On Turning a Tragedy into a Triumph: A Tribute to Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), M.D., Ph.D.

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Viktor Frankl, M.D., Ph.D.

The Tragic Dimension of Life

At birth, human beings inhabit a “wounded” or damaged world. Humans themselves are also wounded, finite creatures, limited by their natural imperfections. Since imperfect humans live in an imperfect world, it cannot always be changed, despite all the advances of science.

If science had a solution for every human problem, could fix everything that is wrong with the world, heal ever kind of disease and prevent death itself, then science itself would take on a savior-like or divine-like status, virtually making it into God. However, since science can neither cure every disease nor conquer death itself, then science is neither God nor Savior of humankind.

Therefore, in an imperfect world with human imperfections, it is not always possible for every condition to be changed; nor for all diseases to be healed. As Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl writes,

“Caught in a hopeless situation as its helpless victim, facing a fate that cannot be changed, man still may turn his predicament into an achievement and accomplishment at the human level. He thus may bear witness to the human potential at its best, which is to turn tragedy into triumph.”1

Challenged by Life to Change Oneself

Sometimes, perhaps many times, a person “overcomes” a difficulty or problem only by enduring it. In Frankl’s words,

“Facing a fate we cannot change, we are called upon to make the best of it by rising above ourselves and growing beyond ourselves, in a word, by changing ourselves.”2

That is to say, if a person’s problem cannot be changed, after exhausting all possible attempts to change it, then he or she must change his or her attitude toward it and, thereby, become better, that is, a changed person.

Rethinking the Notion of a “Victorious” Life

The “cure,” then, for an incurable disease may be living with it, enduring it. Coping with the problem, having the right kind of attitude toward it, is, in a way, the “victory” over it.

Of course, when life’s problems or difficulties can be changed, they should be. In short, when things change for the worse, a person is challenged to respond to them by making a change for the better in his or her life.

Endnotes

1. Viktor E. Frankl, The Unconscious God (New York, N.Y.: Washington Square Press/ Pocket Books/ Simon and Schuster, Inc., English ed.1975, 1st Washington Square Press printing 1985), pp. 125-126.

2. ———-, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (New York, N.Y.: Insight Books/ Plenum Press, 1997), p. 142.

What It Means to Have Heart

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Viktor and Elly Frankl, with Jerry Long

The Meaning of Heart

What does it mean to have heart? It is, of course, not the physical organ in a human body. Rather, heart is an inner mental or spiritual faculty, the inner strength of a person. Heart, then, is rooted in the spirit, specifically, the defiant power of the human spirit. Heart is deeper than the head, because it is possible to be hightly intelligent and not have heart. Similarly, heart is deeper than physical strength, for it is possible to be strong but lack heart.

To have heart is a moral virtue, which is called “fortitude.” Heart is the will to go on, keep moving forward, not give up on a worthwhile pursuit, whatever it may be. Therefore, heart is the strength of the human spirit that becomes stronger by resolving to face and endure, if not overcome, life’s challenges and adversities.

Because heart is a virtue, it can be taught, transmitted to others. Leaders, such as mothers, fathers, teachers and coaches, can inspire others, by words and example, to believe in themselves, their innate worth or value as persons. When that happens, they literally become enthusiastic, that is, aware of the God that is in them and discover their God-given talents.

Jerry Long: An Example of Heart

Jerry Long (d. 2004) was an example of heart. Despite his disability, having broken his neck and becoming a quadriplegic, he went to college and graduated.  Then he went to graduate school and earned a Ph.D. The motto by which he lived was “I broke my neck, it didn’t break me.”1

Obviously, then, a person’s body can be battered, subdued and even crushed, but not his or her spirit. It is possible, depending on a person’s decision, for him or her to become invictus, “unconquered.” The inner resolve to be that way is called “heart.”

Heart in Athletics

Those who have heart may not be the best athletes but they keep on trying to become better at their sport. In competition, they may be knocked down but something deep inside keeps saying to them, “Get back up and resume playing.” That “something deep inside” is called “heart.”

Heart has a lot to do with a person’s attitude. For example, the person who chooses to finish a race, even if he or she comes in last, viewing the completion as a personal accomplishment, has heart. Again, someone may not be in the starting lineup of a team but if he or she is there to support the teammates — and, when needed, to play to the best of his or her ability, to give everything to the game, then that person has heart.

Those with heart know by experience that losing to an opponent is disappointing. Physically and emotionally, it hurts! The emotional hurt is often worse than the physical pain itself. However, to have heart is also to have faith in the future, despite the disappointment of the moment, believing that a loss, as heartbreaking as it may be, is one step closer to a win.

Those who have heart know the difference between losing and being a loser. For them, losing a game is something that happens to them, an activity in which they participate. But they also recognize that playing a game is different from being a person and, therefore, they will not allow themselves be defined by a loss. Thus, they may lose a game but, as persons, they are not losers.

Heart in the Classroom

Those with heart may not be the smartest students in the classroom but they won’t drop out of a course. They refuse to believe that they are failures. Instead, they believe that failure is something that happens to them. It is not what they are as persons. That is why they won’t give up on themselves, especially when they receive an average or below average grade.

Students who have heart have the mental strength to rebound from the disappointment of failure, being determined to do better on the next quiz or exam. For them, failing is one step closer to passing; a wrong answer is one step closer to the right one. In their heart, they know that they “gave it their all,” doing the best they possibly could. That is why they graduate from high schools, colleges or universities, even though they may not be at the top of their class.

Heart in Everyday Life

Heart does not merely pertain to athletics and education. To have heart is really about life itself. There are many other examples of heart, even though they may not be obvious to some people. If one has social anxiety disorder, it takes heart to be around other people. Not taking a sip of alcohol each day, if one is an alcoholic, requires heart. Sometimes, just getting out of bed in the morning requires heart, especially if a person is prone to depression or hopelessness. Completing a difficult day at work takes heart, because one has endured problems from the beginning to the end of the day.

Those with heart may not be the best, athletically; the strongest, physically, or the brightest, academically; but they are great souls, just as great as those who possess superior talents. The reason they are great is that they are striving to be the best at being themselves. No can really ask from them anymore than that!

Endnote

A letter from Jerry Long to Viktor Frankl, quoted in Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 148.