Within the closing remarks of his outstanding work Mans Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl set the stage for which meaning-orientated therapy (Logotherapy) was to be born. For Frankl, human beings were meaning-seeking creatures; compasses tilted towards meaning; towards carrying out the appropriate activities that could help to contextualise a purposeful future, despite the inherent trials of life, or external tragedies of their situation. Frankl (2004), who bravely survived the torturous conditions of the German Nazi concentration camps, arrived at the ultimate conclusion that “meaning is possible even in spite of [humans] suffering” (p.117).
Other existentially inclined philosophers and theorist-practitioners share this view, taking the stance that existence itself is the attempt to construct meaning; that being and meaning are threaded through the lives of each individual. From this ontological standpoint, existential philosophy considers human beings as freely choosing individuals who are responsible for, and organically orientated towards, constituting their lives through meaning (Cooper, 2003; Frankl, 2004; Maslow, 1966; Spinelli, 2007; van Deurzen, 2002). As Frankl (2004) further explained that the absence of meaning can subsequently merit the arrival of suffering, he argued that human’s frustrations in the will-to-meaning-searching endeavours were noögenic (deriving from a dimension of existence, not stemming from intrapsychic conflict) in nature. When a person’s existence is inherently shrouded in doubts about the meaning of life, such uncertainties may manifest themselves as preoccupations with large and metaphysical questions devoid of predetermined answers (Yalom, 1980); anxiety and depression (van Deurzen, 2012); nihilism (Nietzsche, 1888); and, in extreme cases, questions of suicide may also arise (Camus, 2018). Therefore, a psychotherapeutic task may indeed be assisting clients in such struggles by helping them to discover more engaging ways of living.
Recent outcome reports on the Existential Therapies (TET) clearly demonstrate their effectiveness in helping clients substitute feelings of personal emptiness with fulfillment (Raynar & Vitali, 2014; Vos, Craig & Cooper, 2015). Not only does this begin to confirm TET capabilities of translating their often perceived esoteric body of theoretical works into practice (Keshen, 2006), but may also confirm that existential meaning is in fact a fundamental tenet of primary concern to the individual. However, as existentialism is deeply rooted in indigenous European philosophical thought, can it be said that these ontological assumptions cross over to a shared west-east cultural understanding? That is to say, is the lynchpin of human existence universally focused around carving out meaning through one’s own responsibility? Or, and as aptly asked by Hoffman, Yang, Kazlauskas & Chan (2009), are we in danger of merely ascribing these Western existential ideas to a non-Western context?
I share in the views put forward by Vontress (1979) and Moodley & Walcott (2010), who explain that the above questions indeed transcend all national, ethnic and cultural boundaries. Not only do these researchers argue that concerns of existential meaninglessness are inevitably encountered by all people, Basma & Gibbons (2016) further suggest that ubiquitous questions of uncertainty, freedom, purpose and meaning are tantamount to the refugee population, as they are “thrown into crisis and attempt to grapple with these anxieties on a daily basis” (p.160). Based upon my therapeutic experiences with clients forced to migrate from their homes (which, as Cilia La Corte & Jalonen (2018) document is commonly coupled with complex losses, fears, terrors and social-cultural adjustments along the way), it seems plausible to suggest that these disassembling, even tyrannical events, throw refugees towards stark questions of meaning and existence itself.