Seeking Meaning in Aurora
We might enlist the help of the great Viennese psychologist Viktor Frankl.


John O’Sullivan

But some of his more reasonable critics wonder what comfort can be found for the nonbeliever on the morrow of these crimes. That question was at least partly answered 60 years ago by the great Viennese psychologist Viktor Frankl (a cousin, for those interested in coincidences, of Hayek). Frankl had been a conventional Freudian before the Second World War. In the death camp, however, he kept himself alive by fixing the image of his greatly loved wife always in the forefront of his mind. He came to realize, as a result, that the Freudian idea of love as merely sublimated sex was an absurdity.

Frankl never saw his wife again; she died in another camp. But after the war he developed a new theory of psychology — namely, logotherapy — rooted initially in his insight into love and ultimately in the idea that man has a hunger for meaning quite as real as his hunger for food, shelter, and sex. He developed this theory in a book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which under several titles has remained a bestseller ever since. Many of you reading this have probably read it.

Frankl argued that a sense of meaninglessness — a meaningless world, a meaningless life — was the great source of unhappiness, neurosis, suicide, and the other psychic ills of a world now quite prosperous and largely at peace. He thought that the three most potent sources of meaning in life were, in the following order, belief in God, love, and work. Frankl was himself a believer, I am told, but he thought that his theory could be usefully applied to the psychological pains of nonbelievers. The way to do that was to identify some element in the patient’s life that gave some kind of meaning to the pain.

He gives an example. One day a patient came to see him for help in overcoming the strong temptations to suicide that he felt. His wife of many years had died not long before, and he felt that life was no longer worth living. Frankl asked him if he had loved his wife. He said they had been extremely close and loving. Frankl then said that it was a pity his patient had not died first, since he would then have been saved the agony of separation. This reply greatly distressed him. He rejected this “comfort” indignantly on the grounds that his wife would have been as wretched as he was at their separation by death. Frankl then pointed out that his patient’s pain was the price of sparing his wife the same or worse pain. The patient stood up and shook Frankl’s hand gratefully. His pain had not gone. But it was no longer meaningless and could therefore be endured. (I quote this example from memory; I cannot lay my hands on the book.)

Three families in Aurora can take particular comfort from the manner of death of their sons. They are the families of the three young men who died in attempting to save their girlfriends. There is no greater meaning in death, whether from a religious or a secular standpoint, than in laying down one’s life to save one’s friends. It is the ultimate expression of love. More broadly, the comfort available to Christian and other religious families in Aurora is rooted in what Frankl believed was the primary source of meaning, namely belief in a God who promises ultimate justice. And if there are any agnostics in Aurora (apart from James Holmes himself, who described himself as one on a dating website), we would need to know more about them (and their families) in order to suggest the kind of comfort rooted in meaning that Frankl prescribes. That cannot be done at long distance.

We cannot eliminate meaninglessness from the world, alas. In addition to the deaths caused by war criminals and terrorists, there will always be victims of natural avalanches and accidental car wrecks like the one that killed 14 people late last night in Texas. The best we can do is to make the world a less meaningless place — that is, a more just and more loving place. That may lead to political programs — for instance, changes in the treatment of the mentally ill — but it is not in itself a political program. It is a movement of mass humane moral self-improvement. Celebrating the lives of those murdered in Aurora and comforting their families may kick-start such a movement. Whether it is sustained is a matter for the rest of us.

John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.