Meaning Passed Down Through Generations with Alexander Vesely (Viktor Frankl’s grandson)
“If life asks you a question, how do you respond? And what does that say about you?” — Alexander Vesely
It’s not every day you get to speak with the grandson of one of your idols. I had that unique opportunity when I sat down with Alexander Vesely.
Alexander is an Austrian-born filmmaker and trained psychotherapist who happens to be Viktor Frankl’s grandson.
- The persistent resonance of Viktor Frankl’s work
- Logotherapy and Resilience
- Finding meaning, potential, and self-forgiveness
The persistent resonance of Viktor Frankl’s work
Some ideas and perspectives outlast the people who introduced them far beyond expectation, impacting generation after generation. Evergreen life questions have a way of growing alongside us and molding our paths. Viktor Frankl was one such thinker who articulated a frame of reference that stuck. His philosophy on our search for meaning continues to impact people today.
Finding meaning and purpose in our lives is essential. Hence the relevance of Viktor Frankl’s ideas in the modern world comes as no surprise. Though he’s been gone for more than two decades, he left a legacy that continues to inspire others to make meaning, and higher purpose, from even the darkest aspects of the human experience.
Alexander told me, “It's usually people approaching me asking about my grandfather.” He continued, “Which I find interesting because he's been gone for almost 20 years now.”
Viktor Frankl has always had a keen impact and influence on the younger generations.
Alexander continues, “He was the founder of the Austrian Youth Counseling Centers in the 1920s. How does that tie in with his work? He was always the one asking the question, ‘Does life have a meaning or not?’” That question weighs heavily in light of pivotal life milestones, ideal for young minds.
Logotherapy and Resilience
Logotherapy is healing through meaning. Viktor Frankl believed it was essential to question life’s meaning in order to live fully. He advanced this belief in opposition to Sigmund Freud, who claimed that a person asking, ‘Does my life have meaning?’ was exhibiting a symptom of neurosis and required psychoanalysis. Alexander explains, “And so, here comes my young grandfather, [who Freud had mentored] who said ‘no, it's the reverse. It's not sick, it's very healthy. It only becomes a problem if you don't find an answer.’”
Viktor Frankl developed his theories before World War II when Nazis put him in a concentration camp. They destroyed his manuscript, but the ideas had taken root, and he carried them with him throughout all the hardships and unspeakable pain he endured. Perhaps, knowing his life’s purpose was to share them with the world even kept him alive.
Even though Frankl didn’t use the word resilience, which is now so popular in psychology, his body of work provides a deeper understanding of this concept that describes our capacity to bounce back and learn from hardships. We can argue that he chose to see his time in the camps as a way to test his hypothesis regarding the strong connection between resiliency and purpose. For Viktor Frankl, despair was suffering without meaning, and he argued that people could find their purpose via:
- Their work: unfinished projects, life’s work, and so on
- Other people: Loving another person, wanting to be there for them
- The attitude they adopt to face life circumstances, such as the beliefs they chose to embrace and even embody.
I will dare say this last option reflects our mindsets.
As Alexander explains, “What is the difference between people who can be resilient and bounce back, even though when you look at their lives, there are a lot of tragedies or hard times? And yet they seem to be psychologically fine and feel joy in life?” Speaking about his grandfather, “How could he remain so positive? He should have been a broken, bitter man after what happened. Yet he had this resilience inside himself.”
When we look at the lives of others that appear relatively easy in comparison to what Viktor Frankl endured, we may wonder why the mildest setbacks seem to make certain people miserable while others bounce back from much worse. “He found that the difference was the perspective of meaning,” Alexander continues, “if there's something that you feel that you are good for, rather than always asking ‘what is good enough for me? What do I get out of life?’ He turned it around and said, ‘Maybe we are the ones who are being questioned by life. What are you good for? How do you respond to the situations that you’re in and the opportunities that you're given in life?’”
Finding meaning, potential, and self-forgiveness
The practice of looking at life as a series of questions meant to define purpose and meaning never gets old for an individual who wants to explore their potential.
I enjoyed learning how Frankl developed his principles. Alexander explains, “He met Sigmund Freud. That was his first influence. And then, he worked with Alfred Adler. He was the youngest in the group. They would meet every Wednesday, sit in the coffee house, and develop their ideas.”
If we look at the core ideas of those two people, Freud had the pleasure principle or the idea that a healthy person strives for pleasure. When we look at Alfred Adler, his theory was that people strive for power relating to money or influence.
Alexander continues, “And along came my grandfather, and he said, ‘Well, I don't think it's pleasure or power, but meaning.’ And only if a person doesn't find meaning will they resort to the lower aims of ego drive, which is meaningless.”
The quality of will, when connected to meaning, is different from the quality of will towards pleasure or power. Striving for meaning is not a symptom of neurosis, it’s a rock in the rushing river of our lives. Once you know your meaning, you have foundation and liberty but also accountability and gravity.
Alexander adds, “With responsibility comes, inevitably, the fact that you're going to make mistakes and that you're going to make the wrong choices, and then you have the responsibility for what you did. And if you did it right, then it's called an achievement. But if you did it wrong, then you are guilty. And that's the human condition.”
That's where forgiveness comes in. We can only be guilty of something that we have done or that we have not done but should have done. We can’t transfer guilt to separate parties — parents, grandparents, and so on — it lies with us to practice forgiveness with ourselves as we would for others. Only then can we embrace true purpose and keep moving forward in our journey to fulfill our potential.
If life asks you a question, how do you respond? What does that say about you?
Be sure to check out Alexander’s full episode for further insight into Viktor Frankl as a philosopher and grandfather, and learn more through Viktor Frankl’s most well-known book, Man’s Search for Meaning!