Postscript: “The Case for a Tragic Optimism” Summary
In this postscript added in 1984, based on a lecture given at the Third World Congress of Logotherapy in 1983, Frankl explores the question of how to remain optimistic about life in spite of its negative aspects, or what he calls the “tragic triad”: pain, guilt, and death. With his belief that human beings are capable of making something positive out of even the worst circumstances, Frankl suggests that each aspect of the tragic triad can be made meaningful: pain and suffering can be turned into an accomplishment if the right attitude is taken toward them; guilt can offer an opportunity for positive personal change; and the transitory nature of life can inspire people to take responsible action. Frankl is careful, however, to distinguish tragic optimism from the imperative to “be happy” that he sees as characterizing American culture. According to logotherapy, it is a reason to be happy that people ought to strive for rather than happiness itself. Happiness occurs as a side effect of actualizing potential meaning.
While happiness is the outcome of a successful search for meaning, existential despair—what Frankl calls the “existential vacuum”—is the result when the search is unsuccessful. Frankl characterizes the existential vacuum as a mass phenomenon, a kind of collective syndrome. This sense of life’s emptiness and meaninglessness afflicts not only patients receiving therapy or treatment for drug and alcohol addiction but young people and students, the elderly, the unemployed, and people in industrialized societies across the world, just as it affected POWs during the Vietnam War and prisoners in concentration camps during World War II. Frankl believes that the addiction, aggression, and depression he sees as symptoms of a neurotic disorder afflicting the young generation of his time can all be traced back to the existential vacuum, and he argues that orienting people toward a sense of meaning in their lives is a necessary part of suicide prevention.
Logotherapy’s solution to the problem of existential despair is, as Frankl emphasizes throughout Man’s Search for Meaning, finding and actualizing the potential meaning in each situation in one’s life. He returns here to many of the same ideas that comprise “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” in particular the three main methods by which people can find meaning: by creating or achieving something (work), by experiencing or encountering someone (love), and, most importantly, by turning the tragedy of unavoidable pain and suffering—the first aspect of the tragic triad—into a triumph. One example Frankl cites of this “tragic optimism” in the face of suffering is a study of American POWs who described their imprisonment in Vietnam as a personal growth experience. Another is the story of Jerry Long, a quadriplegic college student who wrote to Frankl of how he looks at the suffering he has endured since his accident as responsible for the growth he has achieved and the meaning he has found in his life. In his discussion of the second aspect of the tragic triad, guilt, Frankl writes of the importance of holding people responsible for their behavior and encouraging them, like the prisoners he once...
(The entire section is 796 words.)