Man’s Search for Meaning
By Viktor E. Frankl
Publisher: Boston MA: Beacon Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-8070-6010-0
Freed from the Dachau concentration camp at the end of World War II, Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) emerged bearing a message of optimism, faith, and meaning, asserting that every human has the capacity and responsibility to choose his own attitude and actions based on his own inner purpose. He chose to respond to fear with fortitude, to tragedy with hope, and to atrocities with love. His survival was a triumph of spirit over circumstance proving (in the words of Nietzsche) that: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.
The ability to remain humane and compassionate under these circumstances could only be “the result of an inner decision.” Frankl concluded, “It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
Before Frankl was imprisoned, he had been a psychiatrist and professor of both neurology and psychiatry. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine successive days in 1945, shortly after his release from the camp. William J. Winslade, a philosopher, lawyer, and psychoanalyst, said of Frankl:
As a prisoner, he was suddenly forced to assess whether his own life still had any meaning. Frankl drew constantly upon uniquely human capacities such as inborn optimism, humor, psychological detachment,… and a steely resolve not to give up or commit suicide…. Most important, he realized that, no matter what happened, he retained the freedom to choose how to respond to his suffering.
In his book Frankl shares in simple language the depths of personal suffering and the heights of human aspiration and achievement. He clarifies that suffering is not necessary to find meaning; rather, “meaning is possible in spite of suffering.”
It is difficult to walk with Frankl as he describes life in the concentration camps. He relates his experiences in a direct, sensory way that evokes in the reader both physical and emotional sensations. He describes the scene on the train as they approached Auschwitz, the first camp to which he was taken:
A cry broke from the ranks of the anxious passengers, “There is a sign, Auschwitz!” Everyone’s heart missed a beat at that moment. Auschwitz – the very name stood for all that was horrible: gas chambers, crematoriums, massacres. Slowly, almost hesitatingly, the train moved on as if it wanted to spare its passengers the dreadful realization as long as possible: Auschwitz!
The reality of life in the camp quickly revealed itself. “We were cold and hungry and there was not enough room for everyone to squat on the bare ground, let alone to lie down. One five-ounce piece of bread was our only food in four days.” The probability of imminent death was apparent to prisoners from their first encounter with the camp guards. An SS officer examined each new prisoner and then indicated with his hand which way they were to go. “It was my turn. Somebody whispered to me that to be sent to the right side would mean work, the way to the left being for the sick and those incapable of work.” Sent to the right, Frankl later asked other prisoners about what happened to a friend of his, sent to the left.
“You can see him there,” I was told.
“Where?” A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland.
“That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven.”
Throughout this odyssey of suffering we witness the choices that Frankl and his fellow prisoners continuously make. Some “run to the wire” choosing instant death, others fall into apathy and despair, but Frankl chooses to live from the bedrock of his belief that
we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement…. We are challenged to change ourselves.
He describes an incident when he was on a forced march side by side with another prisoner. He was pushed to the limit of his endurance, yet sustained himself by the beauty of nature and the love of his wife.
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…. A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth… that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire…. 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 … in the contemplation of his beloved.
After the war Frankl practised as a psychiatrist, lectured, and wrote. He propounded a psychoanalytic practice he called logotherapy, focusing on “the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning.” He distinguished between man’s will to pleasure (the pleasure principle) and man’s will to meaning; he argued that “man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.” Frankl considered this to be the primary motivation of human life.
Once this meaning is identified, it must be used as the springboard for all actions. This was reflected in what Frankl describes as “the deepest experience I had in the concentration camp.” He describes how against all odds – the chance just to survive was only one in twenty-eight – he had managed to keep hidden a manuscript of his book on logotherapy. He relates how he lost his treasured manuscript when “I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chamber.” In place of his book he “found in a pocket of the newly acquired coat one single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael.” He had lost his life’s work but chose to see a message and opportunity in what had transpired. “How should I have interpreted such a ‘coincidence’ other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?”
From the camp Frankl returned to a world where he was utterly alone. On his first day in Vienna he learned that his pregnant wife Tilly had died of sickness or starvation in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. His parents and brother had also died in the camps. In spite of loss and tragedy, Frankl chose to continue to help others and to forgive. Throughout his life he continued to believe that “even a vile Nazi criminal or a seemingly hopeless madman has the potential to transcend evil or insanity by making responsible choices.” As he said, “After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
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