The Future Pull – A Path To Meaning & Purpose


News today is so negative that some days I prefer to disconnect from it completely. But on Monday I decided to pay attention, and I’m glad I did, because I noticed something that I think many would gloss over. Monday was holocaust remembrance day, and that gives me an excuse to talk about one of my heroes, a holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. 

Frankl’s story will always inspire, but it can also help us to live differently, so I’ll share a practical way we can use Frankl’s story to chart a new direction in our lives, a technique called the future pull.

“…life has a meaning to the last breath…”

In 1942, prominent Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was taken to a Nazi concentration camp. His pregnant wife and most of his extended family were taken to other camps. He noticed some of his fellow prisoners gave up right away, and the psychiatrist in him wondered why.  He discovered the answer had to do with meaning. [He would later write that the statistical chance of survival in the concentration camps was 1 in 28]. 

Survival, Frankl concluded, depended on finding a meaning and setting your mind to a future goal. The ones who didn’t survive were the ones who lost hope; if you lost hope in the future and gave up, you were doomed. The prisoner who survived somehow found the inner strength from that future goal. 

Frankl found meaning and purpose in helping the prisoners gain some kind of psychological health. He also had a goal to finish a manuscript for a book he started before the war; he would secretly write the manuscript on stolen pieces of paper. He also found meaning in reuniting with his family.

After the war, Frankl learned that his entire family, except for his sister, were killed in the camps. His wife and unborn child were dead. Eventually he found new meaning in helping others know the importance of finding meaning. He founded a new school of psychotherapy, Logotherapy, and would finish the manuscript he worked on as a prisoner. That manuscript, according to the Library of Congress, became one of the top 10 most influential books of all time – “Man’s Search for Meaning.”  

Frankl wrote that “life has meaning to the last breath,” meaning we can choose the attitude we have while we face unchangeable suffering. 

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. – “Man’s Search For Meaning” 

The Future Pull

Several years before his death in 1997, Frankl gave a keynote address and told a story from his days as a prisoner about a near death experience.  He was being marched out in a blizzard for work detail and he collapsed in the middle of a field.  He was sick, started coughing uncontrollably, was inadequately clothed, and he couldn’t get up.  The Nazi guard started yelling and screaming at him, and threatened to kill him. 

At that moment he dissociates (detached from himself, thoughts, feelings), understandable considering the amount of stress.  He imagines he is giving a lecture in post-war Vienna on the importance of finding meaning and purpose.  During this fantasy he tells the audience of the time he collapsed in the field and was almost beaten to death by a Nazi guard but somehow found the courage to get up and take another step.  In this way, Frankl used the future to pull him through in the present, that future vision allowed him to take the next step.   

Watching this keynote address was therapist Bill O’Hanlon, who used this story to create an intervention he calls the future pull.  O’Hanlon uses this intervention with clients getting help for depression, but I think this is a powerful intervention for anyone feeling stuck.

The future pull, as I see it, is a two step process. 

The first step is to transport yourself to a future of possibilities.  You need a vision of the future where the problem you’re facing has worked itself out.  This is the vision that will help you get through the current challenge.  Write about this vision, draw a picture of it, get it on paper. 

Second, ask yourself how can this vision will motivate you to take that first step, how can the future pull you in a new direction?  Think about small steps you can take every day to reach that vision. 

Use this technique as a new tool in your self-directed change toolbox.  I think it will work out great for you if you’re feeling stuck, overwhelmed, frustrated, and your back is against the wall, as it were.

“…my new life started.”

In “Man’s Search For Meaning,” Frankl writes about a moment after he was freed when he walked through an open field and fell to his knees.  He writes …

At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world–I had but one sentence in mind–always the same: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.” How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started.

The phrase about calling to the Lord is based on Psalm 118:5.  This poignant phrase seemed the only thing that made sense in that moment.  Like Frankl, finding a meaning can help us start our new journey.  I hope this remembrance of an inspiring life will pull us to take that first step. 




Here is a brief video of Viktor Frankl lecturing on the importance of finding meaning.  We reach our greatest potential, he argues, when we find meaning and purpose. 

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