Viktor Frankl and Meaning

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Why do we teach?

In December of 1988, I was having morning coffee with one of my heroes. I could scarcely believe the moment; it was such a “dream come true.” Viktor Frankl had captured my attention when I was a freshman in college. I had pored over his Man’s Search for Meaning until I was ready for the final exam. But, more than that, Frankl had made an indelible mark on my life. Now, some twenty years later I was sitting in the good professor’s home in Vienna enjoying morning coffee in his study. I looked at the old man and was amazed. He had just returned from a speaking appointment in Mexico City and would be leaving the next week to speak in Boston. Not bad for an 83 year old man! I was a visiting professor of Psychology at a university in Vienna. As a professional courtesy, he had invited me in.

He showed me a painting hanging on the wall in his study. In the foreground there was a stack of wooden coffins; behind that there was a barracks. The painting was made from a photograph of the concentration camp where he was first imprisoned. He and another inmate would go through the camp, collect dead bodies, and carry them in the coffin until they reached the mass grave. They would then leave the bodies there and return to the camp to pick up more. He told me of the day he was on coffin duty, and he happened to look down at the body. He found himself staring into the face of own father. There was a pause. Then, pointing to a window in the painting on the ground floor of the barracks, he said, “I saw my mother for the last time standing in this window. When the guards were gone, she called to me and, with tears streaming down her face and panic in her voice, said, ‘Viktor, this is good-by. Tomorrow they are sending me to Auschwitz.’”

The old professor stood there, eyes fixed on the painting, as if he were traveling back in his mind to that dreadful moment. A look of pain moved across his face, and then he looked at me and said, “That was the last time I saw my dear mama.”

I asked him, “Herr Professor Doctor, how is it that one can survive such loss and devastation?”

He came back strong. “Only one way Dr. Bell, you must have something bigger than yourself to hold on to.”

Frankl made it clear in all of his writings that to be healthy meant to have something bigger than yourself to give your life to. Many years later, popular author Alan Loy McGinnis in his book the Friendship Factor related a true story that happened to Frankl one frozen morning in a German concentration camp. On one particularly brutal assignment, prodded on by butts of German rifles, a friend of Frankl’s said “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps.” Frankl’s mind went to the image of his wife. He said, “Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. My mind clung to my wife’s image.”

Reflecting on the importance of this incident during the imprisonment of Viktor Frankl, McGinnis wrote these words:

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart; the salvation of man is through love and in love. (p. 229)

Our students at OKWU all have one thing in common, they all need something bigger than they are to stand on, to believe in, to which they can give their lives. Every one of our students either has experienced catastrophic events, or at least they will. Here’s something one of my students recently put in a Spiritual Life Discussion,

Our family has had a rash of bad situations in the last 4 years.  My husband was in a rehab facility for nine months, during that time, my nephew was murdered and it is still unsolved, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my husband’s brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Two years ago my mother-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer, and just this past December, my husband’s other brother suffered a major stroke and we made the decision to take him off life support.

She went on to say, “All this made me reach out to God even more.  My prayers became more intense and specific.” We do have students who have no one to reach out to, no one bigger than themselves to live for, no Higher Power.

That’s why we teach.

A thorough understanding of Calculus or U.S. Government won’t give them a refuge when the storms hit. A relationship with the Higher Power will. What makes OKWU professors the best in the nation is not our degrees, not our published faculty, not even our dedicated administration and staff. What makes us the best in the nation is the simple fact that we care enough to show our students Who gives meaning to life.

We are called to teach and we are called to form redemptive relationships. The One Who gives us meaning will give our students meaning. We have no higher purpose than to share the One we know, Jesus. It is not by accident that at this time and this place we find ourselves at this University teaching these students.


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