One of my daughter’s Christmas presents was a book which original version was published the year I was born (which happened today exactly 72 years ago). I don’t think she new that when she bought it, neither was she aware of the fact that during decades I have promised myself to read it. Since more than five years I had even a pdf version of this book on my laptop; as well as, since a couple of years, an audiobook version on my iTunes app. I never created time to read it, until now.

Man’s Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor E. Frankl chronicling his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about. According to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity.

The edition of Man’s Search for Meaning Daphne gave me is a Rider one (2011) based on the 1992 edition[i]. Part One constitutes Frankl’s analysis of his experiences in the concentration camps, while Part Two introduces his ideas of meaning and his theory called Logotherapy. Part Three is a postscript of 1984 and presents a case for Tragic Optimism.

In the preface to the 1992 Edition, Viktor Frankl admonishes the reader:

“Don’t aim at success –

the more you aim at it and make it a target,

the more you are going to miss it.

For success like happiness, cannot be pursued,

it must ensue and

it only does so as the unintended side effect of

one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product

of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.

Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success:

you have to let it happen by not caring about it.

I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do

and to carry it out to the best of your knowledge.

Then you will live to see that in the long run

– in the long run, I say – success will follow you

precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

Reading this passage I thought of two of my spiritual fathers: Charlie Palmgren and Paul de Sauvigny the Blot SJ. The latter survived, as Viktor Frankl did, a concentration camp. Indeed dr. Paul de Sauvigny the Blot SJ (in short Paul de Blot) was a prisoner of war in a Japanese concentration camp during WWII and this for almost five years. After the war he became Jesuit and studied in Indonesia and Europe and worked in Lebanon, Israel, Indonesia, came to Europe; started a career at the Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands where he studied, got his PhD in 2004 (at the age of 80!) and became professor there in Business Spirituality. His Business Spirituality is based on DOING (Business) and BEING (Spirituality) and on the INTERACTION (Creative Interchange) between the two.

Paul states: “The success I had in my life was primarily due to the fact that it simply happened to me, not as a winning lottery ticket, but by a conjunction of circumstances and relationships. I was not looking for success, success came my way, and I recognized it, picked it up and made use of it.” So Paul and Viktor are thinking along the same lines regarding success.

The story Paul often tells regarding his surviving the Japanese concentration camp (he lived more than a year in an isolation cell where he could not see any light, so after a while he didn’t know if it was day or night) is fundamentally about relationship. He testifies that not the strongest men survived, it where those men who were in interchange with others.

Among the tribes of northern Natal in South Africa, the most common greeting, equivalent to hello in English, is the expression sawobona. It literally means, “I see you”. This I see you is not so much about effectively seeing the other, it means – as the perhaps more known expression namaste – “The God in me sees the God” or “I see myself through your eyes” or “I come to live through you.” According to Peter de Jager[ii] this Zulu greeting is mostly answered with ngikhona, which means, “I am here.” The order of the exchange is important: until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if, when you see me, you bring me into existence. This meaning, implicit in the language, is part of the spirit of Ubuntu, a frame of mind prevalent among native people in southern Africa. The concept Ubuntu stems from the folk saying umunto ngumuntu nagabuntu, which from Zulu translates, as “A person is a person because of other people.”[iii] The dyad sawubona and ngikhona form a dialogue; sawubona is an invitation to participate in each other’s life, ngikhona is the positive answer to that invitation. Although Paul de Blot in his isolation prison cell could not literarily see his comrades, having dialogues through thick prison walls they came to and stayed in live.

Let me quote David Ducheyne[iv]: “Psychology has discovered that your mental development is triggered by interaction with others. You cannot healthily exist without the other. You define yourself, based on the interactions with the other.” One of the philosophers who discovered this is the American Religious philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman. He writes extensively about “that creative good which transforms us in ways in which we cannot transform ourselves.” For Wieman our supreme devotion must be to the creative good not to the created relative goods [created by the creative good], this was an ultimate commitment to what in his later years he increasingly came to label creative interchange.[v] In 1966, Wieman met and formed a working relationship with Dr. Erle Fitz, a practicing psychiatrist, and Dr. Charles Leroy (‘Charlie’) Palmgren, my third father. Wieman, Fitz and Palmgren met regularly in Wieman’s home (Grinell, IA) until Wieman’s death in 1975 to focus on how creative interchange could be the basis for psychotherapy, applied behavioral sciences, and organizational development. After Wieman’s death, Palmgren continued to nurture the creative interchange philosophy, identifying the conditions necessary for the Creative Interchange process to occur, and developing tools to help people remove the barriers to those conditions while identifying the counter unproductive process, which he labeled The Vicious Circle.

Some quotes from part I “Experiences in a concentration camp” that I find interesting:

  • We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return.
  • Apart from a strange kind of humor, another sensation seized us: curiosity. Cold curiosity predominated even in Auschwitz, somehow detaching the mind from its surroundings, which came to be regarded as a kind of objectivity. At that time one cultivated this state of mind as a means of protection. We were anxious to know what would happen next.
  • An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.
  • Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human 
poetry and human thought and believe have to impart: The 
salvation of man is through love and in love.
  • Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It find its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive, ceases somehow to be of importance.
  • Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.
  • The consciousness of one’s inner value is anchored in higher, 
more spiritual things, and cannot be shaken by camp life. But how 
many free men, let alone prisoners, possess it?
  • It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that 
makes life meaningful and purposeful.
  • If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.
  • In robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger.
  • It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking in the 
future – sub specie aeternitatis. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.
  • Quoting Spinoza: “Emotion, which suffering is, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

On page 61 Viktor Frankl presents a fundamental change that was even paraphrased years later by the late president John Fitzgerald Kennedy during his inaugural speech of January 20th, 1960:

“What was really needed was a fundamental change

in our attitude towards life.

We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life,

and instead to think of ourselves being questioned by life

– daily and hourly.

Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation,

but in right action and in right conduct.

Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find

the right answer to its problems and

to fulfill the tasks which it constantly set for each individual.”

More than once in my life I’ve needed such a fundamental change in my attitude. For instance in 2008 – during my darkest period until now in the midst of a deep depression – when black thoughts of committing suicide haunted regularly in my mind. I needed to force myself to realize that life was perhaps still expecting something from me; I needed to realize that something in the future was expected from Johan Roels.

And Viktor Frankl continues:

“This uniqueness and singleness which

distinguishes each individual and gives meaning to his existence

has a bearing on creative work as much as on human love.

When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized,

it allows the responsibility, which a man has for his existence

and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.

A man becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears towards

a human being who affectionately waits for him,

or to unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.

He knows 
the ‘why’ for his existence,

and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’. (Page 64)

Here Viktor Frankl is paraphrasing one of his favorite quote’s of Frederich Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how.” In my particular case it was both: my love towards my wife, daughter and three grandchildren and a book I had to finish: “Cruciale dialogen” (Crucial Dialogues).

Viktor Frankl loves to quote Frederich Nietzsche to help his comrades: “Was mich nicht umbrengt, macht mich starker.” (That, which does not kill me, makes me stronger). This phrase really resonates with me.

Part II of Man’s search for Meaning describes Logotherapy in a nutshell. Viktor Frankl explains why he has employed the term Logotherapy as the name of his theory; logos being a Greek word denoting meaning, Logotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning. To Viktor Frankl:

“Man’s Search for Meaning is

the primary motivation in his life

and not a secondary rationalization of instinctual drives.

This meaning is unique and specific

in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone;

only then does it achieve a significance

which will satisfy his own will to meaning.” (Page 80)

He continues:

“Man’s will to meaning can also be frustrated,

in which case Logotherapy speaks of existential frustration.

The term existential may be used in three ways: to refer to

(1) existence itself, i.e., the specifically human mode of being;

(2) the meaning of existence; and

(3) the striving to find a concrete meaning in personal existence,

that is to say; the will to meaning.” (Pages 81-82)

His ideas regarding the connection between mental health and tension are, to me, very interesting:

“It can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension,

the tension between what one has already achieved and

what one still ought to accomplish,

or the gap between what one is and what one should become.

Such a tension is inherent in the human being and

therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.

We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with

a potential meaning for him to fulfill.

It’s only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency.

I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene

to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or,

as it is called in biology, homeostatis, i.e., a tensionless state.

What man needs is not a tensionless state but rather

the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.

What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost

but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

What man needs is not homeostatis but what I call noö-dynamics,

i.e., the existential polar field of tension

where one pole is represented by the meaning that is to be fulfilled

and the other pole by the man who has to fulfill it.” (Page 85)

Frankl’s view on the connection between mental health and tension makes me think of two things: (1) Peter Senge writing in his bestseller ‘The Fifth Discipline’: “The gap between a vision and current reality is a source of energy. If there were no gap, there would be no need for any action to move toward the vision. Indeed, the gap is the source of creative energy. We call this creative tension;”[vi] and (2) the state of tension I’m continually in the noö-dynamics between my actual created self and my will to meaning to (re-) become the Original or Creative Self I was born.

And Viktor Frankl continues:

“Having shown the beneficial impact of meaning orientation,

I turn to the detrimental influence of that feeling

of which so many patients complain today, namely,

the feeling of total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives.

They lack the awareness of a meaning worth living for.

They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness,

a void within themselves; they are caught in that situation

which I have called existential vacuum.” (page 85)

And this is more and more the case. The staggering raising number of people wrestling these days with bore-out, burn-out and even depression proves that a Search for Meaning is more than needed.

Regarding that existential vacuum, Viktor Frankl writes:

“The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.

Now we can understand Schopenhauer

when he said that mankind was apparently doomed

to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom. In actual fact, boredom is now causing, and certainly bringing to psychiatrists, more problems to solve than distress.

And these problems are growing increasingly crucial,

for progressive animation will probably lead to an enormous increase in the leisure hours availably to the average worker.

The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do

with all their newly acquired free time.” (Page 86)

Following the AI and Workforce conference of MIT (Nov 1-2, 2017)[vii] I learned that in Frankl’s statement, quoted above, the word probably might be erased.

According to Viktor Frankl Logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence. This emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in the categorical imperative of Logotherapy:

“Live as if you were living already for the second time

and as if you had acted the first time

as wrongly as you are about to act now!” (Page 88)

 Regarding the meaning of suffering, Viktor Frankl writes:

“When we are no longer able to change a situation

– just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer –

we are challenged to change ourselves.” (Page 89)

When in the fall of 2013 a colon cancer was finally identified, I had to undergo chemo and radiation therapy before the cancer could be removed through surgery. While the cancer was still operable, the odds were high that if it would turn out that the complete medical protocol were to be successful … this would be ‘just in time.’ During those months I had enough time to transform myself by asking and responding one single question: “How want you, Johan, be remembered by your three grandchildren, Eloïse, Edward and Elvire?” So, my answer was to transform myself starting Living in the Now.[viii]

Viktor Frankl regarding the erroneous and dangerous assumption, which he calls pan-determinism (and I being prisoner of the Vicious Circle):

“The view of man which disregards his capacity

to take stand towards any conditions whatsoever.

Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather

determines himself whether he givens in to conditions

Or stand op to them.

In other words, man is ultimately self-determining.

Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be,

What he will become in the next moment.” (Page 105)

Charlie Palmgren thought me that man is indeed self-determining and can always choose to stay his actual created self or evolve this created self towards his Creative Self.

Part III of my copy of Man’s Search for Meaning is a Postscript 1984: The case for a tragic optimism[ix]. A tragic optimism is to be understood as follows:

“In brief it means that one is, and remains,

optimistic in spite of the tragic triad, as it is called in Logotherapy,

a triad, which consists of those aspects of human existence

which may be circumscribed by: (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death.

This chapter, in fact, raises the question:

“How is it possible to say yes to life in spite of all that?”

or posed differently:

“How can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects?” (Page 111)

He continues:

“A human being is not one is pursuit of happiness

but rather in search of a reason to become happy,

last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning

inherent and dormant in given situation” (Page 112)

Regarding the perception of meaning, Viktor Frankl writes:

“The perception of meaning

differs from the classical concept of Gestalt perception insofar as the latter implies a sudden awareness of a ‘figure’ on a ‘ground’,

whereas the perception of meaning, as I see it,

more specifically boils down to becoming aware of a possibility

against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words,

to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.”

(Page 116)

Viktor Frankl is crystal clear about the difference between what Charlie Palmgren’s calls our (intrinsic) Worth and an (extrinsic) value:

“In view of the possibility of finding meaning in suffering,

life’s meaning is an unconditional one, at least potentially.

That unconditional meaning, however, is paralleled by

the unconditional value of each person.

[labeled as Worth by Charlie Palmgren[x]]

It is that which warrants the indelible quality of the dignity of man.

Just as life remains potentially meaningful under any conditions,

even those that are most miserable,

so does the value of each and every person stay with him or her.

Today’s society blurs the decisive difference between

being valuable in the sense of dignity [Worth] and

being valuable in the sense of usefulness [Value].” (Page 122)

Charlie defines worth as the capacity to engage in transforming creativity. And to him, as to Viktor Frankl, Worth is inherent in every human being.

Viktor Frankl exactly describes my final life’s meaning as follows:

“My interest does not lie in raising parrots

that just rehash ‘their master’s voice’,

but rather in passing the torch to

’independent and innovative and creative spirits’. (Page 123)

I lived that meaning not only when I stopped in October 2016 my latest series of workshops, the famous gatherings of the Crucial Dialogue Society but more importantly in writing my thinking down and publishing those in columns (from today on solely on my website for the sake of my three grandchildren, AKA the three E’s: Eloïse, Edward and Elvire. Leaving it up to them to decide what they’ll do with those thoughts. I will certainly not push them since ‘grass doesn’t grow faster by pulling at it’.

I’ll simply continue to do what I do, since it is my ultimate meaning in life! And at the same time this is an ultimate two-fold commitment (cf. Man’s ultimate Commitment[xi]): Creative Interchange; in other words, a commitment to Continuous Improvement through living Creative Interchange from within thus evolving my created self towards my Creative Self. I know I’ll never reach that final destination and will continue to enjoy the voyage, as long as it lasts. All this while staying aware of one of my favorite quotes:

“The act of discovery

consists not in finding new lands,

but in seeing with new eyes.”

– Marcel Proust


[i] Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust. London, Rider, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, a Random House Group company, 2011

[ii] jager/

[iii] Senge, Peter M. [et al.] The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, strategies and tools for building a learning organization.Doubleday, New York, 1994.


[v] Wieman, Henry Nelson. Man’s Ultimate Commitment. University Press of America®, Inc., Lanham, Maryland 1991.

[vi] Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline. The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization. Doubleday, New York, 1990. Page 150.



[ix] This chapter is based on a lecture Viktor E. Frankl presented at the Third World Congress of Logotherapy, Regensburg University, West Germany, June 1983.

[x] Hagan, Stacie and Palmgren, Charlie. The Chicken Conspiracy. Breaking the Cycle of Personal Stress and Organizational Mediocrity. Baltimore. MA: Recovery Communications, Inc. 1998. P. 25.

[xi] Wieman, Henry Nelson. Man’s Ultimate Commitment. op. cit.