Reading Viktor Frankl during the Covid-19 Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic arrived upon the world stage shortly after I had begun a year-long study program on the life and works of Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), best known as the author of the searing Holocaust testimonial Man’s Search for Meaning. Sponsored by the Graduate Theological Foundation, the program consists of an in-depth review of his ten or so books available in English. (An Austrian, he wrote most of his works in German.) A medical doctor in two specialties, neurology and psychiatry, and a scholar with a PhD in philosophy, Frankl was a learned man who could match wits with the best of his generation in a multitude of academic disciplines. Thankfully, he was also a polished writer, with a knack for the artful turn of phrase, resulting in books that crackle with wisdom and wit even as they are at times challenging.

One of Frankl’s most famous quips resulted from a trip to America, probably during the 1960s. Having spent most of World War II in concentration camps (and losing his wife, brother, and both parents in those camps), he certainly knew the value of individual freedom, and so the presence of the Statue of Liberty welcoming the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” understandably filled him with awe. And yet as he traveled across America, he sensed that something was missing, that we Americans were getting it only half right. That in our celebration of freedom we were neglecting something else, namely personal responsibility . . . and so he proposed that we build a Statue of Responsibility in San Francisco Bay to counterbalance the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. (“Forget the Wall, Build the Statue” should be somebody’s rallying cry for the 2020 elections.)

For Frankl, responsibility, the central theme of his work, is not an option—it is demanded of us, demanded by life itself. How we respond is optional; that we respond, from the depths of our conscience and our personal values, is not.

So, how would Frankl respond to the covid-19 crisis? As a man who experienced the worst humanity can do to itself, I suspect he would instinctually respond with empathy about our shared plight. He knew suffering well, far beyond what the vast majority of us could imagine. Further:

  • A man of science, he would settle for nothing short of demonstrated facts in his efforts to understand and communicate about the crisis, and he would have turned to those with relevant expertise to provide direction. (I can see Frankl in the Dr. Anthony Fauci role—but with considerably less patience and diplomacy!)   
  • A man of strong values who practiced his Jewish faith in a quiet, solitary manner, he would encourage us to take comfort from whatever spiritual practices work for us, whether tied to a religious tradition or not. Frankl had a healthy understanding of religion, one that appreciates that there is truth and goodness in all spiritual traditions.
  • Imprisoned because of his ethnicity and religion, he would remind us that we are not American, Mexican, or Chinese, nor Christian, Jew, or Muslim, but one people struggling to make sense of a perilous world. 
  • He would rail against anyone who would use the crisis as an opportunity to attack groups of people, as he himself had experienced at the hands of the Nazis.
  • He would express outrage at anyone who would attempt to profit from the crisis.
  • He would demand that we act with personal responsibility regarding the various protocols put in place to limit the spread of the virus.
  • And when this crisis is finally behind us, he would lead the efforts to identify what we have learned from it. A man with a keen social conscience stemming from his Judaic heritage, he would no doubt be attentive to the unnecessary burden carried by those without health insurance, those working for wages insufficient to support a family, those dying in over-crowded prisons, those at greater risk due to underlying medical conditions resulting from generations of political, social, and economic discrimination, and much more.

Due to the strength of his character and the wisdom of his words, Viktor Frankl had an enormous influence over several generations of world leaders, psychologists and counselors, medical personnel, teachers, students, men and women in ministry, and the general public. He became a household name. Today, there are Viktor Frankl institutes throughout the world, from Israel to Austria, Japan to Slovakia, Nigeria to Abilene, Texas. A new copy of his writings, titled Yes to Life, was released last month with an introduction by Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence. A man for all seasons, his compelling life story and penetrating wisdom will continue to influence generations for years to come.