From Logotherapy Institute blog

Existential Challenges According to Irvin Yalom and Viktor Frankl 

By Batya Yaniger

Irvin Yalom lists four existential challenges: the challenge of death, the challenge of freedom, the challenge of isolation and the challenge of meaning (Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir). We find in Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy something similar. Frankl’s tragic triad consists of the inescapable realities of suffering, guilt and death. Despite these inevitable facts of life, we can overcome the tragic aspects of life. We may remain optimistic and choose to find new strengths from the experience of suffering, rectify our wrongful behavior and, confronting death, reflect on the preciousness of life. Frankl called this positive transformation tragic optimism.

Frankl and Yalom both include death in their list of challenges, and they both discuss freedom. But are their perspectives similar? In order to compare any two thinkers, we must understand their words from within the context of their basic assumptions. For Yalom, we are essentially isolated and self-centered, and we live in a meaningless world. For Frankl, we are essentially interconnected, other-directed and a meaningful part of a meaningful whole. Therefore, it follows naturally for Yalom that “since we all live in a universe without inherent design”, freedom is the challenge to “be the authors of our own lives, choices and actions.” The same sentence might be rephrased in Frankl’s terms thusly: since we all live in a universe with inherent design, we are existentially responsible for what we do with our lives. 

For Yalom, we are challenged to invent meaning; for Frankl, we are challenged to discover it. As a result of this basic difference in orientation, their concepts do not exactly line up. Frankl would say that responsibility, not freedom, is the challenge we are given by life. We are responsible because we are free to decide. In other words, we are free to be responsible. Thus, when we cannot change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. For Yalom “freedom generates so much anxiety that many of us embrace gods or dic-tators to remove the burden”. On this point, Frankl would have to agree. Yes, freedom generates anxiety when we shirk our responsibility and pretend that we are not really free.

There are obvious mismatches. For example, Yalom mentions isolation as a challenge and Frankl does not; Frankl mentions guilt and Yalom does not. However, even when using the same word, their connotations are different. Regarding death, Yalom says that “a genuine confrontation with mortality may change the way we live: it helps us to trivialize the trivial and encourages us to live without building up regrets. So many philosophers in one way or another echo the lament of my patient dying of cancer: “What a pity I had to wait until now, until my body was riddled with cancer to learn how to live.” Frankl would agree in principle that death challenges us, but in our confrontation with mortality we are challenged to face our relationship with life. We must understand that we are questioned by life, and we are required to answer life’s questions. How do we want to look at life? is death the end of it all and the ultimate separation, or is death the ultimate reminder that we are connected to something greater?

The distinction between Frankl and Yalom really represents a larger dichotomy between the thrust of existential psychology, with its assertion that we are thrust into a meaningless world, and Frankl’s assertion that life has unconditional meaning, and we are commissioned to discover what that meaning is. 

Yalom’s existential challenge of isolation makes sense from his perspective of what life is about. We are “each thrown alone into the world and must de-part alone”. We must “take the journey to face judgment. The only comforting thing that can ac-company us while dying is the knowledge that we have lived well”. We can find the same sentiment of living with integrity in Frankl’s description of three possible gravestones that we will be confronted with at the end of our life. One gravestone says that we have wasted our life, one that we have done evil (and it would have been better that we never lived), and one that we lived well. Meaning is unique, and each of us must choose the unique meaning that is ours. Yes, we will face this judgment alone. But our unique insights will not perish. They become part of the tapestry that is interwoven into existence. Everything we have done is preserved, and no one can take away the meaning with which we have shaped our lives.

Yalom’s fourth challenge is meaning, or rather, meaninglessness. “Why were we put here? If nothing endures, what sense does life have? What is the point of life? How reassuring it would be to know that somewhere out there exists a genuine, palpable purpose in life, rather than only the sense of purpose in life?” Ah, but according to Frankl there is a genuine purpose. The challenge is to have unconditional faith in unconditional meaning. 

One existential challenge remains, that is missed by Yalom and identified by Frankl. The existential vacuum is the sense of meaninglessness that causes untold anxiety and depression. Here we come to the very definition of challenge itself. For Yalom, challenges throw a monkey-wrench into our belief system and hit us in the gut. A faceless fate leaves us helplessly struggling to find meaning in a meaningless world. For Frankl, we are challenged to use everything we have been given in life, the blessings along with the tragic aspects, for good, and to thereby fill the vacuum that is our unique responsibility to fill.

Yalom’s existential challengesFrankl’s existential challenges
Meaning (Meaninglessness)Existential vacuum

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