Read this book. Count your blessings. Stop cribbing. People have suffered far worse
Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is a book of epic proportions and that’s no hyperbole. The library of Congress back in the ’90s listed ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ as one of the ten most influential books in America and quite deservedly so.
Frankl had lost his entire family – his wife, brother and parents – to the horrors of the holocaust. The shock caused by such an irreversible loss could drive anyone to the brink of insanity. But Frankl came out stronger even surviving his own ordeal.
‘Man’s search for Meaning’ gives the account of his time served at four concentration camps. Starting from his first internment at Auschwitz to Turkheim where he attained his freedom. Unsurprisingly, some parts of his tribulation are heartbreaking and disturbing. Yet the readers get a gainful insight into his psychological perspective. He explains how the most traumatic episodes in your life can build your inner courage should you choose so.
The Horrors of the Camp
The first-third of Frankl’s book takes you right inside the hellacious setup of concentration camps. He describes his experience at the camps, with a sense of both dread and grit.
Now if you don’t know why the concentration camps existed in the first place, here’s the answer.
The camps fulfilled twin objectives of Nazi Commanders. First, they served as sites for the mass extermination of Jews and prisoners of war. Second, they allowed Nazi administration to extract forced labor from the captives, often under most dehumanizing conditions, thus, in a way, fulfilling the first objective.
Here’s Dr Frankl on one of his early glimpses at the inhumanity, “Fifteen hundred captives were cooped up in a shed built to accommodate probably two hundred at the most.”
The horrific details of torment meted out to the inmates make you squirm on your couch. Most inmates were forced to gruelling labour in harsh winter, wearing tattered clothes and torn shoes. Any attempt to reinforce their clothing against the windchill led to barbaric beatings.
“In the camp, a day lasted longer than a week. How paradoxical was our time-experience!” – Viktor Frankl
One way to survive the camp life was to obey the orders sans a semblance of disregard. Even as the prisoners cleared the sewage, they had to do it with a straight face. Frankl mentions that any sign of disgust was seen as disobedience and invited brutal lashings from the kapos.
The other way to survive was to look fit despite paltry calorie intake and daily torture.
In one gut-wrenching account, Frankl mentions how he and fellow prisoners in his block lived through the outbreak of Typhus. Imagine the revulsion and the dread if every morning you are waking up to dead people around you.
Here’s Frankl on how indifferent he felt in this scenario, “The corpses near me, crawling with lice, did not bother me. Only the steps of passing guards could rouse me from my dreams.“
The Power of the Mind
“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.” ―Viktor Frankl
Technically, the second-third of the book is an insight into the psychology of a doomed captive. With every passing day, you know that you are inching closer to the death. Yet you somehow manage to dig down deep inside and muster up the inner courage.
He delves a lot into the power of the subconscious. How it moulds your thought process and makes you come to grips with the reality. He particularly mentions that those who survived the concentration camp horror were not necessarily built like wrestlers. More often, it was the regular, skinny guys who faced down the Nazi brutes.
Interning in the camp gave a new meaning to the inner life of inmates. Frankl mentions that he began to hallucinate and crave for solitary time.
The feeling of having his wife beside him – who unbeknownst to him was dead already – was so strong that he could see her whenever he wanted. The power of love seems to have outlasted pain and corporal humiliation he was going through.
“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. You can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of physical and psychic stress.” – Viktor Frankl
Amongst all the torture and mayhem, he found a purpose, a meaning. Instead of wilting under duress, he chose to help others see a meaning in their lives.
The half-baked manuscript of this book also served as a motivation. He set his sights on publishing the book. He says, “I decided not to commit suicide—at least not before I had reconstructed my first book.”
Frankl repeatedly refers to the following Nietzsche quote to emphasize the significance of setting a goal in one’s life and not letting go of it until the task is accomplished:
“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Shocking Insights into Human Behavior
‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ reveals great insights about human behavior.
For every soul who chose not to give in to the forces of oppression, there were thousands of others who simply resigned to their fates. There were also a nefarious few who ingratiated themselves with the Nazis and unleashed cruelty on their own.
It only shows that in his fight for survival and self-preservation, a human being can transition from a benign soul to a malevolent creature in no time. But can the same circumstances change an evil person into an affectionate being?
Frankl cites the interesting case of Dr Erwin Jekelius. For the reasons best known to him, Frankl refers to him as Dr J in the book. Dr J was accused of emptying a whole Vienesse mental institution into the gas chambers. He was jailed for his heinous crimes in the post-War trials.
The same guy, however, became a model prisoner during his incarceration in Russia. He was sympathetic to others, he used to give consolations to everybody. He became a good Samaritan and passed away in peace. How could this happen? No doubt that human behavior is a complex construct to decipher.
“How can we dare to predict the behavior of man? We may predict the movements of a machine, an automaton. We may even try to predict the mechanisms of the human psyche. But man is more than psyche.” – Viktor Frankl
Frankl affirms that only a few can keep their full inner liberty even as they suffer harshly. Most people give up, go insane or turn into either animals or vegetables.
Even the liberation after Holocaust had its own perils. Many freed prisoners found that no one waited for them at home. Their families, loved ones had all been wiped out. The fate had dealt them a bad hand. Frankly himself suffered the same fate.
On his post-camp reflections, he alludes that the freed prisoners who have suffered physical and mental trauma need solid mental and spiritual care.
When the pressure lifts suddenly after years of institutional abuse and confinement, many prisoners tend to go astray. Some develop antisocial traits as a coping response to their own trauma. Most carry over their chronic state of helplessness to the outside world.1
Logotherapy and Vision of the Future
I, initially, got the impression that Frankl wanted to use the success of his book as a plank to epitomize logotherapy. He does so, but, on very solid grounds.
Frankl assumed the best in everyone, even those who were cruel to him. This is a basis in his theory of logotherapy: to look for the best in people and help them find meaning in their lives. He would say, “If you take a man as he is, you make him worse. If you take a man as he can be, you help him become who he can be, the best version of who he is.”
While taking a stance against Sigmund Freud’s school of psychotherapy, he explains that pleasure itself can’t be a goal. It must remain an off-shoot. Essentially, logotherapy differs from Freud’s psychoanalysis in that it guides patients toward realizing their potential. It’s forward-looking.
Life is all about realizing your potential and meeting the larger objectives. He says that if at all, you have to suffer, suffer bravely. Many people have criticized Frankl for saying that he saw ‘meaning’ in concentration camps when nothing can be further from the truth. On the contrary, what he meant was that when life gave you no options, it’s up to you to figure what you can squeeze out of seemingly meaningless situations.
Ultimately, man is self-determining, says Frankl. He has the power to decide what he can be the very next moment – a monster or a saint. The following lines in the book aptly capture the dichotomy:
“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.” – Viktor Frankl
In the final third of the book, he talks in detail about the meaninglessness in our lives. He points out that lack of meaning is the main cause of drug addiction and depression. This void is termed ‘Existential Vacuum’ in logotherapy.
It’s as if Frankl could foresee the trouble ahead. He mentions that ‘progressive automation’ will lead to an increase in leisure hours. And, they (the future generation) won’t know what to do with their newly acquired free time. If Frankl were alive today, he would cringe at seeing people drift into the abyss created by social media.
Frankl writes with a distinctive voice and gripping realism. He avoids the narrative complexities which makes ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ an easy read. It’s one of those few books that does full justice to its 145 pages. There is not a single page you’d say has been shoehorned into the book.
If there is one lesson that you take away from this book, it is: never give up hope. He implores the reader to not lose faith and that life has a meaning up to the last breath. If you are breathing, there is hope of regaining everything you have lost. Health, happiness, family, fortune, everything!