Lessons from Spiderman and Frankl

“The struggle for existence is a struggle for something; it is purposeful and only in so being is it meaningful and able to bring meaning into life.” – Viktor Frankl

Nothing says “good morning” quite like discovering that the steering wheel, headrests and even the contents of my truck’s cab were covered and connected by hundreds of crisscrossed spiderwebs, glistening in the sunlight like a time-lapse aerial shot of flight traffic over a major city.


Even though I was raised by a mom (until I was grown, at age 8) who also raised Black Widow spiders (in jars in the bathroom of our cinder block home), something about sitting in the driver’s seat of my F-150 in the midst of fresh webbing was a tad creepy.

Until I remembered what I learned from Viktor Frankl.

And Peter Parker.

Let’s start with Dr. Frankl.

Viktor Frankl, österr. Psychologe und Arzt. Photographie. Um 1975

Viktor Frankl, österr. Psychologe und Arzt. Photographie. Um 1975

When U.S. forces freed Viktor Frankl, the Austrian doctor who was thrown into 4 successive Nazi concentration camps over a 6-year span for the crime of being Jewish when Hitler invaded, they were unaware that he was already free. The G.I.s were also unaware that the emaciated man who emerged from Camp Horror would also become the same Dr. Viktor Frankl whose 20-plus books over the next 45-years would redefine psychology – and every human’s connection to meaning – forever. I wonder if they asked him how he did it. Wouldn’t you like to know how Dr. Frankl was able to survive suffering through the types of circumstances that most of us can’t even imagine?

He certainly dealt with a spider or two…thousand.

It took Dr. Frankl nearly a decade after his deliverance to complete Man’s Search For Meaning and with it, his very simple antidote for overcoming the suffering that comes with living in this world:

“Man’s ultimate freedom,” he wrote, “is the freedom to control our attitude even in situations we can do nothing about.” In other words, we have a “choice” even when we’re not given a choice. Viktor Frankl created a choice by giving his suffering “meaning and purpose.” Even when Nazi scientists performed the many ignoble experiments and surgeries on him, he would choose this to mean he was saving someone else from it – someone less resilient – by taking his or her place.

While my worst day on Planet Earth doesn’t even approach Dr. Frankl’s best day in Dachau or Auschwitz, I believe I have nonetheless gleaned a little from Frankl’s wisdom. I’d like to say that the following nugget just came to me immediately upon my first read of Frankl’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning, in the year 2000. Instead, it came two years later, the day after watching the movie Spiderman.


©2002 Sony Pictures

There is so much emphasis placed on the “superpowers” of comic book and movie heroes that readers and viewers often neglect the character of the humans who receive them. No one in the movie Spiderman (2002) would have embraced the radioactive spider bite quite like guileless Peter Parker. Mary Jane would have run from the arachnoid. Aunt May would have crushed it. And Norman Osborn would have found a way to train it to bite Senators on the be-hind.

Same spider. Many choices.

I’m convinced that the reason why so many people have adverse “reactions” to everything from spiders to bee stings to in-laws is because they react the same way every time there is even a threat of being bitten.

Peter Parker taught us that spider bites don’t require you to call the doctor, search Web MD or have your vampire friend Edward suck the venom from your butt cheeks.

There is another choice:

Embrace the bite.

Give it purpose.

Give it meaning.

And gain its power.

Just don’t try this at home…until you’re ready.

Let me explain what I mean.

It was the day after I went to see Spiderman (2002) when, while working in my yard, I had to turn on the center yard hose to water the flowerbeds. The flowers in these beds often had to be replaced because I didn’t water them, and not because I was lazy. It was because the valve connected to that hose was 14 inches below ground, accessible only through a 4″ diameter hole where all kinds of unrecognizable creeping things competed for existence with one another – and with anyone foolish enough to reach into that 4″ Great Circle of Death!

I know, God gave man dominion over all the creeping things, but they still freak me out. Rather, they used to.

On this day, something in me had changed. Watching Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker embrace the bite from that radioactive spider showed me an alternative to avoiding pain and productivity. I realized I had a choice beyond watering/not watering. It fact, after Frankl’s awareness of my “human” freedom, coupled with Peter Parker’s example, I now wanted to shove my hand in the hole of creeping death. I probably even taunted the creature’s in that hole in my best Clint Eastwood voice, with a, “Go ahead, punk, BITE ME. I dare you.”

None did. Dang it. No special powers gained this day, except perhaps the power over the fear of  being bitten, and the fear of gaining great power. I am acutely aware of the power I have to “choose my response”, as Dr. Frankl put it, even in circumstances I didn’t choose, instead of simply reacting from prior conditioning in unexpected situations and from outside influences.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned to integrate the power of things that happen to me into my inner human instead of running from them or defending myself against them. By choosing to embrace them wholly, I become even stronger.

“I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.” – Westley, The Princess Bride (1987)

Never Powerless

Even when we feel like we don’t, we always have the choice to add meaning and purpose to our actions and, with it, regain an even greater power capable of overcoming those circumstances.

What could life be like if we were more conscious of gaining power from every circumstance, not just those circumstances that once scared the bejesus out of us?

What if we reminded our inner “selves” of the meaning and purpose to be gained from a new job, for example, before we ever left for the interview? Or the meaning and purpose of a trip to the grocery store before something unexpected could occur along the way? Or before we went to the movies? Or before we volunteered with others to help others?

I’ve learned that we don’t have to wait for a challenging experience to activate our ultimate human freedom. We can choose our response before we ever take a step. In fact, if we exercised this freedom more often – and for the good things in life, not just the bad – this integrative superpower might feel available and accessible more often, particularly in those circumstances outside our control.

The truth is, you and I get to choose the meaning behind everything we do. Before we do it. We get to choose what we’re fighting for, and what we’re suffering for. We can choose whom we’re living for, and why. We can choose what we will learn from an experience, how we will face an experience, and what effect that experience will have on us. This is our ultimate human freedom.


In my truck this morning, I chose to respond to this unexpected entrepreneurial spider and it’s handiwork like Peter Parker would have – and like Viktor Frankl taught – by embracing it. All of it.

Once embraced, everything changed, from my fears, to my reaction, to my attitude, just as Dr. Frankl said it would – and in circumstances I could do nothing about. 

And for those of you who want to know how a spider could have infiltrated my truck, I theorized that the creature must have hitched a ride in a box of donated books sent from Florida, which I had set on the back seat the day before.

And the meaning? Clearly this tourist spider had won a free trip to Vegas and was going to make the most of it! He was probably too wiped out from crisscrossing the strip and clubbing all night to come out before noon.

If it had wanted to bite me – and some tourists have – I would have chosen to embrace its super-power properties just like those in that hole in my yard more than a decade ago…and maybe I could have become immune to hurricanes and humidity…maybe I would have been able to climb walls, without caffeine…


Next time.


©2010-2016 Hero School Inc
About the author:

Version 2


Tiger Todd is the author of countless essays, strategies, Human Change Psychology and the the Philosophy of Heroism. As developer of the Hero School Model and CEO of Heroes Incorporated Consulting, he daily helps leaders in cities, schools and businesses overcome their obstacles and accomplish the impossible.


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