Healing Qohelet Through Logotherapy:
A Revolutionary Approach to an Ancient Dilemma
Viktor Frankl and the Crisis of Meaning
As a survivor of the atrocities of the Holocaust, with a first hand account of the torments of Auschwitz and Dachau—Nazi death camps ridden with unthinkable violence and massacre—Viktor Frankl has lived not only to recount the unspeakable sufferings of concentration camp prisoners, but also to open our eyes to the inherent capacity of the human person to maintain self-empowerment and a will to live— even through the most abominable and debasing of circumstances. Frankl endured the dehumanization inflicted by the SS guards, just as his fellow prisoners did. However, he witnessed the brutality from a unique twofold perspective: Viktor Frankl possessed the eyes and heart of both a victim and of a psychiatrist.
While he struggled with his own inner demons throughout his personal sufferings, Frankl observed both marked and subtle psychological patterns and emotional fluctuations manifesting in fellow victims—from utter hopelessness and depression to unquenchable anger to complete apathy and numbness. He made note of the varying attitudes of the prisoners, and more importantly, the correlation between such disparities in emotional state and chance of survival in the camps. Those who maintained but a modicum of hope, even an ounce of resolve in their hearts, despite enduring unimaginable degrees of physical and emotional violence, increased their chance of survival exponentially. Frankl explains, “Most men in the concentration camp believed that the real opportunities in life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences turning life into an inner triumph” (Frankl, 93). Conversely, those prisoners who had given up, whose spirits died— as victims of their own depression—unfortunately, yet understandably succumbed to the ravages of the camps and, more often than not, met their physical deaths as well.
In the midst of his own atrophy, Frankl made these striking observations. Confronted with the realization that one’s was not only in the hands of the SS, but somehow just as much in his or her own hands, Frankl sought out exactly what kept one going, what kept a beat in his or her heart throughout the monstrous circumstances of the Holocaust. He found that the wellspring of life, or simply survival, lies not in the physical musculature of the body, not in one’s height and weight, but instead within the intangible. The will to live is etched into one’s soul— within personal convictions regarding the single most fundamental aspect of human existence: the meaning of life. Of course, no human being may truly understand the “meaning of life” in terms of the grand scheme, unless perhaps via divine inspiration. For this, the quest of humankind since the dawn of time, is one which many have undertaken, but which no one may presume to have conquered. Instead, Frankl refers to “meaning” in the context of one’s own life, in terms of an individual perspective—what truly matters to someone. More specifically, one with personal goals, who knows what he or she desires to accomplish in life, regardless of how “great” or “simple” the task, has evolved a purpose for his or her life— that is, to accomplish such future goals.
Most appropriately, Frankl often quotes Nietzsche’s powerful statement, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”. A goal-centered attitude toward life— a personal purpose— kindles the will to live, the will to rise above any situation, no matter how torturous. Accordingly, Frankl indicates that, “Any attempt at fighting the camp’s psychopathological influence on the prisoner by psychotherapeutic or psychohygienic methods had to aim at giving him inner strength by pointing out to him a future goal to which he could look forward…And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task” (94). With this new insight, Frankl better understood the nature of survival—essentially, what kept some camp prisoners ticking, and why others could not withstand. Frankl describes the tell-tale characteristics of these broken beings: “A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts…[This was] an important factor in causing prisoners to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Life for such people became meaningless” (92-93).
In this way, Frankl’s experiences in the camps presented him not only with horrible afflictions and unspeakable suffering, but also, and dare I say, more significantly, with a sense of enlightenment—invaluable knowledge of the power of the human spirit to conquer external circumstances, no matter how demoralizing. For Frankl, and eventually for patients of the psychiatrist, the Nazi camps were both a blessing and a curse: His psychological insight not only enabled Frankl to make key observations regarding the varying emotional states of camp prisoners (including himself), but to draw from these experiences a criterion for survival. While suffering himself and witnessing the sufferings of fellow prisoners, Frankl applied his revelation in developing a revolutionary approach to psychological healing. And upon liberation from the snares of the concentration camp, he published Man’s Search for Meaning to recount his personal experiences in Auschwitz and Dachau and to explain this new approach to overcoming depression, which he termed Logotherapy, literally, “meaning therapy”.
Although derived from Frankl’s accounts of depression in the context of extreme physical and emotional suffering, the methods of healing characteristic of Logotherapy are surely not restricted to those who have endured such horrendous cruelty and dehumanization. Because they comprise a “meaning-centered psychotherapy” (120), logotherapeutic practices extend over a broad range of depressions, regardless of the cause of mental strife, and psychiatrists may subsequently apply logotherapy in assisting a broad range of patients— anyone from victims of severe atrocity, to those simply bored or disillusioned with life. But, by its very nature, and by definition, logotherapy may prove most beneficial to those who fail to find meaning in their lives: “Logotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning. According to Logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man” (121).
Qohelet and the Crisis of Meaning
One such man, who, I may argue, epitomizes logotherapeutic candidacy, happens to share his depression with the world by way of biblical text. That an ancient persona espouses symptoms which logotherapy, developed nearly two and one half millennia afterward, specifically targets, speaks volumes of the universality of Frankl’s work. Qohelet, author of Ecclesiastes, claims in so many words that life is meaningless, that life, as he sees it, simply lacks purpose: “Futility of futilities, says Qohelet, futility of futilities! All things are futile!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). This, the very opening line of the book, captures the essence of both the book and of Qohelet’s despondent state of mind. As an elderly gentleman, Qohelet feels that he has seen all there is to see, done all there is to do, and realized all that life has to offer.
As a wealthy man, and at one point “king in Jerusalem” (1:1), Qohelet has had the luxury of infinite material pleasure and revelry galore. He sought happiness in self-indulgence. Qohelet recounts, “I said to myself, ‘Come, now, let me try you with pleasure and the enjoyment of good things’. But behold, this too was vanity. Of laughter I said: ‘Mad!’ and of mirth: ‘What good does this do?’ I thought of beguiling my senses with wine, though my mind was concerned with wisdom, and of taking up folly, until I should understand what is best for men to do under the heavens during the limited days of their life” (2:1-3). Bacchanalia provided but a temporary numbing of the senses—a mask to conceal, not heal, the pain below. Rather than look within himself for meaning, Qohelet turned to external superficialities, to exhibiting his monetary wealth: “I amassed for myself silver and gold, and the wealth of kings and provinces. I got for myself male and female singers and all human luxuries. I became great, and I stored up more than all others before me in Jerusalem…Nothing that my eyes desired did I deny them…but when I turned to all the works that my hands had wrought, and to the toil at which I had taken such pains, behold! all was vanity and a chase after the wind. Nothing had been gained under the sun” (2:8-11). Save momentary satisfaction, these hedonistic endeavors afforded Qohelet nothing in the way of true fulfillment, nothing that held true value or meaning.
With a heart left unsatisfied from external luxury, but still in pursuit of fulfillment, Qohelet shifted the direction of his search. He explains, “I went on to the consideration of wisdom, madness, and folly. And I saw that wisdom has the advantage over folly as much as light has the advantage over darkness” (2:12-13). Although Qohelet did indeed recognize value in wisdom, his finding—instead of affording personal progress as expected— only led him deeper into despair, intensifying his cynical outlook: For, even though a wise person may enjoy a certain efficiency in performing the tasks of daily life, (an advantage which the fool does not possess), in the end, he or she meets the same fate as one who had never sought such understanding. Frustrated, Qohelet rationalized, “Yet I knew that one lot befalls both of them. So I said to myself, if the fool’s lot is to befall me also, why then should I be wise? Where is the profit for me? And I concluded in my heart that this too is vanity” (2:14-15). Most unfortunately, even in making an honest attempt at self-help, Qohelet stumbled upon this disheartening notion— a realization which he could only dwell on, a realization which plagued him thereafter: “Among all things that happen under the sun, this is the worst, that things turn out the same for all” (9:3).
Despite the incredible disparity between Qohelet’s experience of indulgence and bountiful pleasure and the wretched suffering of Holocaust victims, both, though for different reasons, found themselves devoid of a sense of genuine meaning in life. Just as prisoners of Auschwitz and Dachau often sought death as a release from unbearable misery and pain—for the dead bore none of the anguish which life imparted— Qohelet, fraught with existential depression, dismally expressed a similar view: “And those now dead I declared more fortunate in death than are the living to still be alive. And better off than both is yet the unborn, who has not seen the wicked work that is done under the sun” (4:2-3). Qohelet had not endured the physical and emotional torment in the camps, yet, through his words, we may recognize the undeniable disillusionment with a life that burdens him— the same depressive symptoms evident in camp victims.
According to logotherapy, Qohelet, like the majority of the prisoners of Auschwitz and Dachau, dwells in what Frankl calls an “existential vacuum”. Frankl explains that such sufferers “lack the awareness of a meaning worth living for” (Frankl, 128). He continues, “They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves” (128). Qohelet fails to recognize the value of life— more significantly, what in life is valuable and important to himself. For Qohelet, “all is vanity”. Not only does Qohelet stamp out potential meaning of his current circumstances, but he also erodes the value of his life’s work. When he looks back on years past from his aged perspective, Qohelet painfully undermines the worth of his efforts and subsequent accomplishments. For, he is convinced that the property, which he has labored for, will be inherited by an unappreciative, undeserving man: “So my feelings turned to despair of all the fruits of my labor under the sun. For there is a man who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and to another, who has not labored over it, he must leave his property. This also is vanity and a great misfortune” (Ecclesiastes 2:20-21). Qohelet poignantly continues, “For what profit comes to a man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun?” (2:22). Qohelet’s existential vacuum consumes his past and present—his entire being.
In his explanation of logotherapy, Frankl refers to a specific kind of depression often present “in the crises of pensioners and aging people” (Frankl 129) which involves the aforementioned existential vacuum. The elderly Qohelet most likely suffers from this so-called “Sunday Neurosis”, an affliction characterized by disillusionment with life and triggered by a period of inactivity and retreat from the rush of a busy life. Confronted with a lull in time that lacks the distractions and diversions of a busy life, aged people “become aware of the lack of content in their lives…and the void within them becomes manifest” (129). And thus the search for meaning begins.
But how might a man who declares from on high that “all is vanity”— a man who, based on his own experience, maintains that life is meaningless— begin his quest? We have seen early on in Ecclesiastes that Qohelet has indeed attempted to help himself, whether by indulging in secular pleasures or by seeking wisdom. And we have also seen that his attempts were indeed futile. Therefore, Qohelet undoubtedly requires guidance. And who better to guide him on his quest for meaning than the logotherapist himself, Dr. Viktor Frankl? Once he has welcomed Qohelet into his office, Dr. Frankl would first and foremost engage his patient in discourse regarding what exactly a quest for meaning entails—just what finding meaning means. He would emphatically explain that, “The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment” (131). Qohelet, charged with the mission of seeking out not an abstract meaning of life, but something tangible— something personally important to himself— will embark on this journey with a helping hand supporting him throughout.
With a foundational understanding of a personal “meaning” developed in Qohelet’s mind, Dr. Frankl will then implement “Noo-dynamics”, one of two techniques fundamental to logotherapy. The practice involves cultivating a degree of tension in Qohelet’s state of mind, “a tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become” (127). Qohelet currently exists in a “state of latency” (127), lacking such necessary tension: His thoughts and words suggest that the elderly Qohelet finds himself stalled near the end of a long road. Looking backward, he sees an expansive stretch of highway; however, in the forward direction, he sees but a short section of asphalt leading to a dead end. Throughout the text of Ecclesiastes, Qohelet constantly underscores the depth and breadth of his experience, and almost always uses this to support his statements on life—essentially what he has figured out from living. Entertaining this “been-there-done-that” mentality, Qohelet has halted any opportunity for progress. Literally and figuratively, Qohelet hasn’t much to look forward to. Dr. Frankl will suggest extending Qohelet’s figurative road by forging a new path—that is, a personal goal or “freely-chosen task” (127), in the course of pursuing which, Qohelet will find meaning and fulfillment. The powerful presence of such a goal, creates that “polar field of tension where one pole is represented by a meaning that is to be fulfilled and the other pole by the man who has to fulfill it” (127).
The second vital technique of logotherapy after Noo-dynamics, consists of promoting in Qohelet a sense of what logotherapy calls “responsibleness.” Frankl elaborates with a thought-provoking notion: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked…each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (131). By virtue of his existence in this world,—because he has been granted life, whether he appreciates it or not—Qohelet must not only cultivate personal purpose and direction for his own self-fulfillment, but also to honor the gift of life by way of a certain primal reciprocity. Life has been bestowed on Qohelet, and he must live it accordingly. Finding meaning in his life, by establishing a set goal or task and by being responsible for its fulfillment honors this existential contract. Frankl insists that within this “responsibleness” lies the essence of human existence. For what, to whom, or to what Qohelet understands himself to be responsible is a personal choice. According to Frankl, the “categorical imperative” of logotherapy also reflects such “responsibleness”: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” (132). This maxim embodies both a confrontation with the finite nature of existence and, more poignantly, an invitation to make the most out of his life and out of himself.
Once Qohelet understands and accepts these revolutionary logotherapeutic perspectives, he may take the next step in his existential journey. Incorporating a healthy tension through goal-setting and recognizing his cosmological debt, Qohelet now has a crucial choice to make: “It is up to the patient to decide whether he should interpret his life task as being responsible to society or to his own conscience” (132). Though always an accessible resource, Frankl, having shaped a logotherapeutic foundation, must allow Qohelet to take the reigns. Establishing his own personal goal—whether far-reaching or close to home, a grand aspiration or one of a much smaller scale, whether to benefit his community or himself— will give meaning to Qohelet’s life and mark the beginning of the healing process.
A myriad of potential goals exist for Qohelet to adopt if he chooses to focus his efforts directly on himself. He may aspire to complete an Iron Man triathlon. He might even consider lowering his cholesterol. Though possible, ambitions of this sort remain unlikely, for Qohelet is both elderly—(though the swimming would cushion the joints, the running may be a bit much)— and his physician in 300 B.C. most probably lacks the technology to monitor his LDLs. Instead, we must keep in mind the relevancy of Qohelet’s self-determined goal by taking his personal circumstances into account. Developing some kind of new skill would provide Qohelet with a clear objective and, at the same time, a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon. Crossword puzzles absent for about two thousand more years, Qohelet could certainly become a sort of artisan in his spare time: He may consider taking up the art of whittling wood as a new hobby—or other forms of sculpture, pottery perhaps. Honing such a skill or craft offers Qohelet an opportunity for personal fulfillment by encouraging a renewed sense of aptitude as well as a physical piece of artwork, a finished product, to look forward to.
As an alternative goal, still centered on his own conscience, Qohelet may decide that rather than, or even in addition to, improving his dexterity as a craftsman, he should seek a more introspective route: Qohelet may choose to do a bit of emotional spring cleaning— to dust the furniture of his mind. Branding his past experiences and labors as mere “vanity and a chase after the wind” as of late, Qohelet would find it in his best interest to come to terms with the events and accomplishments of his early life. Qohelet must learn to acknowledge the worth of his work “under the sun”— to come to terms with the fact that, though he may have had great difficulty recognizing it in his clouded state of mind, all of his labors, regardless of their outcomes, hold great value by virtue of the effort he himself put forth. Qohelet must remind himself that, though the structures failed to provide him with bountiful happiness and fulfillment upon completion, the “houses and vineyards”, the “gardens and parks” which he constructed in Jerusalem certainly meant something to him while he strove to build them. To further enhance this sense of value, Qohelet may also discover an appreciation for his past toils in how they affected others. He has most likely never contemplated this idea—that his actions, his toils have undoubtedly influenced the lives of other people for the better—for, he had undertaken those labors specifically to benefit himself. But a toddler may have taken her first steps in one of the gardens he built. A worker may have taught her little boy how to count while harvesting grapes in his vineyard. Even his quest for wisdom, which ultimately left Qohelet even more depressed, may have inspired an adolescent to appreciate knowledge—knowledge which did bring indeed bring joy to the youth. Striving to reconcile the worth of his past efforts, a worth that he sorrowfully failed to recognize before, will truly benefit Qohelet.
Bearing in mind his twofold choice, Qohelet may decide that his responsibility lies externally— not so much within his own person, but instead within society. Qohelet quite possibly feels that, having consistently focused all attention on himself, and having fostered a rather self-centered lifestyle until now, he should change directions and formulate a community-centered task to achieve. As king of Jerusalem, donating to charity (a relief program for farmers struggling during an off-year for agriculture, for example) would barely put a dent in Qohelet’s immense wealth. Beneficiaries would more than appreciate his generosity; however, Qohelet has the potential to make an even greater impact on society and on himself by establishing a more hands-on goal. With much experience in the way of construction and landscaping, Qohelet could surely bring a great deal of talent to a Public Works Committee. He might choose to see the production of a playground through to its completion, possibly a shelter for the homeless, or even take measures to open some of his own property— his lavish gardens and parks—for the town’s enjoyment. Doing so would not only provide Qohelet with a sense of fulfillment by utilizing his land as a place for play and happiness, but also by proving to him, in retrospect, the wonderful value and potential of his past efforts.
Perhaps Qohelet will choose to assist a cause even closer to his heart, to help people experiencing a suffering that he can personally identify with. As he progresses emotionally with the support of Dr. Frankl, Qohelet, as intended, gradually gains insight into fashioning a meaningful existence for himself. Infinitely grateful for the guidance that steadily elevates him from the depths of existential angst, Qohelet may choose to set out on a mission to rescue fellow sufferers from their similarly abysmal states of mind, once he has successfully escaped his own depression. Reinforcing the logotherapeutic value of goal-setting, as part of his own healing, while simultaneously encouraging the healing of others, this particular mission brings Qohelet’s journey entirely full-circle. Embodying precisely what Dr. Frankl strives to achieve with his patients, this ultimate goal represents the best possible outcome of Qohelet’s logotherapy.
Tried and true, logotherapeutic techniques have enlightened countless men and women to the beauty of life, to their personal meaning of existence. Logotherapy has the power to liberate Qohelet from the chains of depression, to open his eyes to a world where all is not “vanity and a chase after the wind”— a world with immeasurable value and substantial meaning. Though this well-thought-out and thoroughly systematic psychological approach based on goal-setting and responsibility will certainly herald success for him, Qohelet, may indeed find meaning by another avenue— an avenue called love. Frankl explains that several personal encounters also have the potential to cultivate in a human being a true sense of existential meaning: “The second way of finding meaning in life is by experiencing something— such as goodness, truth and beauty— by experiencing nature and culture or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness—by loving him” (134). One cannot underestimate the power of love to illuminate a person’s life, especially in the midst of the most dreadful circumstances. While he stood hacking at the icy ground on the perimeter of Dachau, the bare skin draped over his atrophying body exposed to freezing temperatures, only his immense love for his wife could take Frankl’s mind off the misery enveloping his being: “More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there” (60). Love for another human being can help a person see past the struggles and disappointments of life, and realize the wonderful meaning of it all— the personal and existential meaning within his or her own heart. Though advanced in his years, Qohelet may certainly happen upon romantic love. But he may just as well find a different kind of love— perhaps for a new friend, or a reacquainted family member. In either case, the love that he does find has enormous potential to restore meaning to Qohelet’s life— to revitalize a life once deadened with depression. Whether by way of logotherapy or by the therapy of love, Qohelet will have a meaningful life to look forward to.
Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Simon &Schuster, Inc., 1984
The New American Bible. Ecclesiastes. Wichita, Kansas: Devore & Sons, Inc., 1987