I think I saved a life yesterday. As far as I know this is the first life I have saved. Anyway, at the very least, I saved someone from a life-threatening situation.

We had taken the Limited Express for Himeji on the Hanshin line in Kobe, Japan. In fact we had to run to catch that train but decided to make the effort for no better reason than it was just pulling in to the station, and the next train home might be ten minutes away. So we jumped on to the first available car, right at the front of the train.

When we reached our stop at Nagata he was there. My wife sees him first, an old gentleman, walking stick in his right hand to support himself on that side. However, he is listing so badly to the left that he uses the train itself to provide support with his left hand against the first car. This is all that stops him from falling. Twice he tries to move away from the train and use the stick, only to stagger left and again support himself by placing the left hand against the first car. All the time he is making some forward progress along the car and towards the station exit. The doors close. The conductor, six cars back, calls loudly over the public address for him to step back behind the white line, and safety.

There is one final but futile attempt to be steady, but the left-leaning tendency remains and he heads again for the train, this time towards the gap between cars one and two. As he is about to fall to the platform and roll between the cars I move forward and grasp his left arm, pushing him to the right.His stagger in that direction at least means a “safe” landing on the platform but away from the train.Thankfully my wife reaches out as well and takes his right arm, stopping the fall. We sit him down as the train rolls on towards Nishidai, its next stop.

I do not know this old man and my Japanese is severely limited, good enough for a cup of coffee but not for conversation. Fortunately my wife is Japanese and we are able to talk to him and calm him. In a short time we learn so much about this wonderful man.

He has been celebrating his 85th birthday and admits he has had one drink (in fact probably three or four) too many. He has no children and lives alone. He is a singing teacher, a good one, who once led a singing group in Carnegie Hall.

It was his old singing group from Carnegie Hall days that had invited him to celebrate the birthday. He was touched by this and very much enjoyed the atmosphere and hospitality. In Japanese culture it is difficult to refuse the offer of a drink in such circumstances for fear of insulting the host. So he had a little more than was wise.

On another trip he remembers being at the Statue of Liberty on 9/11, the day the Twin Towers came down.

He is grateful for the assistance as we slowly begin to negotiate two elevators and various passageways from the station to the surface and his Bus Stop. It is not a short journey and by the time we have taken it, after a good half hour, he is more in control walking with his stick and able to catch the bus home.

The lessons of this story

There are a number of lessons about logotherapy in this story and Marcia and I will expand on them as you read this.

Lesson 1

Lesson one is the importance of life itself. Every life has meaning, which is why our instinct is always to preserve it if we can. I did not know this old man, I will probably never see him again, so why not leave things to the train conductor and take the risk that his fall between the cars will be noticed and he will be rescued before the train moves off? The answer is the value of life itself.

Lesson 2

The second lesson in this story is each person’s need to express that unique meaning that each life has. As we age, this often becomes a reflection on our legacy.

What we have experienced and achieved can never be taken away, not by death itself. His legacy led our wonderful old man to the city, to accept the hospitality of his former colleagues and to simply reflect on what had been. However, unbeknown to him, his life and his risky departure from the train provided a new meaning for both me and my wife at that time. He could not have realised how his life had given meaning to others in that way. Helping another human being, focusing outwards to another, was in this case instinctual but on reflection personally therapeutic. Our accidental encounter renewed my resolve to help others and perhaps through this article his story might provide hope for people he has never met.

Lesson 3 and 4

Lessons number three and four are a package. Much of life is in reality quite accidental, a series of chance encounters. We could indeed have decided to wait for the next train. Finally, we can never know the full impact of our life on others, whether for better or for worse. This wonderful old gentleman’s life provided meaning for ours. 

Life and logotheraphy

Life is often about our capacity to turn tragedy into triumph. To triumph we have to use what Logotherapy calls “the defiant power of the human spirit.” We have this capacity within each of us, and sometimes, when there is no choice, no way to avoid the pain and suffering in a particular event or circumstance, it is all we have. Life never guarantees happiness, but it does offer each of us meaning. That is the context of the conversations contained in this article.

Logotherapy was developed in the 1930s by Viktor Frankl. Frankl considered the psychological approaches of both Freud (the founder of psychoanalytic therapy) and Adler (the founder of personal psychology which is the forerunner to many of today’s psychological approaches) as too restrictive.

Freud’s insight was that the early years of life certainly shape each of us into the person we become in adult life. Frankl accepted that but always insisted that it could never completely determine the person. There is always choice. We can decide to be different. Freud further suggested that our will to satisfy our personal desires was the strongest human motivation, the will to pleasure. Frankl challenged this, believing that we can never be fully satisfied by pursuing pleasure. Human beings must have meaning in life to be satisfied and finding that meaning is our greatest desire. He believed we can indeed be pushed by drives such as the will to pleasure, or the need to satisfy our basic instincts, to overcome hunger or thirst or just to survive. However, none of those will fully satisfy in the long run, until we recognise our greatest need. We are pulled by meaning.

Adler also believed that there was more to the human being than simply self-satisfaction. He suggested that part of life’s journey was to work out our place in society, who we are in conjunction with those around us; the will to power. Frankl again accepts the reality of our pursuit of power and status, but insists we can never be satisfied only by that. Money, fame and success are all chimeras unless they have real meaning and real meaning has to be about more than the self.

Both Freud and Adler’s Viennese schools of psychotherapy provide the foundation for much of today’s psychology.

Frankl established the third Viennese school, which he called logotherapy. Logotherapy could be described as the will to meaning. Frankl’s insight was to understand that the study of real human capacity requires more than any one single psychological approach. While accepting the insights of each therapeutic approach, he insisted that each of us has uniquely human qualities which enable every person to go beyond the norm, to take an attitude to any situation, and to choose to respond rather than be driven to do so. In contrast to Freud’s method of Psychoanalysis (looking to the past to explain who we are), Frankl called his methodology Existential Analysis. That is an analysis of our present existence to determine who we wish to be. 

Logotherapy rests on three major assumptions:

1. Life always has meaning

Life has meaning under all circumstances and at all times. There is something instinctive in the human being that leads us to want to preserve life, both for ourselves and also for those whose lives we see to be in danger. Who would not try to rescue the baby from the burning building, for instance? Logotherapy insists on the meaning of life as a reality.

2. The greatest desire of the human being is to find meaning

Since they have been on this earth, human beings have grappled with fundamental questions such as ‘Why am I here?’, ‘How should I live, given that I must die?’ and ‘Is there something beyond just my own existence, an overall meaning to life itself?’ Logotherapy does not provide answers. It recognises that each person must grapple with and find answers to these questions.

3. Human beings have freedom of choice

The human being always has the capacity to take a choice, to take a stand. We have the capacity to choose meaningful directions in our life and something within us will make us uncomfortable with choosing anything else in the longer term.


Frankl’s’ psychiatric credo held that the human being is always capable of making a choice. Even behind the tragedy of severe brain damage or mental disability, the fundamental human being was still there. If these mental curtains are too dense to penetrate, then logotherapy is not the appropriate treatment, but the essential human being is still there.

The task of the logotherapist is not to present a blueprint for a meaningful life but to realise that each person and each answer is unique. It aims to assist the client in the search him/herself.

The difference between psychoanalysis and Logotherapy

Frankl was once asked what the difference was between psychoanalysis and Logotherapy. Before responding, he asked the questioner to describe psychoanalysis. He did so in these terms: In psychoanalysis, the person lies on a couch and speaks of things that are difficult to talk about. Frankl responded that, in Logotherapy, the client can indeed sit upright in a chair but can then sometimes hear things that are difficult to hear.

There is no cure for life itself, and we do not know from one day to the next what challenges it may bring. Our only choice is to respond to life, to answer the question “what does life ask of me now?”.

Physical or psychological symptoms is brought on by a lack of meaning and direction in life

Kate, a single mother with a three-year old daughter, has been a client of mine for quite some time now. We meet and talk whenever she feels the need. Her life has been a patchwork of broken relationships, a tough home life, including being out of home for long periods from the age of 14. When she began therapy she came regularly, as she said “I have tried counselling many times but always gave up, I am going to stick with it this time.” She has.

We have had numerous sessions and have completed intensive work. I said to her towards the end of our regular sessions “Kate, you know yourself very well, and you also know all the answers for what life requires just at the moment. You just don’t like some of them.” She understood that, and has set directions on life that are best for her daughter, but at significant personal cost.

The task of the logotherapist is to ensure that the person (the client) is assisted with the search for meaning and is uncomfortable unless meaning is being generated through the way they are living life.

Frankl’s work as a psychiatrist led him to believe that at least 20% of psychiatric illness presenting at his clinic was due to frustration with the human search for meaning in life. In fact, the root problem was neither physical nor psychological at all. It was simply a problem that presented with physical or psychological symptoms, brought on by a lack of meaning and direction in life. It is brought on by asking the wrong question about life, by asking “what do I want from life now?” and hence by providing a wrong answer, “life should not be this way”.

Western society has learned to expect a “cure” for any of life’s “dark” feelings. Depression and anxiety are increasing problems as are substance abuse and addictions. I have had numerous clients who define their substance abuse as “self-medicating”, only to find that this is simply a cul-de-sac in addressing life’s challenges.

Certainly some depression and anxiety can have a physical cause. At other times the cause is drugs and the “self-medication” administered by the individual. In both cases prescribed medications are appropriate. However, if the real cause is in fact a problem with life itself, then a therapy that addresses life’s deepest questions is called for. That is, logotherapy.

When the search for meaning is frustrated or avoided over a long period, the person descends into a sort of vacuum of meaning in day to existence. (Frankl called it the existential vacuum). This is characterised by boredom, addictions and a general malaise with life itself.

When society focus on self-satisfaction

Frankl also often wrote about what happens to a whole society when it asks the wrong question about life (what do I want from life?) and as a result comes up with the wrong answer (life should not be this way ). We want to “be happy” but realise we are not. (He called this the ‘collective neurosis’).

What happens when society loses its ideals and begins to focus on self-satisfaction, to assume that life should provide a pathway for “happiness”, always. Some seek for certainty, to have a pathway that provides a clear answer and direction, eliminating the need to make the tough decisions or to search for meaning. This is the path of fundamentalism in its many forms. Others simply surrender, believing they lack any capacity to influence the world or that their life makes any difference whatever. This is the pathway to depression and even suicide. Still others decide to live only for the present day and to pursue riches and material success, only to find that eventually there is something still missing.

Logotherapy holds that every individual person is unique and important. We all have a unique capacity to respond to life and our response does make a difference. Life itself expects nothing less from us.

“What does life ask of me now?”

One can never know when it is their hour nor what real difference their life makes to others. One of my clients was employed to oversee safety in the workplace across a chain of supermarkets. He was fed up with his role. He longed for something different. My question to him was “so you are sick of saving lives then?” He had never thought of his role as one that could make a difference. Yet as I reflect on saving a life I realise that one life event can retrospectively fill a whole life with meaning.

What does life ask of me now? Frankl was adamant that this question is asked of each individual, that it demands an answer and that only the person who is asked can respond. It is the task of the logotherapist to help clients realise the magnitude of that life task.

Now, I hope you will understand my opening comment: “as far as I know this is the first life I have saved.” We can never know what effect, good or bad we have had on others. I hope, as we all do in our hearts, that we have responded positively to life’s challenges, knowing always that we have fallen short at times. I hope you enjoy our conversations about life and logotherapy and that they help your own response to life’s questions.

Ph D, Psy D

Paul McQuillan

Dr. Paul McQuillan is Coordinator of Research for Brisbane Catholic Education, an honorary fellow of Australian Catholic University, a Diplomate (Clinician) of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy and Director of Lifechange Therapies.