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02/03/2023

Existentialism is an area of philosophical enquiry often used in therapy which seeks to answer many questions about the human experience of life. Embracing the concept of death can provide the inspiration to find value and meaning while living. Struggling to find a real purpose in your own life or in the world is a challenge that most reasonable, rational thinking and feeling individuals experience at some point. The age old philosophical questions that ask why we are here, what is the reason for living, and what we should do with our lives often fuel an inner angst or uneasiness that pushes us towards finding answers or ways to ease those fears. With this awareness of death and that we are all mortal beings comes the notion of meaninglessness. This refers to humankind knowing that death will eventually come and with this knowledge it can be difficult to see the point in struggling, striving, worrying needlessly, or trying to do anything. At some moment in time the connection with whatever it is an individual is doing and that individual will be forever broken through death so with this in mind, it can be a challenge to be motivated or to find a purpose in the world. 

 

We all have the freedom to find a purpose, to seek meaning, to construct our own reason for being, through our own decisions choices and actions. However this burden of freedom highlights the need for responsibility. The parameters of one’s freedom are limited by the fact that circumstances are determined by the choices that a person makes in any given situation. At times it can be difficult and even overwhelming to accept this aspect of living and it can be easier to blame others or external forces for challenges faced, instead of making personal commitments or setting personal goals. As individuals we all have a need to assert our own identity and yet at the same time there is a need to experience the world in relation to others and in the connections that are made with others. With that comes a sense of being alone but being part of a collective at the same time. Ultimately being comfortable with only being able to depend on oneself for acceptance and the sense of isolation that that imbues poses a significant challenge.

 

Logotherapy, derived from existentialism, focuses on the human quest for meaning and on making some sense of life itself, human suffering, death, loss, and all related matters. Viktor Frankl states that “the modern person has the means to live but often has no meaning to live for” (Corey, 2009, pg.137). Frankl, in addressing the existential concerns of death, isolation, freedom and meaninglessness assumes that humans function on several levels, namely the physical, the psychological and the spiritual. He maintains that when a person transcends the physical and psychological, and connects with their own innate spirituality it becomes easier to find meaning and value in one’s life. Irvin Yalom believes that using existential anxiety can aid this process of finding meaning. When talking about the benefits of embracing the concept of death, he states “The way to value life, the way to feel compassion for others, the way to love anything with greatest depth is to be aware that these experiences are destined to be lost” (Yalom, 2008, pg.147). Victor Frankl also believes that not being able to find or being prevented from finding meaning can lead to what he terms “noogenic neurosis” or existential distress (Das, 1998). Those who experience this feel they have nothing to live for or have no direction in their lives. Logotherapy ultimately aims to ease this distress by helping clients to connect with themselves and the world in which they live and thus helping them to live life as authentically as possible. In doing so the utmost priority is the pursuit of meaning as opposed to the pursuit of power or happiness. 



Existentialism and Logotherapy in Grief and Loss


It’s easy to see how the loss of a loved one through death and the subsequent pain that is experienced can cause great emotional turmoil, and a seemingly insurmountable personal crisis that leaves any individual asking a multitude of questions about the nature of living and the process of dying. Seeing beyond the immediate pain of the physical separation from a loved one and delving into the merits of their life in connection with others and allowing ourselves, through experiencing grief, to come face to face with our own mortality is where the existentialist view and logotherapy can benefit clients in counselling and psychotherapy. 


First and foremost Frankl’s (1984) own account of loss and grief in the Nazi concentration camps should serve as an inspiration to others when trying to find a reason to hold on and keep going. In facing death, one is forced to look at the value of their life or that of a loved one. Reflecting retrospectively on the lifespan of someone close is more than fondly and lovingly reminiscing. I believe it is an important lesson and a way of seeing how a life has shaped and carved its’ own reality and place in the world over time through a journey of experiences, bonds with others, personal challenges and discoveries and love shared with those around them, and thus extending their influence on the world after they have gone. This I feel is the very essence of life’s meaning. While finite and limited with it’s own expiration date, the life of any living breathing human, on closer examination reveals an rich tapestry woven over time into an intricate pattern of colours, both dark and light which is unique to each individual. Celebrating what is or what was and appreciating how an aspect of a person life had its’ rightful place in the world may ease the pain of their absence. It may help to remind us that we too have a place and what we do with our time and the choices we make hold as much value as anyone else’s. 



References


Corey, G (2009) Theory and Practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy 8th ed. Belmont: Thomson


Das, Ajit K. (1998) Frankl and the realm of meaning. Journal of Humanistic Education & Development, 36(4) 199 - 212


Frankl, V (1978) Unheard Cry for Meaning. New York: Simon and Schuster


Frankl, V (1984) Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Pocket Books


Yalom, I (2008) Staring at the Sun. San Francisco: Jossey Bass

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