"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."
Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is a rare and fascinating look at both the experience of concentration camp during WWII and the way a man finds triumph and meaning in such an environment. First published in 1946 shortly after the end of the war, Frankl breaks the text into two parts. The first consisting of stories and reflections on his three year experience as a prisoner, and the second part being a short introduction to his system, Logotherapy, which helped him survive the horrors of the Holocaust.
Part I: A Prisoner's Experience of Concentration Camp
Frankl introduces us to the horrors of the concentration camps by not simply describing the gruesome details, but by using the keen understanding of a reflective psychiatrist to show us what it was like inside the mind of a prisoner. He describes what it was like "in the first phase of our psychological reactions:"
"The thought of suicide was entertained by nearly everyone, if only for a brief time. It was born of the hopelessness of the situation, the constant danger of death looming over us daily and hourly, and the closeness of the deaths suffered by many of the others. From personal convictions which will be mentioned later, I made myself a firm promise, on my first evening in camp, that I would not 'run into the wire.' (...) There was little point in committing suicide, since, for the average inmate, life expectation, calculating objectively and counting all likely chances, was very poor. He could not with any assurance expect to be among the small percentage of men who survived all the selections. The prisoner of Auschwitz, in the first phase of shock, did not fear death. Even the gas chambers lost their horrors for him after the first few days - after all, they spared him the act of committing suicide."
As the prisoner was faced with the horrors around him, he experienced intense and painful emotions. As the first phase transformed to the second, the intense emotions were replaced by general apathy, "in which he achieved a kind of emotional death."
"At first the prisoner looked away if he saw the punishment parades of another group; he could not bear to see fellow prisoners march up and down for hours in the mire, their movements directed by blows. (...) But the prisoner who had passed into the second stage of his psychological reactions did not avert his eyes any more. By then his feelings were blunted, and he watched unmoved. (...) Disgust, horror and pity are emotions that our spectator could not really feel any more. The sufferers, the dying and the dead, became such commonplace sights to him after a few weeks of camp life that they could not move him any more."
He goes on to describe how this apathy is used as a self-defense mechanism and as a means to get through the present experience; "reality dimmed, and all efforts and all emotions were centered on one task: preserving one's own life and that of the other fellow."
Despite this apathy, man still has a soul, and will react to being treated less than human. Frankl recalls one incident in which he stopped to catch his breath while working hard during a snowstorm.
"Unfortunately the guard turned around just then and thought I was loafing. The pain he caused me was not from any insults or any blows. The guard did not think it worth his while to say anything, not even a swear word, to the ragged, emaciated figure standing before him, which probably reminded him only vaguely of a human form. Instead, he playfully picked up a stone and threw it at me. That, to me, seemed the way to attract the attention of a beast, to call a domestic animal back to its job, a creature with which you have so little in common that you do not even punish it."
Frankl recalls this degrading gesture to be more painful than any blow the guard could have dealt. This fact was observed 100 years earlier by William Lloyd Garrison who writes in the preface of Frederick Douglass' Narrative:
"As if it were less cruel to reduce a human being to the condition of a thing, than to give him a severe flagellation, or to deprive him of necessary food and clothing!"
As horrible as imprisonment was in the concentration camps, and despite the natural progression of a prisoner into primitive and apathetic living, Frankl highlights the fact that inherent in human nature is the ability to choose our own reaction, and to decide for ourselves how life should be lived.
"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."
And when we choose to react to the suffering that we are forced to experience, we are also choosing whether we will be worthy of that suffering or not.
"The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity - even under the most difficult circumstances - to add a deeper meaning to his life. (...) Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not."
To be worthy of our sufferings! What a profound idea. Perhaps when we stop asking questions like "why me?", and replace them with questions like "how can I create meaning in the midst of this experience? How can I turn it into an opportunity for spiritual growth?" we will discover truth in our lives. Frankl discovered one such truth while marching in the snow and ice, being driven in the dark by the butts of the guards' rifles. In the midst of pain he set his mind on the image of his wife, and in concentrating on the love he had for her, he found inspiration and fulfillment.
"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."
The stories that Frankl tells in the first part are extraordinary both in their horror and in their triumph, and they are a rare look into the terrific experience of concentration camp prisoners. They also inspire reflection in our own lives. If men and women can find meaning while subject to some of the worst conditions a person can be exposed to, then certainly there is hope for us who live in modern and free societies.
"For every one of the liberated prisoners, the day comes when, looking back on his camp experiences, he can no longer understand how he endured it all. As the day of his liberation eventually came, when everything seemed to him like a beautiful dream, so also the day comes when all his camp experiences seem to him nothing but a nightmare."
Fortunately, in the second part, Frankl offers a more technical and detailed explanation of the theories that, solidified through his personal experience, would make him the founder of the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.
Part II: Introduction to Logotherapy. What is Meaning?
"Logotherapy deviates from psychoanalysis insofar as it considers man a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts, or in merely reconciling the conflicting claims of id, ego and superego, or in the mere adaptation and adjustment to society and environment."
Frankl's science, Logotherapy, is an approach to discovering meaning in our lives, and one thing that Frankl does for us in examining the role of meaning is validate the frustration we sometimes experience from a lack of meaning or fulfillment.
"To be sure, man's search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health."
Too often people are inclined to feel shame and embarrassment from feeling unfulfilled, as if it is the result of failure or personal defect. But Frankl argues that such feelings are in some cases an achievement in of themselves.
"Suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration."
If we are fulfilled and happiest when we are in the pursuit of a meaningful and worthy goal, then the frustration that arises from not having such a goal is not only natural, it is a good sign that we have not given up on life.
We must not deny ourselves the right to experience frustration when we lack meaning, for if we do, it becomes all too easy to give into fear, and sometimes existential frustration becomes "vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money." Or, the will to pleasure. When we deny ourselves the time and energy to focus on resolving existential frustration by pursuing a worthy goal, we may replace a natural and good drive with the unnatural compulsion to accumulate money and pleasure without purpose as a way of masking our dissatisfaction.
Creating meaning in our lives is not always easy, but we must never give up. And how do we achieve meaning? In some ways, we can only do this by not aiming directly at it., We must think of meaning as not a thing that we achieve when we reach a certain milestone in life, but rather as a by-product of conscious living. Of living with intent to serve a cause larger than ourselves. To serve a person other than ourselves. To be creators. To choose to be worthy of the suffering we are forced to endure. To experience something rare and extraordinary. To love.
"Don't aim at success - the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run - in the long run, I say! - success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it."
Man's Search for Meaning is a monumental book despite its size. A pillar to stand against for anyone looking to live a life of meaning and purpose.
- Cover Photo: Prisoner barracks at Auschwitz. "1 Birkenau 1" by Silar - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1_Birkenau_1.JPG#/media/File:1_Birkenau_1.JPG
- Portrait: Dr. Viktor Frankl. Attribution: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely