Man’s Search For Meaning: a concentration camp survivor on finding meaning in life

January 5, 2014 — Leave a comment

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. He was imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II. He survived his time as a prisoner and afterwards wrote down his experiences in Auschwitz in his book Man’s Search For Meaning.

The book consists of two parts: in the first part Frankl talks about what life in a concentration camp was like and in the second part he discusses the theory he developed on finding meaning in life; logotherapy.

A lot of books have been written about World War II and concentration camps, what’s remarkable about Man’s Search For Meaning however, is that the author actually went through the experience of concentration camp life himself – and moreover found something meaningful to keep him going there. As Frankl writes in the introduction:

To attempt a methodical presentation of the subject is very difficult, as psychology requires a certain scientific detachment. But does a man who makes his observations while he himself is a prisoner possess the necessary detachment? Such detachment is granted to the outsider, but he is too far removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man inside knows.

One of the greatest lessons Frankl teaches you in his book, is that even in the worst conditions man has the ability to find a meaning:

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain, but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.

Below you find some of the different ways Viktor Frankl has distinguished to find meaning, starting with the most important one: love.

Frankl on love:

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 some 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. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.

On the power using humor to save one’s soul:

Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.

I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site to develop a sense of humor. I suggested to him that we would promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily, about some incident that could happen one day after our liberation.

On having a choice during suffering:

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of indepencence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

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 sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually.

“There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”
– Fyodor Dostoevski

The last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

On courageous suffering:

Most men in concentration camps believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.

It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.

Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man – his courage and hope, or lack of them – and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.

On the importance of having a goal in one’s life:

Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how,” could be the guiding moto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why – an aim – for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence.

“I have nothing to expect from life any more,” What sort of answer can one give to that?

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected form 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 ultimalty means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and fulfull the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

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.

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears towards a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, thought it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest thing.

Before going on to the second part of his book – his theory on finding meaning in life – Frankl talks about the behavior of the guards who imprisoned him and the inmates he lived with during his time in concentration camps. He then goes on to distinguish two races of men:

Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.

From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race” – and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.

In the second part of his book, Frankl describes logotherapy: his theory on finding meaning in one’s life. He starts of with the reason why “meaning” to him is the most important thing a person has to look for in life:

A statistical survey of 7,948 students at 48 colleges was conducted by social scientists from John Hopkins University. Asked what they considered “very-important” to them now, 16% of the students checked “making a lot of money”; 78% said their first goal was “finding a purpose and meaning to my life.”

There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

By way of his work as a psychiatrist he explains what mental health really entails and why it demands a certain degree of tension, of stress – eustress:

Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.

I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium, or as it is called in biology, “homeostatis,” i.e. a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather a striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

After discussing the role of tension in our lives when striving for a certain meaningful goal, Frankl deliberates the one thing most of us are struggling with – the act of finding this meaning in our lives and some of the consequences of giving up the search:

Having shown the beneficial impact of meaning orientation, I turn to the detrimental influence of that feeling of which so many patients complain today, namely the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives. They lack the awareness of a meaning worth living for. They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves; they are caught in that situation which I have called the “existential vacuum.”

Sundays neurosis: that kind of depression that afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.

Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money. In other cases, the place of frustrated will to meaning is taken by the will to pleasure. That is why existential frustration often eventuates in sexual compensation. We can observe in such cases that the libido becomes rampant in the existential vacuum.

Next, Frankl goes on to describe “meaning” as something personal, there is no universal meaning – there’s only your meaning, it’s unique, one of one – something only you can answer:

The meaning of life differs from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.

One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Following his description of the uniqueness of the meaning in our lives, Frankl philosophizes on the essence of existence and differentiates three difference ways to find meaning in life:

Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.

We can discover meaning in life in three different ways:
(1) by creating a work or doing a deed;
(2) by experiencing or encountering someone; and
(3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

On finding meaning in life through love:

Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.

On finding meaning in life through suffering:

In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

It is one of the basic tenets of logotherapy that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.
But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering – provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political. To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.

Ultimately, in Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl takes up life’s transitoriness and the need for man to take a stand, a stand which he has the power to determine for himself.

Frankl makes a case for “a tragic optimism” in any situation that will allow him to find meaning in life and will eventually lead to something we all wish for in our lives – happiness:

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to “be happy.” Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.

As to the causation of the feeling of meaninglessness, one may say, albeit in an oversimplifying vein, that people have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning. To be sure, some do not even have the means.

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