Saturday, December 22, 2007

Man's Search for Meaning

Viktor E Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning

Beacon Press, Boston, 1959, 2006

To review this book had been made easy by the Forward penned by Harold S. Kushner. There’s really nothing that need to be said that had not been said by Harold. In Harold’s words, "if a book has one passage, one idea with the power to change a person’s life, that alone justifies reading it, rereading it, and finding room for it on one’s shelves. This book has several such passages."

It is a book about survival. Frankl was cast into the Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Miraculously, he survived. This book is not an account of what he suffered and lost, for it is about the sources of his strength to survive, as Frankl approvingly quote the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”

Frankl described poignantly those prisoners who gave up on life, lost all Hope for a future, and inevitably died. They died less from lack of food or medicine than from lack of Hope.

But Frankl discovered an enduring insight, in that, “forces beyond our control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” In Frankl’s words: “You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you feel and do about what happens to you.” “ …that we can never be left with nothing as long as we retain the freedom to choose how we will respond to a suffering.

Camp’s Life

On their admission to the camp, all possessions are taken away from them, and each prisoner had nothing but a number, tattooed on their skin or sewn to a certain spot. They all lost their identity, for they will never be asked for their name except their number; and anyone can claim a fictitious name or profession. Frankl was number 119,104 and most of the time he was digging and laying tracks for railway lines. He also dig tunnel, without help, for a water main under the road.

In his writing, Frankl examines his and the many prisoners’ experiences, and observed that there are three phases of the inmates mental reactions to camp life: the period following the admission; the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; and the period following his release and liberation.

The symptom that characterizes the first phase is shock. Auschwitz is the name that stood for all that was horrible: gas chambers, crematoriums, massacres. With the outlines of an immense camp becoming visible, step by step they had to become accustomed to a terrible and immense horror.

However, there was a certain “delusion of reprieve”. Nearly every prisoner lived under the illusion that they would be reprieved, that everything would yet be well. Like a condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. Frankl clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.

Slowly, those illusions were destroyed one by one, and then, most of them would overcome by a grim sense of humor, for they had nothing to lose except their naked lives. Only sleep can bring oblivion and relief from the pains they had endured. The thoughts of suicide were entertained by nearly everyone. It was born of the hopelessness of the situation, the constant danger of death and the closeness of death.

There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose. An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior. Newly arrived prisoners experienced the torture of other most painful emotions, all of which he tried to deaden. They were disgusted with the ugliness which surrounded them. At first the prisoners looked away if they saw the punishment of another group; he could not bear to see fellow prisoners being tortured.

Days or weeks passed, and the prisoners soon passed into the second stage of his psychological reactions, for they did not avert their eyes any more. By then their feelings were blunted, and they watched unmoved and unconcerned.

Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that once could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the 2nd stage of the prisoners’ psychological reactions, and which eventually make them insensitive to daily and hourly beatings. This insensibility of the prisoners soon surrounded them with a very necessary protection shell. Beating occurred on the slightest provocation, sometimes for no reason at all. At such a moment it is not the physical pain which hurts the most; it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.

Strangely enough, a blow which does not even find its mark can, under certain circumstances, hurt more than one that finds its mark. There are moments when indignation can rouse even a seemingly hardened prisoner – indignation not about cruelty or pain, but about the insult connected with it.

Apathy, the main symptom of the 2nd phase, was a necessary mechanism of self-defense. Reality dimmed, and all efforts and all emotions were centered on one task: preserving one’s own life, and that of the other fellow. Such a state of strain and the concentration on the task to stay alive, forced the prisoners’ inner life down to a primitive level - a “regression” – a retreat to a more primitive form of mental life. His wishes and desires became obvious in his dreams. They dream of brad, cake, cigarettes, and nice warm bath. The lack of having these simple desire satisfied led them to seek wish-fulfillment in dreams. Even the strongest was longing for the time when they could have fairly good food again, not for the sake of good food itself, but for the sake of knowing that the sub-human existence, which had made them unable to think of anything other than food, would at least cease.

Whether these dreams did any good is another matter; the dreamer had to still wake from them to the reality of camp life, which is terribly contrasting between that and the dream illusions.

For those who had not had similar experience can hardly conceive of the soul-destroying mental conflict and clashes of will power which a famished man experiences. Undernourishment, besides being the cause of the general preoccupation with food, probably also explains the fact that the sexual urge was generally absent. The effort of having to concentrate on just saving one’s skin led to a total disregard of anything not serving that purpose, and explains the prisoners’ complete lack of sentiments.

During the later part of his imprisonment, the daily ration consisted of watery soup given out once daily, and a small crump of bread. The diet was absolutely inadequate, taking into consideration the heavy manual work and constant exposure to the cold in inadequate clothing. When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, they looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, and they could watch their bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no power of resistance left. One after another died and each of them could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come. They were, but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh, of a mass behind barbed wire, a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless.

There was neither time nor desire to consider moral or ethical issues. Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. Only those prisoners who could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. With no hesitation, any prisoner would arrange for another prisoner, another number, to take his place to be sent to the gas chambers.

“For each man saved another victim had to be found”


In Frankl’s words, “It is not for me to pass judgment on those prisoners who put their own people above everyone else. Who can throw a stone at a man who favors his friends under circumstances when, sooner or later, it is a question of life or death. No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

The spirit of Love, Art and Nature

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was still possible for spiritual life to deepen. On one of those morning march to work site, a thought of his beloved woman came to mind that transfixed Frankl: for the first time in his life he saw the truth, the truth that, LOVE is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. He understood then, how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way, in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.

For, Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases, somehow, to be of importance. There is no need for him to know whether she is still alive at all; for nothing could touch the strength of his love, his thoughts, and the image of his beloved. Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.

This intensification of the inner self helped him to find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past. When given free rein, his imagination played with past events, often not important ones, but minor happenings and trifling things. His nostalgic memory glorified them and they assumed a strange character. These memories could move one to tears.

As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances.

Humor, the Soul’s Weapon

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 aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipotent.

A man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of 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 human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore, the size of human suffering is absolutely relative.


Negative Happiness

It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys. The prisoners were grateful for the smallest of mercies. They were glad when there was time to delouse before going to bed; they were thankful if there was no air raid alarm which would keep them awake half the night. The meager pleasures of camp life provided a kind of “Negative Happiness” – freedom from suffering as Schopenhauer put it – and even that in a relative way only. Real positive happiness, even small ones, were very few.

3rd Stage of Mental Reactions – Liberation

The 3rd stage of a prisoner’s mental reactions is the psychology of the prisoner after his liberation. In the morning when the white flag was hoisted above the camp gates after days of high tension, the state of inner suspense was followed by total relaxation. But it would be quite wrong to think that the prisoners went mad with joy. “Freedom”, they repeated to themselves, and yet they could not grasp it. They had said this word so often during all the years they dreamed about it, that it had lost its meaning. They could not grasp the fact that freedom was theirs. They had literally lost their ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.

Psychologically, what was happening to the liberated prisoners could be called “depersonalization”. Everything appeared unreal, unlikely, as in a dream. They could not believe it was true. They had being deceived by their dreams so often in the past years. And now the dream had come true, but could they truly believe in it?

The body has fewer inhibitions than the mind. It made good use of the new freedom from the first moment on. It began to eat ravenously, for hours and days, even half the night.

One day, after the liberation, Frankl walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. There was no one to be seen around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. He stopped, looked around, and up to the sky – and then he went down on his knees. At that moment there was little in mind – always the same: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.” How long he knelt, he couldn’t remember. But from that day onwards, his new life started. Step by step he progressed, until he again became a human being.

Frankl’s Logotherapy

Frankl’s experience at the concentration camp serves as the existential validation of his doctrine which seeks to convey the message that life holds a potential meaning under any condition, even the most miserable ones.

For a man’s character became involved to the point that he was caught in a mental turmoil which threatened all the values he held and threw them into doubt. Under the influence of a world which no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity, which had robbed man of his will and had made him an object to be exterminated, under this influence the personal ego finally suffered a loss of values. If the man in the concentration camp did not struggle against this in a last effort to save his self-respect, he lost the feeling of being an individual, a being with a mind, with inner freedom and personal value. He thought of himself then as only a part of an enormous mass of people; his existence descended to the level of animal life.

It is well known that an enforced community life, in which attention is paid to everything one does at all times, may result in an irresistible urge to get away, at least for a short while. The prisoner craved to be alone with himself and his thoughts. He yearns for privacy and for solitude. It would be a fortune to find solitude for about five minutes at a time. He would then sit and looked out at the green flowering slopes and the distant blue hills of the Bavarian landscape, framed by meshes of barbed wire. He would dream longingly, and his thoughts would wander in the direction of his home, but he could see no clouds. Even the corpses near him, crawling with lice, did not bother him.

It is difficult for an outsider to grasp how very little value was placed on human life in camp. The inmates were hardened. A man is only counted because he had a prison number. The life of a number was completely irrelevant. What stood behind those numbers and that life mattered even less: the fate, the history, the name of the man. They had no documents; everyone was lucky to own his body, which, after all, was still breathing. The prisoners saw themselves completely dependent on the moods of the guards and this made them even less human than the circumstances warranted.

By the above accounts, Frankl might have given the impression that the human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surrounding, in this case, the unique structure of camp life, which forced the prisoner to conform his conduct to a certain pattern of life. Is man no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

The experiences of camp life shows that man does have a choice, says Frankl. There were enough examples that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

There were sufficient proofs 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.

There were always choices to make, every day, every hour, offered opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstances, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

Fundamentally, every man can, even under such difficult circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread; not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

The last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that the prisoners were worthy of their sufferings; what 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.

An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life, namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. For without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.

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. It is true that only a few people are capable of reaching such high moral standards.

Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering. But when we were confronted with a great destiny and faced with the decision of meeting it with equal spiritual greatness, we had forgotten our youthful resolutions of long ago, and we failed. Psychological observation of the prisoners have shown that only the men who allowed their inner hold on their moral and spiritual selves to subside eventually fell victim to the camp’s degenerating influences.

Life in a concentration camp could be called a “provisional existence” or as defined as “provisional existence of unknown limit.” New arrivals usually know nothing about the conditions at a camp. On entering camp a change took place in the minds of the men. With the end of uncertainty there came the uncertainty of the end. It was impossible to foresee whether or when, if at all, this form of existence would end. A man who could not see the end of his “provisional existence” was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living for the future. Therefore the whole structure of his inner life changed; signs of decay set in which we know from other areas of life.

A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts. There was the tendency to look into the past, to help make the present, with all its horrors, less real. But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunity to make something positive, opportunities which really do exist. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond their inner strength; they did not take their life seriously and despised it, as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless. It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future.

Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. The words of Bismarck, “Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.” Most men in a concentration camp 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 prisoners. Spinoza say in his Ethics, “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it. Those who had lost faith in the future – his future – is doomed. He then declined and become subjected to mental and physical decay.

There is also a close link between the loss of faith in the future and the dangerous giving up. There is a close connection 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. Where there is a dream of a future, and when this faith in the future and the will to live had become paralyzed, the body will fell victim to illness and the voice of a dream will be right after all.

Therefore, any attempt to restore such a man’s inner strength had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a WHY to live for can bear with almost any HOW”, could be the guiding principle. We had to teach the despairing men, that 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. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. Life does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other time it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.

When a man finds it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone 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.

Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to him, Frankl refuse to minimize or alleviate the tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which he did not want to turn his backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, “Wie vie list aufzuleiden!” (How much suffering there is to get through). There was plenty of suffering for Frankl to go through. Therefore, it was necessary to face up to the full amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum. 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. Only a few realized that.

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward 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.

Each of us had to ask himself what irreplaceable losses he had suffered up to then. Whoever was still alive had reason for hope. Health, family, happiness, fortune, position in society – all these were things that could be achieved or restored. After all we still had all our bones intact. Whatever we had gone through could still be an asset to us in the future. Nietzsche said: “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

For no man knows what the future would bring, much less the next hour. But we knew better than, with our experience of life, how great chance sometimes opened up, quite suddenly, at least for the individual, for this was the kind of thing which constitute the “luck” of individual.

For what you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you. Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we had suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being and perhaps the surest kind.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl’s doctrine of Logotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning that is, striving to find a meaning in one’s life. Frankl’s experience in Auschwitz concentration camp let him to experience his key idea, that is, life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Sigmund Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning, that the greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl concedes that in the bitter fight for self-preservation, man may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.

Successful businessmen who upon retirement may have lost all zest for life, for the fact that, their work had given their lives meaning, without it, they spent their time at home, depressed, with nothing to do, no challenges, and no more meaning in life. They soon died.

Human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death. Frankl saw 3 possible source of meaning: in work, in love and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless unless we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it. We must not lose hope but should keep our courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning.

In writing this book, Frankl states that he is not writing an account of facts and events at the concentration camp but rather of his personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is about the inside story of a concentration camp told by one of the survivors. It is not about the great horrors within but about the multitude of small torments.

For Frankl, it was easy for the outsiders to get the wrong conception of camp life, a conception mingled with sentiment and pity. Little does he know of the hard fight for existence which raged among the prisoners? This was an unrelenting struggle for daily bread and for life itself, for one’s own sake or for that of a good friend.

In attempting a methodical presentation of the subject, it was 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 only granted to an outsider, but that outsider is too far removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man inside knows. His judgment may not be objective; his evaluations may be out of proportion. This is inevitable. Attempt to avoid personal bias may be made but it is real difficult of a book of this kind.

It never occurred to Frank that this book could become a success as he had intended to publish anonymously so that it could never build up any reputation on the part of the author. When the manuscript was completed, Frankl wanted it an anonymous publication but it would lose half its value, and that he had to have the courage to state his convictions openly. However, success follows you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it. We can be said to be indebted to the 2nd World War for enriching our knowledge of the psycho-pathology of the masses, for the war gave us the war of nerves and it gave us the concentration camp.

Frankl had always advise his students not to aim at success, for 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. We can let it happen by not caring about it by listening to what our conscience commands us to do and go on to carry it out to the best of our knowledge. Then we will live to see that in the long run, for success will follow precisely because we had forgotten to think of it.

This is a great lesson for me, and it is truly profound knowledge. I will continue to search for meaning in life, and to live life to the fullest. For what I had conceived, from the knowledge imparted unto me, I now know that, no power on earth can take from me; not only my experiences in life, but all trials and tribulations that I had journeyed through, whatever great thoughts and failures I have had, and all what I had toiled, all these will not be lost, though it had past, for it will be brought back into being.

I had been through, is surely a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.

This book, ranks as one of the most profound lessons I had learnt about the meaning of life.

1 comment:

Monkey said...

thanks