Searching for Frankl’s Meaning: The Decent and the Principled, How we Define Who We Are as Individuals, Communities, a Nation


In life, everyone experiences regrets.

Daniel Pink reported a study on what constitutes the greatest source of regrets that we Americans experience- loves lost or perhaps never found, career disappointments or paths not chosen, in-actions rather than actions taken. A sense of regret must be one of those conceptual understandings that differentiates us from our vertebrate relatives. In a distant blog post, Daniel Pink, @danielpink, asked us to share with him our regrets so he could continue to unfold the story of what we regret and how we mitigate and avoid regret in life.

I was taken mostly with his description of how he makes decisions in life — and what he uses to test those decisions ethically. Pink spoke to imagining a point of view of himself at 90 and looking back on a decision. Then, Pink invoked the memory of Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, who said “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” If you’ve not read Frankl, it’s well worth the time. In his reflections he documented what he used mentally to survive concentration camps in WWII even as he experienced the loss of those around him, including his entire family except for one sister.

Frankl began his life in a concentration camp as the psychiatrist he had been before incarceration. He ended WWII in such a camp as a slave-laborer. It’s a difficult read to experience such a world of hatred through his eloquent and poignant words. It’s an important read to experience his words as he describes finding meaning in life by holding on to love as a driving force to sustain the spiritual domain of who he was in the most existential of moments in the camps.

Frankl said that he had come to the conclusion that only two races of “men” really exist- “the decent and the unprincipled.” In thinking about the meaning of freedom, he recommended that in addition to the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast that we add a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

I never underestimate the potential for any nation to become a Nazi Germany. If the decent majority abdicates responsibility to the tyranny of an unprincipled minority, we give up liberty. When Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be”, he spoke to the critical nature of education as an essential barrier to the loss of freedom. He understood that citizens who are ignorant cede their freedom to tyranny- to the unprincipled.

Over a lifetime, I’ve learned that education is so much more than stocking the brain with knowledge and information. While education’s certainly about knowledge, it’s also about how we regard, honor, model, and teach the value of decency- in our classrooms, our homes, and in our communities. Every time we step away from our own responsibility to ensure that a tyrannical minority does not abuse members of our community, we step away from our own liberty as well. And, when a tyrannical minority becomes a majority, then a nation’s sliding down that slippery slope towards the unprincipled behaviors of a Nazi Germany in which the decent -those who abdicated responsibility by doing nothing and those who suffered because of it- lost their liberty, loves, and lives.

Teaching decency isn’t about putting words in a vision, mission or core values statement, adding it to a curriculum, or adopting a program to teach it. Decency is about what we do, what we say, what we ignore, what we walk away from. It’s our words in a teachers’ lounge or behind the closed doors of our homes that become acceptable in the halls, on the playgrounds, and across the airwaves of our lives. It’s in our own biases towards people as a group that becomes our actions towards individuals.

When we allow others- young people or adults- to disparage, name-call, victimize others for any reason, we assume a role in Frankl’s “race” of the unprincipled, rather than that of the decent. Those kinds of words, in-actions, and actions, I believe, become the regrets, not just of ourselves as individuals or as a community, but also the ultimate regrets of a nation that’s lost civility, community, and care for its own.

How do you think we are doing?

  • first published in Edurati Review as Decent or Unprincipled: How We Define Who We Are as Individuals, Communities, a Nation 3/15/2013