The meaning of love
As he struggled to preserve the fainting traces of life within his dying body, having barely survived a grueling existence in places like Auschwitz where prisoners were worked to the brink of death, Viktor Frankl held onto the image of his wife as his last refuge, the only warmth he could find in the entire universe his undying memories of her.
“Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds,” he wrote in his memoirs, “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1959).
“But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.”
He didn’t know if she was still alive, since prisoners were forcibly separated from their loved ones, homes, careers, and everything that defined their former lives as soon as they were sent to the concentration camps.
Now, Frankl was nothing but a succession of numbers, with no identity and barely any rights as a human. In his former life, he was a successful psychiatrist and a prominent student activist, en route to global prominence. He was a budding doctor building on the works of titans of psychoanalysis, namely Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, who both revolutionized psychology.
But all of that was taken away when the curtain of fascism fell upon Austria, with deadly consequences for democrats, freethinkers and, above all, members of the Jewish community. In the fast-paced summer of his life, Frankl confronted the winter of slow death.
And it was there, at that moment of ultimate despair and lifeless sorrow, when the past was beyond his reach and the future beyond his control, that “a thought transfixed” his still lucid mind.
“[F]or the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers,” he wrote, with the immeasurable conviction of a man who had seen it all and yet never lost touch with the enlivening mystery of life. “The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.”
His scientific mind, carved out of empirical truth and rigorous research, gently gave way to a higher faculty, a divine understanding that “grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief” can impart.
He discovered, with the eye of his soul, that the “salvation of man is through love and in love.” His love for his wife transcended sorrow, humiliation and despair. It transcended life itself and even death, since he would never get to see his wife in this world again.
“I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved,” said Frankl. No words about the immortality of love were better expressed.
“Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self,” he wrote, revealing to us, with his own experience standing as ultimate testimony, the profoundly spiritual nature of life, when eros, philia and agape melt into one.
We are finite. Our flesh, our bones and our daily consciousness—all will turn into dust one day, with only the memories left to our children. But our love, in its truest sense, is limitless, a bridge between mortality, with all its despairing frustrations, and the infinite, where time and space cease to be.
Nazism took away Frankl’s wife. He miraculously survived several concentration camps, where intense self-awareness, spirituality and love kept him alive. But he carried his love for her throughout the rest of his life, showing that the defining force of life is the “Will to Meaning,” with love at the center of it.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.