily test whether what we take for meaningful really is meaningful. For meaning not only gives us additional strength, as already explained, it also gives us the wisdom to use this strength with care, instead of spending it blindly and meaninglessly. It steers us unharmed through the turbulence of life.

Frankl emphasised many times that his cleverest and most coherent ideas occurred to him on his outings to the Rax. Let us take inspiration from his ideas, so that we can bravely withstand our own “Auschwitz” and benefit from our understanding of “man’s search for meaning”.


1 Viktor E. Frankl, Logotherapie und Existenzanalyse, Beltz, Weinheim and Basel, 32010, p. 137.

2 Name of the city in which one of the most infamous concentration camps was built in the Second World War. Thousands of prisoners were murdered there because of their racial origins.

3 The mountain called the Rax is to the South of Vienna and can be reached relatively quickly from the city. It has steep, sheer rock faces that are ideal for rock climbing.