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Yes to Life, in Spite of Everything: Viktor Frankl’s Lost Lectures on Moving Beyond Optimism and Pessimism to Find the Deepest Source of Meaning

“Everything depends on the individual human being, regardless of how small a number of like-minded people there is… each person, through action and not mere words, creatively making the meaning of life a reality in his or her own being.”

Yes to Life, in Spite of Everything: Viktor Frankl’s Lost Lectures on Moving Beyond Optimism and Pessimism to Find the Deepest Source of Meaning

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus wrote in his classic 119-page essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. “Everything else… is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.”

Sometimes, life asks this question not as a thought experiment but as a gauntlet hurled with the raw brutality of living.

That selfsame year, the young Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997) was taken to Auschwitz along with more than a million human beings robbed of the basic right to answer this question for themselves, instead deemed unworthy of living. Some survived by reading. Some through humor. Some by pure chance. Most did not. Frankl lost his mother, his father, and his brother to the mass murder in the concentration camps. His own life was spared by the tightly braided lifeline of chance, choice, and character.

Viktor Frankl

A mere eleven months after surviving the unsurvivable, Frankl took up the elemental question at the heart of Camus’s philosophical parable in a set of lectures, which he himself edited into a slim, potent book published in Germany in 1946, just as he was completing Man’s Search for Meaning.

As our collective memory always tends toward amnesia and erasure — especially of periods scarred by civilizational shame — these existential infusions of sanity and lucid buoyancy fell out of print and were soon forgotten. Eventually rediscovered — as is also the tendency of our collective memory when the present fails us and we must lean for succor on the life-tested wisdom of the past — they are now published in English for the first time as Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything (public library).

Frankl begins by considering the question of whether life is worth living through the central fact of human dignity. Noting how gravely the Holocaust disillusioned humanity with itself, he cautions against the defeatist “end-of-the-world” mindset with which many responded to this disillusionment, but cautions equally against the “blithe optimism” of previous, more naïve eras that had not yet faced this gruesome civilizational mirror reflecting what human beings are capable of doing to one another. Both dispositions, he argues, stem from nihilism. In consonance with his colleague and contemporary Erich Fromm’s insistence that we can only transcend the shared laziness of optimism and pessimism through rational faith in the human spirit, Frankl writes:

We cannot move toward any spiritual reconstruction with a sense of fatalism such as this.

“Liminal Worlds” by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

Generations and myriad cultural upheavals before Zadie Smith observed that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Frankl considers what “progress” even means, emphasizing the centrality of our individual choices in its constant revision:

Today every impulse for action is generated by the knowledge that there is no form of progress on which we can trustingly rely. If today we cannot sit idly by, it is precisely because each and every one of us determines what and how far something “progresses.” In this, we are aware that inner progress is only actually possible for each individual, while mass progress at most consists of technical progress, which only impresses us because we live in a technical age.

Insisting that it takes a measure of moral strength not to succumb to nihilism, be it that of the pessimist or of the optimist, he exclaims:

Give me a sober activism anytime, rather than that rose-tinted fatalism!

How steadfast would a person’s belief in the meaningfulness of life have to be, so as not to be shattered by such skepticism. How unconditionally do we have to believe in the meaning and value of human existence, if this belief is able to take up and bear this skepticism and pessimism?


Through this nihilism, through the pessimism and skepticism, through the soberness of a “new objectivity” that is no longer that “new” but has grown old, we must strive toward a new humanity.

Sophie Scholl, upon whom chance did not smile as favorably as it did upon Frankl, affirmed this notion with her insistence that living with integrity and belief in human goodness is the wellspring of courage as she courageously faced her own untimely death in the hands of the Nazis. But while the Holocaust indisputably disenchanted humanity, Frankl argues, it also indisputably demonstrated “that what is human is still valid… that it is all a question of the individual human being.” Looking back on the brutality of the camps, he reflects:

What remained was the individual person, the human being — and nothing else. Everything had fallen away from him during those years: money, power, fame; nothing was certain for him anymore: not life, not health, not happiness; all had been called into question for him: vanity, ambition, relationships. Everything was reduced to bare existence. Burnt through with pain, everything that was not essential was melted down — the human being reduced to what he was in the last analysis: either a member of the masses, therefore no one real, so really no one — the anonymous one, a nameless thing (!), that “he” had now become, just a prisoner number; or else he melted right down to his essential self.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In a sentiment that bellows from the hallways of history into the great vaulted temple of timeless truth, he adds:

Everything depends on the individual human being, regardless of how small a number of like-minded people there is, and everything depends on each person, through action and not mere words, creatively making the meaning of life a reality in his or her own being.

Frankl then turns to the question of finding a sense of meaning when the world gives us ample reasons to view life as meaningless — the question of “continuing to live despite persistent world-weariness.” Writing in the post-war pre-dawn of the golden age of consumerism, which has built a global economy by continually robbing us of the sense of meaning and selling it back to us at the price of the product, Frankl first dismantles the notion that meaning is to be found in the pursuit and acquisition of various pleasures:

Let us imagine a man who has been sentenced to death and, a few hours before his execution, has been told he is free to decide on the menu for his last meal. The guard comes into his cell and asks him what he wants to eat, offers him all kinds of delicacies; but the man rejects all his suggestions. He thinks to himself that it is quite irrelevant whether he stuffs good food into the stomach of his organism or not, as in a few hours it will be a corpse. And even the feelings of pleasure that could still be felt in the organism’s cerebral ganglia seem pointless in view of the fact that in two hours they will be destroyed forever. But the whole of life stands in the face of death, and if this man had been right, then our whole lives would also be meaningless, were we only to strive for pleasure and nothing else — preferably the most pleasure and the highest degree of pleasure possible. Pleasure in itself cannot give our existence meaning; thus the lack of pleasure cannot take away meaning from life, which now seems obvious to us.

He quotes a short verse by the great Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, Einstein’s onetime conversation partner in contemplating science and spirituality, and a man who thought deeply about human nature:

I slept and dreamt
that life was joy.
I awoke and saw
that life was duty.
I worked — and behold,
duty was joy.

In consonance with Camus’s view of happiness as a moral obligation — an outcome to be attained not through direct pursuit but as a byproduct of living with authenticity and integrity — Frankl reflects on Tagore’s poetic point:

So, life is somehow duty, a single, huge obligation. And there is certainly joy in life too, but it cannot be pursued, cannot be “willed into being” as joy; rather, it must arise spontaneously, and in fact, it does arise spontaneously, just as an outcome may arise: Happiness should not, must not, and can never be a goal, but only an outcome; the outcome of the fulfillment of that which in Tagore’s poem is called duty… All human striving for happiness, in this sense, is doomed to failure as luck can only fall into one’s lap but can never be hunted down.

In a sentiment James Baldwin would echo two decades later in his superb forgotten essay on the antidote to the hour of despair and life as a moral obligation to the universe, Frankl turns the question unto itself:

At this point it would be helpful [to perform] a conceptual turn through 180 degrees, after which the question can no longer be “What can I expect from life?” but can now only be “What does life expect of me?” What task in life is waiting for me?

Now we also understand how, in the final analysis, the question of the meaning of life is not asked in the right way, if asked in the way it is generally asked: it is not we who are permitted to ask about the meaning of life — it is life that asks the questions, directs questions at us… We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life. With this mental standpoint nothing can scare us anymore, no future, no apparent lack of a future. Because now the present is everything as it holds the eternally new question of life for us.

Another of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for the 1913 English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Frankl adds a caveat of tremendous importance — triply so in our present culture of self-appointed gurus, self-help demagogues, and endless podcast feeds of interviews with accomplished individuals attempting to distill a universal recipe for self-actualization:

The question life asks us, and in answering which we can realize the meaning of the present moment, does not only change from hour to hour but also changes from person to person: the question is entirely different in each moment for every individual.

We can, therefore, see how the question as to the meaning of life is posed too simply, unless it is posed with complete specificity, in the concreteness of the here and now. To ask about “the meaning of life” in this way seems just as naive to us as the question of a reporter interviewing a world chess champion and asking, “And now, Master, please tell me: which chess move do you think is the best?” Is there a move, a particular move, that could be good, or even the best, beyond a very specific, concrete game situation, a specific configuration of the pieces?

What emerges from Frankl’s inversion of the question is the sense that, just as learning to die is learning to meet the universe on its own terms, learning to live is learning to meet the universe on its own terms — terms that change daily, hourly, by the moment:

One way or another, there can only be one alternative at a time to give meaning to life, meaning to the moment — so at any time we only need to make one decision about how we must answer, but, each time, a very specific question is being asked of us by life. From all this follows that life always offers us a possibility for the fulfillment of meaning, therefore there is always the option that it has a meaning. One could also say that our human existence can be made meaningful “to the very last breath”; as long as we have breath, as long as we are still conscious, we are each responsible for answering life’s questions.

Art from Margaret C. Cook’s 1913 English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

With this symphonic prelude, Frankl arrives at the essence of what he discovered about the meaning of life in his confrontation with death — a central fact of being at which a great many of humanity’s deepest seers have arrived via one path or another: from Rilke, who so passionately insisted that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” to physicist Brian Greene, who so poetically nested our search for meaning into our mortality into the most elemental fact of the universe. Frankl writes:

The fact, and only the fact, that we are mortal, that our lives are finite, that our time is restricted and our possibilities are limited, this fact is what makes it meaningful to do something, to exploit a possibility and make it become a reality, to fulfill it, to use our time and occupy it. Death gives us a compulsion to do so. Therefore, death forms the background against which our act of being becomes a responsibility.


Death is a meaningful part of life, just like human suffering. Both do not rob the existence of human beings of meaning but make it meaningful in the first place. Thus, it is precisely the uniqueness of our existence in the world, the irretrievability of our lifetime, the irrevocability of everything with which we fill it — or leave unfulfilled — that gives our existence significance. But it is not only the uniqueness of an individual life as a whole that gives it importance, it is also the uniqueness of every day, every hour, every moment that represents something that loads our existence with the weight of a terrible and yet so beautiful responsibility! Any hour whose demands we do not fulfill, or fulfill halfheartedly, this hour is forfeited, forfeited “for all eternity.” Conversely, what we achieve by seizing the moment is, once and for all, rescued into reality, into a reality in which it is only apparently “canceled out” by becoming the past. In truth, it has actually been preserved, in the sense of being kept safe. Having been is in this sense perhaps even the safest form of being. The “being,” the reality that we have rescued into the past in this way, can no longer be harmed by transitoriness.

In the remainder of the slender and splendid Yes to Life, Frankl goes on to explore how the imperfections of human nature add to, rather than subtract from, the meaningfulness of our lives and what it means for us to be responsible for our own existence. Complement it with Mary Shelley, writing two centuries ago about a pandemic-savaged world, on what makes life worth living, Walt Whitman contemplating this question after surviving a paralytic stroke, and a vitalizing cosmic antidote to the fear of death from astrophysicist and poet Rebecca Elson, then revisit Frankl on humor as lifeline to sanity and survival.


One Fine Day: David Byrne Performs His Hymn of Optimism and Countercultural Anthem of Resistance and Resilience with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus

“I complete my tasks, one by one. I remove my masks, when I am done..”

In the spring of 2019, when David Byrne (b. May 14, 1952) took the stage at the third annual Universe in Verse to read a science-inspired love poem to time and chance titled “Achieving Perspective,” I introduced him as one of the last standing idealists in our world — a countercultural force of lucid and luminous optimism, kindred to Walt Whitman, who wrote so passionately about optimism as a mighty force of resistance and a pillar of democracy.

Two weeks later, Byrne took the stage at the National Sawdust gala to celebrate their largehearted mission of using music as an instrument of change, as a movement toward a more beautiful and inclusive world. Accompanied by Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco and the transcendent harmonics of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus — that bright young voice of the future — he performed a coruscating version of his song “One Fine Day,” originally released in 2008 on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, co-written with Brian Eno, and reimagined a decade later on Byrne’s Whitmanesque-spirited 2018 record turned Broadway musical American Utopia — one part of his wondrous multimedia project Reasons to Be Cheerful.

With poetic lyrics that feel both staggeringly prescient (“In a small dark room — where I will wait / Face to face I find — I contemplate,” “I complete my tasks, one by one / I remove my masks, when I am done”) and of sweeping timelessness (“In these troubled times, I still can see / We can use the stars, to guide the way / It is not that far, the one fine day”), this buoyant hymn of optimism ripples against the current of our time as a mighty countercultural anthem of resistance and resilience, worthy of Whitman.

written by David Byrne and Brian Eno

Saw the wanderin’ eye, inside my heart
Shouts and battle cries, from every part
I can see those tears, every one is true
When the door appears, I’ll go right through, oh
I stand in liquid light, like everyone

I built my life with rhymes, to carry on
And it gives me hope, to see you there
The things I used to know, that one fine

One fine day

In a small dark room, where I will wait
Face to face I find, I contemplate
Even though a man is made of clay
Everything can change that one fine —

One fine day

Then before my eyes, is standing still
I beheld it there, a city on a hill
I complete my tasks, one by one
I remove my masks, when I am done

Then a peace of mind fell over me —
In these troubled times, I still can see
We can use the stars, to guide the way
It is not that far, the one fine —

One fine day

Complement with Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” in a tender stop-motion animation and astrophysicist and poet Rebecca Elson’s spare, exquisite masterpiece “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” then revisit U.S. Poet Laureate and Universe in Verse alumna Tracy K. Smith performing her poem “The Everlasting Self” with an astonishing percussion ensemble at National Sawdust and join me in supporting their largehearted world-building through music.


Ursa Major: Elizabeth Gilbert Reads a Poignant Forgotten Poem About the Big Dipper and Our Cosmic Humanity

A two-verse love letter to the night sky fixture which “our eyes must lean out into time to catch, and die in seeing.”

Ursa Major: Elizabeth Gilbert Reads a Poignant Forgotten Poem About the Big Dipper and Our Cosmic Humanity

For as long as we have been raising enchanted eyes to the night sky — that is, for as long as we have been the conscious, curious, wonder-stricken animals recognizable as human — we have marveled at seven bright stars outlining the third largest constellation in the Northern hemisphere, and humanity’s most beloved one. Ursa Major — Latin for “the great she-bear” — has enraptured the human imagination since before we had the words to call it the Big Dipper or the Great Bear or the Plough. In the second century, Ptolemy included it in his pioneering star catalogue — antiquity’s sole surviving major work of astronomy. In the nineteenth century, the Underground Railroad relied on it as a cosmic compass — traveling toward freedom under the cover of night, slaves were told to keep the river on one side and follow the Drinking Gourd, the constellation’s African name, for that would keep them moving northward. We have painted it on cave walls and in beloved picture-books; we have woven it into every major mythological tradition; we have seen it freckled on the forearms of our great loves. Its instantly recognizable asterism, spare and elemental, is an emissary of time itself — a blazing bridge between the ephemeral and the eternal, between the scale on which we live out our brief, impassioned human lives, and the vast cosmic scale of this unfathomable, impartial universe.

That is what the English poet, novelist, playwright, and LGBT visibility trailblazer James Falconer Kirkup (April 23, 1918–May 10, 2009) celebrates in his spare and elemental poem “Ursa Major,” included in the out-of-print 1955 treasure Imagination’s Other Place: Poems of Science and Mathematics (public library) by Helen Plotz, and brought back to life at the 2020 Universe in Verse by the fount of human radiance that is Elizabeth Gilbert.

by James Kirkup

Slung between the homely poplars at the end
of the familiar avenue, the Great
Bear in its lighted hammock swings,
like a neglected gate that neither bars admission nor invites,
hangs on the sagging pole its seven-pointed shape.

Drawn with the precision of an unknown problem
solved n the topmost classroom of the empty sky,
it demonstrates upon the inky blackboard of the night’s
immeasurable finity the focal point of light.
For though the pointers seem to indicate the pole,
each star looks through us into outer space
from where the sun that burns behind and past us
animates immediately each barren, crystal face
with ravaged brilliance, that our eyes
must lean out into time to catch, and die in seeing.

Ursa Major collectible science patch by artist Andrea Lauer for The Universe in Verse.

Complement with other shimmering fragments of The Universe in Verse — astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, a stunning animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,” Rosanne Cash reading Lisel Mueller’s subtle poem about outgrowing our limiting frames of reference, a lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience, and Amanda Palmer reading “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith — then revisit Elizabeth Gilbert’s radiant, universe-postulated, life-tested wisdom on love, loss, and surviving the thickest darknesses of being.


The Great Barrier Reef: Stunning 19th-Century Illustrations from the World’s First Encyclopedia of One of Earth’s Most Vibrant and Delicate Ecosystems

A symphonic hymn for our planet’s lushest underwater wonderland.

While the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel was salving his fathomless personal tragedy with the transcendent beauty of jellyfish, having enraptured Darwin with his drawings, his English colleague William Saville-Kent (July 10, 1845–October 11, 1908) was transcending his own darkness on the other side of the globe with the vibrant, irrepressible aliveness of the Great Barrier Reef and its astonishing creatures.

Anemones from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)

By the end of his adolescence, William had survived the unsurvivable. The youngest of ten children, he lost his mother when he was seven. While she was dying, his unscrupulous father was having an open affair with the children’s nanny, whom he went on to marry. Three more children came. Then, just before William’s twentieth birthday, his toddler half-brother disappeared from his bed in the middle of the night. His body was found in the vault of the outhouse, savaged by multiple stab wounds. His nursemaid — with whom William’s father was already having an affair — was at first arrest, then released; suspicion was diverted toward William’s sixteen-year-old sister Constance. She was detained, but released on account of favorable public opinion. A Scotland Yard detective became obsessed with the case and prosecuted her for murder five years later, eventually extracting a confession and making national headlines with true crime sensationalism. Caroline was sentenced to twenty years in prison. But many — including Charles Dickens — mistrusted the confession, having suspected the volatile, perfidious father all along. He was never brought under investigation.

William Saville-Kent

William was shaken by the inordinate share of loss, violence, and public shame he had accrued in so young a life. Taking refuge in the impartial world of science, he came to study under the great biologist and comparative anatomist T.H. Huxley, who had coined the term agnosticism and who had so boldly defended Darwin’s evolutionary ideas against the reactionary tide of opposition a decade earlier.

Upon completing his studies, Saville-Kent received an appointment in the Natural History department of the British Museum as curator of coral. He grew enchanted with these beguiling, poorly understood creatures; he also grew bored with the museum position — he longed to do research, to contribute to the evolving understanding of these living marvels.

Corals from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)

At twenty-five, he won a grant from the Royal Society to lead a dredging survey off the coast of Portugal, trading in the lifeless stillness of museum specimens for the coruscating aliveness of the marine world. Upon his return, he could only continue working with living species. Over the next decade, he took a series of job as various aquariums, but his imagination continued reaching for the unglassed sea.

Fishes from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)

As Saville-Kent approached forty, his old mentor T.H. Huxley — by then the most prominent British life-scientist after Darwin’s death a year earlier — recommended him as inspector of fisheries in Tasmania. Saville-Kent left England and the dark specter of his youth for the bright open seas of the South Pacific, where he grew newly enchanted with the lush underwater wonderland of strange-shaped corals and echinoderms, frilly anemones and tentacled mollusks, fishes in colors that belong in a Kandinsky painting, creatures he had marveled at only as dead and disjointed museum specimens or segregated aquarium captives, creatures he had never imagined.

Corals from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)

Determined to bring public awareness and awe to this otherworldly ecosystem — an ecosystem that in the century since his time has grown so gravely endangered by human activity that it might not survive another century — he authored the first popular science book on that irreplaceable underwater world. In 1893, several years before the German oceanographer published the gorgeously illustrated first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, Saville-Kent published The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: Its Products and Potentialities — a pioneering encyclopedia of one of Earth’s most luscious and delicate ecosystems, illustrated with a number of Saville-Kent’s black-and-white photographs and several stunning color lithographs by two artists, a Mr. Couchman and a Mr. Riddle, based on Saville-Kent’s original watercolors. (This, after all, was the gloaming hour of that golden age when scientists were also trained as artists, which enabled them to advance their own discoveries in sometimes epoch-making ways.)

Corals from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Fishes from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Trepang from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Echinoderms from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Alcyonaria from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Molluscs and planarians from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Corals from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Corals from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Corals from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Anemones from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Anemones from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)

Complement with the self-taught artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell’s stunning illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants, published a century and a half earlier, and the inspiring illustrated story of the man who set out to save the world’s coral reefs with hammer and glue a century and a half later, then revisit these 19th-century tentacled wonders from the ocean depths and Haeckel’s otherworldly jellyfish.


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