Man’s Search for Meaning – by Viktor E. Frankl

Since I’ve been back from Japan – almost a ten days ago – I decided to that I wanted to read a book every week.

Man’s Search for Meaning – by Viktor E. Frankl

This week, I was reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl. This book was written in the year 1946, just after the war. It is one of the most impressive books I ever read in my entire life. It’s an educational book, an insightful book with a lot of psychology involved. But most of all, it’s the autobiographical story of how Frankl managed to stay alive in 4 concentration camps in World War II. The most fascinating thing is that he tries to explain the moods, the events and the actions of his fellow prisoners and the SS officers from a (logo-)psychological point of view (What is logotherapy? Click here for the wiki). This is why I find “Man’s Search for Meaning”; a very important book. In this blogpost, I will write a summary and a review of his book.

viktor frankl
Viktor E. Frankl

 

Auschwitz

Frankl was taken on a train to Auschwitch. Together with 1500 other people he had been traveling by train in overcrowded carriage (page 9, 10). After their arrival to Auschwitz, the 1500 people were “cooped up in a shed built to accomodate probably two hundred at the most.”


After that, the prisoners were rounded up and were sent to two lines. The people who were sent to the right were sent to work in the most harsh conditions imaginable. The ones who were sent to the left (about 90% of all people) rested an even worse fate.
“Those who were sent to the left were marched from the station straight to the crematorium. This bulding, as I was told by someone who worked there, had the worth “bath”written over tis door in several European languages. On entering, each prisoner was handed a piece of soap, and then but mercifully I do not need to describe the events which followed. Many accounts have been written about this horror.”

Harshest working conditions imaginable

Frankl and the others who were asigned to live, were put to work in the harshest conditions imaginable. They worked more than 12 hours a day. They barely received any food. Their possesions were taken from them and their clothes and shoes were inadequate as they worked in chilly wheather. They got blisters and oedema on their legs and feet. All they owned were their own bodies. The prisoners weren’t given the chance to take care of their health and bodies, because they were treated so poorly.

auschwitz
Auschwitz

 

Psychological consequences

After witnessing the atrocities for a while in the camp, the prisoners became desentisized. At first, the prisoners were shocked and horrified whenever they saw terrible punishments coming down upon their felllow prisoners. But after a while their feelings were blunted. Frankl recalls as an example the time that he saw a 12 year old boy who had been standing in the snow for hours and hours to work outside. There were no shoes for him, so he had worked on his bare feet in the snow. Because of the frostbite and gangreen, a doctor had to remove all his toes with a tweezer. Frankl and the other prisoners had become so desentisized that he didn’t bat an eye.

“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 thin: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (page 33).

The keys to survival: independent thought, future goals and finding meaning

What, eventually, was the factor that caused some people to survive, while others gave up their will to live in the concentration camps? Frankl thinks that the people who were able to see meaning in their suffering and who were able to see a future could persevere. Prisoners who could think about the manuscripts they still had to complete when they would one day get out of there. And people who accepted suffering and death as part of life. Prisoners who saw small opportunities in camp. They were the people who survived because of their strong mental state.

No meaning to life

In “real” life (Frankl refers to life in the camps as a “provisional life” and he refers to “real life” being the lives I and hopefully you also lead in a decent society) the lessons learned bij Frankl in the concentration camps are valuable as well. A lot of people are depressed, because they see no meaning in their lives and they have no future goals. As Frankl writes, they retort to drugs and other destructive behavior because of the existential vacuum they feel they’re in. Frankl’s logotherapy refutes the validity of that state of mind. He writes on page 59 “Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” This means that you can do a lot of things that you wouldn’t expect. You are a lot more free to do what you can than you think. You can surprise yourself. If everybody thinks you’re bad, you can still behave good. You totally have that ability! Because nobody can make you think something you don’t want to think.

“In the concentration camps…. we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while other behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.” It is not the situation we’re in that determines who we are. It is the decisions we consciously and responsibly take that determine who we are.

Finding meaning

One of the keys to anyone’s survival is finding meaning in life. People who are suicidal often lack purpose in their lives, even though their lives are seemingly a lot more pleasant than those of people who were living in concentration camps. But tough times exist for everybody. I wonder if one of the meanings that kept Frankl alive was writing this book after his liberation. Perhaps it was his intention to witness the atrocities and mental states of a handful of survivors so that he could remember these people and educate people in the “real world”. In any case, he left us with a valuable book from which we can learn about logotherapy and from which we  can learn how to psychologically survive in the darkest hours of our lives. Click here for a rare video of him on “Ted Talk”.

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