01/13/2011 09:19 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Search for Meaning and the Mysteries of Resilience

By the time Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl died in 1997, his celebrated Holocaust memoir "Man's Search for Meaning" had sold more than 10 million copies in 24 languages. Frankl, who endured unimaginable hardships in Nazi death camps while also striving to help fellow prisoners find meaning in their suffering, famously concluded that "everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

This message -- that we alone control our attitudes regardless of circumstances -- helped establish the book as a modern classic, one that ranked near the top of a 1991 Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club poll of books making a difference in people's lives. Because if Frankl could find meaning amidst the unrelenting horrors and hopelessness of the concentration camps, any one of us can do the same if we simply make the effort, right?

But not so fast.

A few years back, I sat down to re-read Frankl's short masterpiece in connection with a project of my own. Once again, I was deeply moved by the courage and seemingly limitless compassion of this remarkable man in this bleakest of all bleak landscapes. But this time, something else jumped out at me too -- a short but arresting passage that I'd never noticed before.

It goes like this: For several days, Frankl has been one of 1,500 people crammed cattle-style into a train along with the meager remnants of their belongings. Believing they were en route to a munitions factory to be used as forced labor, the passengers are horrified to catch sight of a sign announcing Auschwitz, a name already associated with gas chambers, crematoriums, and massacres.

And what is Frankl's reaction?

After the initial shock, he writes these astonishing words:

Like a drowning man clutching to a straw, my inborn optimism (which has often controlled my feelings even in the most desperate situations) clung to this thought: These prisoners look quite well, they seem to be in good spirits and even laugh. Who knows? I might manage to share their favorable position.

These prisoners look quite well.

Trying to place myself in Frankl's position, I couldn't imagine that thought springing up unbidden, not in a million years. For the first time, I found myself revisiting -- questioning -- the standard view of Frankl as Everyman, reflecting on the role his remarkable "inborn optimism" may have played. Do all of us really have the capacity to respond as Frankl did? Does his story really support the view that each of us could make his choices? Or is "Man's Search for Meaning" perhaps better understood as the story of a brilliant outlier -- of someone with an extraordinary genius for optimism and resilience?

It's probably no coincidence that these thoughts are on my mind as I move into middle age. The older I get, the more I see and experience, the more I question the notion that we control our inner lives. Influence, yes, to some extent. Control, not so much. Research psychologists tell us that each of us has a genetically determined "set point" that accounts for as much as 50 percent of where we fall on the happiness continuum. The good news is that we can still influence the other 50 percent by engaging in happiness-producing activities -- the platoon of "positive psychology" books published in recent years will be happy to point the way -- and through changing our circumstances. The bad news (at least for some of us) is that our set point is pretty much, well, set. For my part, when I'm having a hard time, I almost always think it's worth trying to see things differently or do things differently, but these days, I try not to beat myself up when I don't succeed.

These reflections came back to me this morning as I read about last week's suicide of a 27-year-old computer programmer named Bill Zeller. Caught up in the horror of the Arizona shootings, I'd somehow missed this smaller-scale tragedy that took place just days earlier and continues to ripple through the blogosphere. In a 4,000 line suicide letter, Zeller -- a Princeton graduate student whose creations included the MyTunes application, which facilitated iTunes music sharing -- matter-of-factly recounts his history of childhood sexual abuse and its seemingly inescapable after effects, culminating in the recent decision to end his own life. It's a harrowing recital, all the more haunting because it so clearly displays both Zeller's keen intelligence and a deep and abiding sorrow for all he missed and lost.

I won't quote from the letter -- while he intended it as a public document, Zeller asked that it only be reprinted in its entirety, and I urge you to read it in that form -- but suffice it to say that it reflects tremendous fortitude in the face of unremitting and pervasive torment, a pain that Zeller carried with him throughout his too-short life. I wish Zeller had sought help. I wish he'd had it in him to do things differently. But I understand why he didn't. A resilience superstar like Viktor Frankl might have found another way, but not all of us have that strength. I mourn for Bill Zeller -- for all of us -- but in no way can I blame him.