“For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

- Viktor E. Frankl, "The Unheard Cry for Meaning"

I had an old sponsor who imparted a great many pearls of wisdom to me during my early, formative years in recovery. One of the gems he shared had to do with my questioning him as to whether or not we alcoholics and addicts are “spiritually” different in some ways from all the other people running around our planet? He explained it to me saying, “We’re really no different at all from ‘the earth people’– except for maybe one little thing: if the earth people fail to learn life’s spiritual lessons they’ll slowly rust out - but if we fail to learn those very same lessons, we flame out in a hurry.” In my newly sober mind, I had images of alcoholics and addicts blasting off like Roman candles, putting on a helluva light show in the night sky and then crashing and burning into some dark and lonely field.  After forty plus years of watching what happens to the women and men coming into recovery around the country, I believe the old man was probably right. Those who find a reason to “live for” stay sober – the ones who don’t – don’t.

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who understood the vital role meaning and purpose play at the depth of human life. He was the founder of the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy building on the work of Freud and Adler – but transcending them as well. During the Nazi holocaust, he spent three long years condemned to the death camps living his own beliefs to their ultimate limits under the most horrifying conditions imaginable. He and millions of his fellow prisoners were striped of nearly every human dignity their tormentors could take from them. But Frankl discovered areas of the human soul they did not have the power to touch. They could never rob men of the meaning and purpose they accorded their own lives.

His mentor Freud had insisted, “man lives for pleasure” and his successor Adler countered that, “man lives for power.” If those two psychiatric pioneers were right, then the men and women in the death camps should have given up all hope in life. Stripped of all pleasure and of all power they could not be stripped of the spiritual strength that Frankl saw residing still deeper in the souls of men and women. “Man lives for meaning and purpose,” Frankl insisted. He witnessed first hand that if man loses sight of this for very long, he dies. Men can go long without food and water but not long without hope. Frankl watched souls clinging to it daily. When they lost their hope, they often lost their life as well.

Frankl’s message was important to me, particularly in the dark, early days of my recovery. I knew my suffering was as nothing compared to his. (I’m even a bit ashamed to admit now that I had dared make the comparison!) His suffering earned him the authority to speak to me and even my ego knew to be silent in his presence. Much like my first sponsor, Frankl helped me chart the long spiritual journey out from the self-centeredness that lay at the heart of my addiction. Both men pointed me toward accepting responsibility for my life. Both said I needed to stop making demands on life like a spoiled child and begin asking what were the demands life was making of me. Getting sober is largely about growing up and learning the spiritual lessons earth people may get to put off for a long time. Dr. Bob boiled the journey down to learning to love and to be of service. Frankl would agree. Here he is discovering meaning and purpose in a place where lesser, more earthly men would likely find none at all. He writes:

... We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us."

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory....”             Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning”

We alcoholics and addicts are a people rich and deeply blessed. We have an illness that requires continued spiritual treatment to keep us from rusting out. Love and service are the code to make life in recovery possible under any and all conditions.

About the Author


Father Bill W. has served in the addiction treatment field for over 40 years.

He is Chair of Recovery Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, a Fellow at the Hope and Healing Institute in Houston, and Chaplain at The Last Resort Recovery Center outside of Austin.  Father Bill presents retreats and workshops throughout the United States on 12-Step spirituality. He received the Wheelock Whitney Award from the Johnson Institute, given to  “the man or woman who has advanced the understanding of faith and science in addiction prevention and recovery.”

Watch his new video at TwoWayPrayer.org / and send comments to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 26 May 2015 20:29 )