Viktor Frankl's wife, father, mother and brother died in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Enduring extreme hunger, cold and brutality, first in Auschwitz then Dachau, Frankl himself was under constant threat of going to the gas ovens. He lost every physical belonging on his first day in the camps, and was forced to surrender a scientific manuscript he considered his life's work.
This is, if there ever was one, a story that could excuse a person's belief that life is meaningless and suicide a reasonable option. Yet having been lowered into the pits of humanity, Frankl emerged an optimist. His reasoning was that even in the most terrible circumstances, a person still has the freedom to choose how they see their circumstances and create meaning out of them. As Gordon Allport notes in his Preface to the third edition, this is what the ancient Stoics called the 'last freedom'. The evil of torture is not so much physical, but the active attempt to extinguish it.
Redefining human achievement
A favorite quote of Frankl's was Nietzsche's 'He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how'. The most poignant bits of this classic are Frankl's recollection of the thoughts that gave him the will to live. Mental images of his wife provided the only light in the dark days of the concentration camp, and there is a beautiful scene when he is thinking of her with such intensity that when a bird hops onto a mound in front of him, it appears to be her living embodiment. He also imagined himself after liberation in lecture halls, telling people about what must never happen again. This proved to be prophetic. Finally, there was the desire to jot down notes remembered from his lost manuscript.
The men who had given up, in contrast, could be recognized by the smoking of their last cigarettes, which could otherwise have been traded for a scrap of food. These men had decided life held nothing more for them. Yet this thinking strikes Frankl as a terrible mistake. We are not here to judge life according to what we expected from it and what it has delivered - rather, he realizes, we must find the courage to ask what life expects of us, day by day. Our task is not merely to survive, but to find the guiding truth specific to us and our situation, which can sometimes only be revealed in the worst suffering. Indeed, Frankl says that '...rather than being a symptom of neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement'.
The book's impact
Man's Search for Meaning has sold over nine million copies and has been translated into 24 languages. It was voted one of America's ten 'most influential books' in a Library of Congress survey. Yet Frankl, who originally wanted the book to be published with only his prisoner number on the cover, states that he does not see the book as a great achievement. Its success is 'an expression of the misery of our time', revealing the ravenous hunger for meaningful existence.
Apart from its bestseller status, Man's Search For Meaning has been a big influence on the major self-help writers. The emphasis on responsibility that we find in Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, for example, is directly inspired by Frankl.
The current edition has three parts: the autobiographical 'Experiences in a concentration camp'; a theoretical essay 'Logotherapy in a nutshell' (1962); and a piece titled 'The case for a tragic optimism' (1984). With this structure, the unput-downable personal story leads the reader on to its intellectual implications.
The will to meaning and logotherapy
The amazing thing about Frankl's experiences is that they caused him to live out the ideas which, as a doctor before the outbreak of World War II, he had been theorizing about. They helped provide the basis for the development of a new school of psychotherapy, Logotherapy, following Freud's Psychoanalysis and Adler's Individual Psychology. Whereas psychoanalysis requires a person's introspection and self-centredness to reveal the basis of their neurosis, logotherapy tries to take the person out of themselves and see their life in a broader perspective. Where psychoanalysis focuses on the 'will to pleasure', and Adlerian psychology on the 'will to power', logotherapy sees the prime motivating force in human beings to be a will to meaning.
Frankl remembers an American diplomat who came to his office in Vienna who had spent five years in psychoanalysis. Discontented with his job and uncomfortable about implementing U.S. foreign policy, his analyst had laid the blame with the relationship with his father: the United States government represented the father image and therefore the superficial object of his angst, but the real issue was his feelings towards his biological father. Frankl, however, simply diagnosed a lack of purpose in the man's work and suggested a career change. The man took his advice and never looked back. The point of the anecdote is that, in logotherapy (from the Greek Logos, 'meaning'), existential distress is not neurosis or mental disease, but a sign that we are becoming more human in the desire for meaning. In contrast to Freud or Adler, Frankl chose not to see life simply as the satisfaction of drives or instincts, or even in becoming 'well-adjusted' to society. Instead, he believed that the outstanding feature of human beings is their free will.
Sources of meaning
Logotherapy sees mental health in the tension between what one is and what one could become. But what if we are yet to identify what we could become? Frankl notes that the modern person has almost too much freedom to deal with. We no longer live through instinct, yet tradition is no guide either. This is the existential vacuum, in which the frustrated will to meaning is compensated for in the urge for money, sex, entertainment, even violence. We are not open to the various sources of meaning, which according to Frankl, are:
1. Creating a work or doing a deed;
2. Experiencing something or encountering someone (love);
3. The attitude we take to unavoidable suffering.
The first is a classic source, defined as 'life purpose' in the self-help literature. Our culture expects happiness, yet Frankl says that it is not something we should seek directly. He defines happiness as a by-product of forgetting ourselves in a task which draws on all our imagination and talents. The second is important as it makes experience (inner and outer) a legitimate alternative to achievement in a society built around achieving. The third gives suffering a meaning, but what meaning? Frankl admits we may never know, or at least not until later in life. Yet just because we do not comprehend meaning, it does not mean there is none.
To the people who say life is meaningless because it is transitory, Frankl's response is that 'only the unfulfilment of potential is meaningless, not life itself'. Our culture worships the young, yet it is age that is to be admired, since the older person has loved, suffered and fulfilled so much. However humble, fulfilment of your own potential will make a permanent imprint on the history of the world, and the decision to make that imprint defines responsibility. Freedom is only one half of the equation. The other half is responsibility to act on it.
If there is a thread running through personal development writing, it is a belief in the changeability of the individual. Determinism, in contrast, says we can never arise above our childhood or our genetic make-up. Freud believed that if a group of people were all to be deprived of food, their individual differences would lessen, replaced by a single mass urge. But Frankl's concentration camp experience often revealed to him the opposite. Yes, the hunger, torture and filth served to desensitize the prisoners, but despite being herded as animals, many men somehow avoided a mob mentality. His point? We can never predict the behaviour of an individual, and can make few generalizations about what it means to be human:
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. 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.
What makes us different as a species is that we can live for ideals and values; how else, as Frankl notes, would you be able to hold your head up as you entered the gas chambers? Aware that most of us would never even come close to such a horrible fate, he used it as a reference point, a symbol of personal responsibility that could guide the decisions we make in our everyday lives. No matter what the circumstances, this book says, we can be free.
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"At times, lightning decisions had to be made, decisions which spelled life or death. The prisoner would have preferred to let fate make the choice for him. This escape from commitment was most apparent when a prisoner had to make the decision for or against an escape attempt. In those minutes which he had to make up his mind - and it was always a question of minutes - he suffered the tortures of Hell."
Frankl was born in 1905 in Vienna. Before World War II he graduated with two doctorates in Medicine and Philosophy from the University of Vienna. During the war he spent three years at Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps. Man's Search For Meaning was written upon Frankl's return to Vienna after liberation, and was dictated over nine days.
The ensuing years were spent as chief of the neurology department of the Policlinic Hospital, Vienna, but in the 1960s he moved to the United States. He held visiting professorships at Harvard and other US universities, and did over 50 American lecture tours.
Frankl wrote over 30 books, including Psychotherapy and Existentialism, The Unconscious God and The Unheard Cry for Meaning, and in 1997, the year of his death, published an autobiography, Victor Frankl: Recollections. There have been at least 145 books and more than 1400 journal articles written about Frankl and logotherapy, and Frankl himself received 28 honorary degrees. Throughout his life he was a keen mountain climber.
He died in the same week as Mother Teresa and Princess Diana in 1997.
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