Discovering hope in the midst of despair

Diane Cole

THE WASHINGTON POST – Late in March, holed up in my apartment in New York, I received the terrible news that the coronavirus pandemic had claimed the life of someone I knew. Just as shocking was the fact that it wasn’t the physical symptoms of this terrible disease that had overwhelmed her body. It was, instead, despair that had killed her spirit.

We cannot know all the factors that played into the tragic logic that led her to suicide. But piecing the story together afterward, her closest friends think that when New York shut down, she believed that so, too, had the possibility of continuing the full life she had created there. Before the pandemic, her calendar overflowed not just with work and volunteer activities, but with social engagements and cultural events, scheduled through the rest of this year and into the next. And now amid the cascade of closings, cancellations and postponements into an unknowable future of all the work, volunteer, arts and other in-person events she had so carefully planned but could no longer look forward to, her own life seemed to be crumbling into ruins. So she negated it, all of it, on her own terms.

And this is only one among many deaths of despair against our current backdrop of heightened stress, uncertainty and vulnerability.

It’s the challenge posed by any crisis: How do we hang on to hope? It is also the question that Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), the Viennese psychiatrist and author best known for his exploration of trauma and resilience, Man’s Search for Meaning, devoted the bulk of his career to answering.

Now, with the publication for the first time in English of Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, originally written as a series of lectures in 1946, we have the opportunity to read what amounts to a brief, early draft of the concepts he presented in more accessible form and in greater detail in his later classic. But in whichever version you encounter them, Frankl’s ideas bear particular consideration right now.

Frankl stressed the importance of what he called the will to meaning. He believed that having a sense of meaning or purpose or a goal in life drives us forward from one day to the next, even when we confront personal suffering, family tragedy or public calamity. That is the inner compass that gives us direction; when we lose it, we begin to drift and can become lost in, and to, despair.

With World War II’s horrific death toll still being reckoned, and the atomic bomb having just been unleashed as a new existential threat, Frankl was acutely aware of an underlying public mood he described as numb, fatalistic, “spiritually bombed out”.

How could survivors return to life, if they did not believe that their lives held value? In the approach to psychotherapy he developed, which he called Logotherapy, Frankl proposed an antidote to giving in to such nihilism: taking hold, instead, of life’s meaning – and more precisely, the particular aim we set for ourselves. If we search, such a purpose can be found embedded in our values, beliefs, experiences and capabilities, and in and through the different personal and professional interests, communities and caring relationships we’ve created. Even at the end of life, Frankl wrote, a sense of fulfilment can be derived from taking “a stance toward the unalterable, fated, inevitable, and unavoidable limitation of their possibilities: how they adapt to this limitation, react toward it, how they accept this fate”.