“There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russian author)
Man’s Search for Meaning is a thin volume, thick with ideas. Victor Frankl (1905 – 1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist whose psychological theories were informed by his experiences as a prisoner during the Holocaust, from his chaotic internment to his uncomprehending liberation.
‘As a professor in two fields, neurology and psychiatry, I am fully aware of the extent to which man is subject to biological, psychological and sociological conditions. But in addition to being a professor in two fields I am a survivor of four camps – concentration camps, that is – and as such I also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable.’
Let me say from the start that it is not my intention in this review – nor in any of my reviews – to post extensive quotes from the book. They are meant merely as an entrée to the main meal. However, this book is full of such insight, and from a man who has walked the talk, that much of it deserves to be shared, regardless if you go on to read the book yourself.
The book is divided into two sections. The first details Frankl’s experience of the concentration camp, the second outlines the psychological doctrine he developed from that experience. The first part is hard going. It doesn’t matter how many books on the Holocaust you’ve read or movies you’ve seen, it never gets any easier.
‘He was a tall man who looked slim and fit in his spotless uniform…He had assumed an attitude of careless ease, supporting his right elbow with his left hand. His right hand was lifted, and with the forefinger of that hand he pointed very leisurely to the right or to the left…but far more frequently to the left…Those who were sent to the left were marched straight to the crematorium.’
There are too many examples of such brutality to document here, and particularly heart wrenching is the section where he thinks about his wife, also imprisoned. Besides, Frankl deserves to tell it in his own words. And as you would expect from such a highly educated man, his writing style is clear and precise, though not without poetry.
‘A man’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the conscious soul and human mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little’.
From anyone else this would be a perfectly innocent analogy expressed in scientific terms, but of course here ‘chamber’ has a more sinister double meaning.
Surprisingly, there is also some humour, even, at times, positivity. Far from being flippant, it is Frankl’s attempt to objectively reflect upon the entire experience of being a prisoner living with the daily – hourly – prospect of death. Perhaps wary of accusations of philosophical detachment, Frankl, ever the psychologist, states: ‘An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.’
Being a doctor, Frankl documents the physical ailments of the prisoners: starvation, cold, bodily parasites, vermin, chronic lack of lack of sleep, malnourishment, physical exhaustion and various diseases. Then there are the concomitant psychological effects: general irritability, apathy, inferiority complexes, distorted perception of time (‘…in camp, a day lasted longer than a week’). Especially insidious is a focus on the past and nostalgia, where ‘it became easy to overlook any opportunities to make something positive of camp life’.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” - Friedrich Nietzsche (German philosopher)
So far, so horrific. Having detailed the routine (such as it was) of camp life, Frankl begins to reflect on higher moral and ethical concepts: How much do our surroundings and circumstances affect our psychological wellbeing? How can we maintain any hope through such overwhelming suffering?
‘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.’
It’s essentially a Stoic approach (see review of Meditations, this blog, or the movie The Shawshank Redemption), tested and implemented under the most unimaginable hardship. He continues:
‘The experience of camp life shows that man does have a choice of action…Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress’.
‘It can be said that they [Frankl’s fellow prisoners] were worthy of their suffering: the way they bore their sufferings was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.’
‘If there is meaning in life at all, then there is meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.’
Frankl makes the same point in slightly different ways, but it’s never belaboured or unwelcome: firstly, out of respect for his experiences, and secondly, because that’s how a philosophy is transformed into a practical tool.
‘It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.’
In other words, man must search for meaning in life. And that meaning can, in some circumstances, be found in one’s suffering.
(though Frankl cannot stress enough that one does not depend on the other)
‘When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his single and unique task…that even in suffering he is alone and unique in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden’
‘But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.’
(Think about that next time you see someone crying).
After Frankl’s harrowing account of the concentration camp and the numerous occasions where he should have died (and others did) I was tempted to skip part two of the book. However, it is following Frankl’s liberation, when he is able to reflect upon his experiences and is able to draw upon these to form a psychological theory he terms ‘Logotherapy’, that the book really begins to open up.
From the late-19th century, Vienna had been the birthplace of modern psychotherapy, firstly under Sigmund Freud’s theory of ‘Will to Pleasure’ (man is driven by a need to fulfil needs and desires/avoid pain), then under Alfred Adler’s ‘Will to Power’ (man is driven by overcoming his inferiority-superiority dynamic).
Frankl’s Logotherapy introduces the ‘Third school’ of Viennese psychotherapy, the ‘Will to Meaning’, ‘…where its assignment is that of assisting the patient to find meaning in his life…rather than in the mere gratification of drives and instincts…or in the mere adaptation to society and environment.’ Logotherapy is ‘less retrospective and less introspective’ [as per Freudian psychotherapy] but ‘focuses rather on the future…on the meaning to be fulfilled by the patient in his future.’
For Frankl in the camp, that ‘future’ was the thought of seeing his young wife again. The ‘self-transcendence of human experience…being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – being it a meaning to fulfil or another human being to encounter.’
Frankl offers a wonderful tool for how we should conduct ourselves in life:
“Live as if you were already living for the second time and as if you had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.”
He puts it alternatively:
‘Imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed and amended.’
Frankl goes much deeper – surprisingly so in such a slim volume, which speaks to the simplicity and efficacy of his thesis – on the psychological workings of Logotherapy, and describes more practical tools which can be easily implemented.
I read this book at a low time in my life. Not many other books, if any, have lifted my spirits as this has. Naturally there is the immediate thought that your own experiences can be nowhere near as bad as Frankl’s (and the first time I wrote those last three words I spelled ‘as’, ‘ass’, which seemed so appropriate that I thought of leaving it uncorrected). But reading of his exhortations to embrace suffering and find meaning prompted in me a genuine physical thrill: I wasn’t alone in my thoughts. There was something – someone – I could focus on to find meaning. And far from being a momentary respite, Frankl’s philosophy is one which you can carry with you always and develop throughout life. As philosophy was intended.
Man's Search for Meaning audiobook