Viktor Frankl on Meaning through Relationship: It’s All About Love and Understanding

Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, forward by Harold Kushner

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl in 1975

Viktor Frankl in 1975

In the second part of Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl lists three different ways we can find meaning in life:

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

Part 1 of this article, “Viktor Frankl on Meaning through Work,” explored Frankl’s first path to meaning by offering some supporting elements of the path of spiritual rebirth or “regeneration” described by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) two centuries earlier.

In Part 2, we’ll look at finding meaning by experiencing something or encountering someone. This, too, is harmonious with key parts of Swedenborg’s perspective on our path of spiritual rebirth. It’s all about love and understanding.

Meaning through relationship

Frankl speaks of “experiencing something or encountering someone.” Another way of saying this is having a relationship with something or someone.

When we experience something—such as goodness, truth, or beauty, to use Frankl’s examples—we bring ourselves into relationship with that thing. The goodness, truth, and beauty that we see around us enter into us, and become a part of us. We are engaged with them, and they are engaged with us in their own way.

And of course, when we experience another human being we enter into a relationship with him or her. Frankl writes that the only way to grasp other human beings as they truly are at their innermost core is to love them. In Frankl’s psychotherapeutic system of “logotherapy,” love is as fundamental and powerful a force in human life as are the drives for sex and power.

Love, together with awareness and understanding, is what brings us into relationship with the people and things around us. In essence, love is relationship.

How does the relationship involved in experiencing something or encountering someone give meaning to our lives?

Once again, Swedenborg offers some principles behind a reality that may seem obvious: our life has meaning when we are involved in loving relationships.

  1. We come from love.
  2. Love is our life.
  3. Love is warmth, attraction, and closeness.
  4. Love heightens our awareness and creates understanding.

We come from love

People of many religions think of themselves as children of God. What does this mean? Obviously we are not biologically God’s children. Usually religious people think of themselves as God’s children spiritually. The idea is that through believing, loving, and following God we are born anew: from being spiritually dead we become spiritually alive.

Yet there is another, more basic way we are God’s children. We are created from the substance of God.

Okay, some theological types might object that God created us from nothing—or ex nihilo, to use the Latin philosophical term for this concept. The idea is that in the beginning, God snapped his fingers, and the universe and everything in it appeared out of nowhere simply because God willed it.

According to Swedenborg, this is a mistaken idea. Quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, Swedenborg said, “Nothing comes from nothing, contradicting centuries of traditional Christian doctrine about how God created the universe. Instead, according to Swedenborg God created the universe by sending out and putting limits around God’s own substance. And since this substance sent out from God was now limited and therefore no longer infinite, it was no longer God.

For more on this brain-bending idea, see the article “Containers for God.”

What is the substance of God from which the universe was created?

According to the apostle John, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).

If we are God’s children in the sense that we are created from the very substance of God, this means we are created from infinite divine love. In other words, we come from love, and love is our source.

What does this have to do with finding meaning in our life?

If we are created out of love, then love is central to who and what we are. And what could give more meaning to our lives than discovering and expressing our own true nature? When we experience something or encounter someone through love, we are both expressing and getting in touch with our own central reality as human beings.

Love is our life

If we come from love and love is our true nature, this also means that love not only gives us life, but is our life. Here’s how Swedenborg expressed it 250 years ago in Divine Love and Wisdom #1:

Love is our life. For most people, the existence of love is a given, but the nature of love is a mystery. As for the existence of love, this we know from everyday language. We say that someone loves us, that monarchs love their subjects, and that subjects love their monarch. We say that a husband loves his wife and that a mother loves her children, and vice versa. We say that people love their country, their fellow citizens, their neighbor. We use the same language about impersonal objects, saying that someone loves this or that thing.

Even though the word “love” is so commonly on our tongues, still hardly anyone knows what love is. When we stop to think about it, we find that we cannot form any image of it in our thoughts, so we say either that it is not really anything or that it is simply something that flows into us from our sight, hearing, touch, and conversation and therefore influences us. We are wholly unaware that it is our very life—not just the general life of our whole body and of all our thoughts, but the life of their every least detail.

In other words, even though we talk about love all the time, it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what love is. So we tend to think of love as some vague feeling, when it is actually the very substance of our life, and the force behind everything we say and do.

Another way of saying this is that love is the most real thing there is about us, because love is what we are.

Even our physical bodies are ultimately made from love through a complex process of creation that is explained briefly in the article, “How did God Create the Universe? Was the World Really Created in Six Days?

However, it is not our body, but our mind that makes us the human beings we are. And our mind, or spirit, is both made of and driven by love. Our body simply does what it is told by our mind—and our mind is driven by the particular varieties of love that make us the unique individuals we are.

So once again, when we experience something or encounter someone through love, we are engaging in our true nature as human beings. And if that doesn’t give meaning to our life, I don’t know what will!

Love is warmth, attraction, and closeness

Love is not only the substance of our life, but the energy of our life.

You know Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2? What it says, in essence, is that mass and energy are two different forms of the same thing.

That’s because matter and energy are a physical expression of the spiritual reality known as love. Love, too, can take the form of substance (the stuff we are made of spiritually) or of energy (the power that drives us as spiritual and material beings).

If we think of love as a substance, then one of the qualities of that substance is warmth.

We recognize the warmth of love in our everyday speech. We talk about “warming up” to someone when we’re finding that we actually do like them. If we say someone is “warm-hearted,” it means she or he loves and cares about other people. And if someone kindles especially strong feelings in us, we may say that he or she is hot!

Scientifically, when a physical object is warm, that means its molecules are more active and energetic than if it is cold. In the same way, the substance of love is warm because it is filled with energy and activity of a spiritual and emotional kind.

If we think of love as energy or power, then the most basic effect of that power is to draw people and things together. In other words, love as a force is attraction that brings about closeness.

This, too, we talk about and experience every day.

What people do we feel closest to? Those we love, of course! And whenever we have the chance, we spend time together with the people we love in preference to people whom we do not love. The more we love people, the more we are attracted to them, and the closer we want to be to them. If we have our choice, we will move near those we love, and away from those we do not.

And if we find someone that we love most of all, then that is the person with whom we want to share our home and our bed; that is the person we want to become as close to as it is possible to be.

You see, the only way we can express the love that is the substance and the energy of our life is to share that love with others. And when we do, we find a meaning in our life that goes beyond almost anything else we could experience.

I say “almost” because as the mystics of all ages have assured us, the deepest and most intense relationship we can possibly experience is our relationship with God. However, for most of us ordinary mortals, the closest we come to experiencing the full depth and reality of our life is by encountering our fellow human beings fully and deeply by loving them and being loved in return.

Love heightens our awareness and creates understanding

This brings us back full circle to Victor Frankl’s statement that “love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality.”

This is true in at least two ways.

First, if we human beings are love and are driven by love, then the only way to truly grasp the innermost core of another human being’s personality is to see, approach, and encounter the love that defines him or her as a person.

Second if we do not love another person, we simply aren’t going to expend the time and energy required to truly get to know that person.

What do we focus the most time and energy on?

Whatever we love the most.

  • If we love ourselves more than anything else, we devote our life to our own comfort and pleasure.
  • If we love material wealth more than anything else, we spend our time learning how to acquire it, and putting that knowledge into practice.
  • If we love other people, we spend our time, energy, and money building relationships with them, and getting to know them more and more deeply.

Getting to know someone on more than a superficial level takes a great deal of time and energy. We humans are complex, multi-layered beings. And we tend to avoid showing our true, inner self to people we know only superficially.

The closer we get to revealing our heart—our deepest feelings—to another person, the more vulnerable we become to that person. So we protect our heart from others that we don’t know well enough to trust with that vital information about ourselves. Building trust takes time. It requires seeing how that person treats us, what that person does with the information we do reveal about ourselves.

Opening up our own heart to another human being, and getting to where they will open up their heart to us, usually involves a long and gradual process of peeling away the protective layers one by one as we find that we can trust the other person, and that they respond to our self-revelation, not with judgment or with betrayal, but with love, understanding, and support.

As the layers are peeled away little by little, we come to understand one another better and better. We see not just the outward words and actions, but the inner thoughts, feelings, and experiences from which the other person speaks and acts. We come to truly understand who the other person is, always approaching closer and closer to their innermost core.

This can happen only if we love them.

The warmth and the attractive power of love opens us up to others, and opens them up to us, more and more. And in the process of building always closer and deeper love, we gain a deep awareness and understanding of the other person.

This is the greatest meaning we can find as we encounter the people with whom we share this world.

For Part 3 of this article, see “Viktor Frankl on Meaning in the Midst of Suffering.”


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Science Philosophy and History, Sex Marriage Relationships, Spiritual Growth
3 comments on “Viktor Frankl on Meaning through Relationship: It’s All About Love and Understanding
  1. Brad says:

    Hi, This doesn’t seem to do much for romantic relationships though…. it is easy to get taken advantage of or just seen as weak, if you do this in more than a friendly type of relationship…..

    • Lee says:

      Hi Brad,

      Thanks for your comment.

      In response, neither Frankl nor this article focuses specifically on romantic relationships. This is about all kinds of relationships, and about relationships in general.

      We do have to use our thinking mind and engage our rationality and prudence in any relationship. Being naive and allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of does not make for a good relationship. It is possible to love someone even while recognizing that that person will take advantage of us if we allow them to, and taking steps to prevent them from doing so.

      It’s important to live from love and integrity in our own words and actions even if some of the people around us may not. Living from love and integrity means not only loving people, but also being smart in the way we love them in order to bring about a good result. For more on this, please see: “How Do I Love My Neighbor?” and: “Can Christians be Hardass?

  2. […] and could do so by believing in their fellow man. He understood how important human connection and close relationships are for individuals searching for meaning in life, and by supporting others on their quest towards […]

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