An Interesting Note on Suicide from Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl focused on suicide quite a bit throughout his career. First, with the unemployed youth in Vienna after WW1. Then, with the persecuted and targeted leading up to WW2. After that, with prisoners in the concentration camps. This may be his most important paragraph on the subject.
I read this in the introduction of “The Feeling of Meaninglessness” by Viktor Frankl. It’s a quote from an earlier work.
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Now insofar as it is necessary to evaluate precisely to what extent the seriousness of suicide risk a person represents, either when one is determining the advisability and reasonableness of discharging the patient from a closed facility, or else during a patient’s initial intake into inpatient institutional care, I myself have created a standard method that proves itself effective without fail. It enables us to provide a diagnosis of continued suicide risk, or rather to make a diagnosis of the dissimulation of suicidal tendencies as such. At first, we pose the question to the respective patient as to whether she still fosters suicidal intentions. In every case — both in the case where she is telling the truth, as well as in the case of mere dissimulation of actual suicidal intentions — she will deny our first question; whereupon we submit to her a second question, which almost sounds brutal: why does she no longer wish to take her own life? And now it is shown with regularity, that she who genuinely does not harbor suicidal intentions is immediately ready with a series of reasons and counterarguments that all speak against her throwing her own life away: that she still takes her disease to be curable, that she remains considerate of her family or must think of her professional commitments, that she still has many religious obligations, etc. Meanwhile, the person who has only dissimulated his suicidal intentions will be exposed by our second question, and not having an answer for it, react from a position that is characterized by embarrassment. This is truly simply on account of the fact that he is at a loss for an argument that would speak against suicide […].
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This is quite profound. If a person doesn’t have a reason to stay alive then there is literally no reason for them to be alive. That’s what they think, that’s what they feel, and that’s what they experience. Obviously, this is extremely important and useful to clinical psychologists and others that are in the position of helping people with suicidal ideation. But, it also applies in an important way to the individual life, to your life and my life.
Your engagement with life and your will to live is directly proportional to these reasons, how strong they are and how many they are. So, if you want to be more engaged with life then you should increase these reasons, in strength and in number.
This parallels the psychologist Jordan Peterson’s advice about taking on more responsibility to add meaning to life. It’s the same thing, it’s about having a reason to live. Find one, make one, take one.
(I would like to point out that this is not an argument against the conscious choice to end one’s life, especially when facing an inevitable medical decline. I may argue against that in a case, but I think people should have the right to make that choice. Frankl also said this. The fantasy writer Terry Pratchett was vocal about this near the end of his life when he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The first right is a property right, your right to your body, which is your right to life. Without this fundamental property right of the self all of civilization is lost, that’s my view. I’ve heard that Switzerland has a good position on this.)
It’s the same idea that I wrote about in a series of philosophy articles, just expressed in a different way. The existential philosopher Albert Camus proposed that the most important question in philosophy is, “Is life worth living?” It’s a good question. I sought to go beyond it and proposed the question, “What makes life worth living?” I think it’s more constructive. It starts the search for those reasons.
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The Most Important Question in Philosophy — Part 1 of ?
The Most Important Question in Philosophy — Part 2 of ?
The Most Important Question in Philosophy — Part 3 of ?
The Most Important Question in Philosophy — Part 4 of 4
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This is the exact same idea contained in the famous line, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Frankl believed that life has meaning in all circumstances. His insights in this area are essential for those that are suffering from problems and difficulties that they can’t overcome. The whole thing is contained in this line by Frankl, “When we are no longer able to change a situation — we are challenged to change ourselves.”
There are two parts to this. One, if you are suffering and have a problem, then fix it, change it, transform the world. Two, if it’s an impossible situation to fix, change, or transform, and only then, learn to accept the situation. There is still change here, there is still a transformation. Instead of transforming the world your work becomes to transform yourself. Frankl calls these “attitudinal values”. These two types of work and values interact throughout all of life, the transformation of the world and the transformation of the self.
The amazing thing is that we all already know this. That’s why when someone says it we immediately recognize the truth in it. How do we know it? These lessons are contained in all of the stories and narratives through all of human history. You can see this clearly in myths, or in movies and books now. People encounter challenges and tackle problems. They transform the world and themselves, along the way.
This story can be with dragons, or with bank robbers, or evil government officials, or aliens, or a sports team, or the dark scary woods, or the open sea, or any number of things. There are so many patterns that align across all of these stories that the greatest mythologist in history, Joseph Campbell, termed this pattern “The Heroes Journey”.
I would say that a hero is a person that conquers the unknown without, and the unknown within.
These are archetypes, patterns that are built into all of us. This means that every single person has this capacity and this calling.
The next time pervasive doubt about life creeps into your mind remember what Frankl said about having reasons to live, remember what Nietzsche said about having a why to live, remember what I said about finding what makes life worth living, remember what Campbell said about the heroes journey, remember to transform the world, and your self, remember to conquer the unknown without, and the unknown within.
You can find more of what I’m doing at http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com