The Case for Tragic Optimism

The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her own life.” – Viktor E. Frankl

What gives life real meaning?

According to Viktor Frankl there are three possible answers:

  1. Creating a work or doing a deed.
  2. Experiencing or encountering something. This can be found not only in work, but in love.
  3. Facing a fate you cannot change. Rising above and growing beyond yourself.

In other words, turning a personal tragedy into a triumph. Frankel did just this.

Frankl was an Austrian Jew and a brilliant psychologist. He had an opportunity to escape to America from Nazi persecution but decided to stay in Austria to care for his aging parents. He and his entire family were sent to concentration camps.

Frankl saw many people die by their own choices, whether it be by committing suicide by walking into electrified wire or simply by abandoning the will to live. He quickly realized that those who were able to survive these horrors did so by applying meaning to their suffering.

They needed to stay alive due to concern for their families or an unaccomplished lifetime goal. Frankl understood that those who could not look to the future were almost certain to perish in the unfathomable, inhumane conditions of the camps.

Frankl also realized even in the worst of circumstances, good could be found if it was looked for. Frankl found humor with some compatriots over morbid topics; and learned to appreciate the wonders of nature, like sunsets, in ways we could never imagine.

He also learned to look for the good in people. This even included some of the guards, who could occasionally show brief bursts of humanity among the brutality of the prevalent sadism.

Frankl made it out alive. He lost his entire family in the process, including his young wife. Though he experienced unfathomable loss, he did learn that suffering could have meaning that could keep a person going, even in the most nightmarish of circumstances.

He used this power after he was liberated to help millions of people through his research, books, and practice during the next several decades of his life.

How can this attitude apply to a topic of much, much less importance like investing?

Though the topic of stocks and bonds is a trivial subject compared the deep meaning of Frankl’s life work, there is a connection.

Investors, during the course of their lifetimes, will likely experience market crashes that are nerve wracking and terrifying.

During these times, jobs will hemorrhage, companies will go bankrupt, and the fear of the unknown will run rampant. Think back to 2008-2009 and how it felt at its worst moments.

Those that made it through this financial crisis kept their focus on the future. They decided to find meaning in their financial suffering by taking advantage of the one good thing during the Great Recession. They bought stocks at generational lows.

Last week, Warren Buffet, came out with his annual letter to the shareholders of his company, Berkshire Hathaway. What struck me is his unbending  optimism about the future.

“During such scary periods, you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted. Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost certainly do well.”

Buffet continued, “Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold. When downpours of that sort occur, it’s imperative that we rush outdoors carrying washtubs, not teaspoons. And that we will do.”

Buffet in his own way is practicing his version financial tragic optimism. His results speak for themselves.

While we admire Buffet, his shining star is insignificant compared to the enormity of Viktor Frankl’s work. That being said, the case for optimism amidst suffering is one that cannot be denied; no matter the subject.

By the way, if you want a good start with finding the answer to the meaning of life, Frankl provides an important clue.

When asked to express the meaning of his own life in a sentence he stated, “The meaning of my life is to help others find the meaning of theirs.”

If you have not read Man’s Search For Meaning, do yourself a favor and do so. You won’t regret it.