From The Sleeve
Regarded as “an enduring work of survival literature” and “one of the great books of our time”, this memoir serves as a reference point for anyone who wishes to endure, learn and overcome the many struggles of life. Allowing us to move forward in the face of chaos and grow throughout our journey on this Earth.
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Based on his own experience and the stories of his patients, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can chose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward . At the heart of his theory, known as logotherapy, is a conviction that the primary human drive is not pleasure but the pursuit of what we find meaningful. Man’s Search for Meaning has become one of the most influential books in America; it continues to inspire us all to find significance in the very act of living.
About the Author & Context
Born in Leopoldstadt, Vienna in 1905, Viktor Frankl grew up to earn his MD and PhD in psychiatry and neurology while studying the origin and effects of depression and suicidal tendencies. His works were so great that, as a medical student, Frankl was able to apply his knowledge to drastically change the mental well-being of high school students he worked with. Viktor’s life took a drastic change in 1942, when he and many members of his immediate family were arrested and sent to concentration camps across the Nazi Regime.
Despite the hardships and loss, Frankl and fellow prisoners took it upon themselves to address the hopelessness and sorrow many had come to know during their imprisonment. In 1945, after three years living in concentration camps including Auschwitz, Frankl was liberated. Upon his liberation, he continued his studies in psychiatry — called logotherapy — and his works are widely regarded as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy” after Freud and Adler.
As a writer, Viktor Frankl is well known for his works in the literary and medical fields, penning at least five pieces of literature alongside his clinical work in psychotherapy.
Diving into the book
Part 1 — Experiences in a Concentration Camp
The first part of Man’s Search for Meaning seeks to answer the question, “how was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” Frankl uses anecdotes from life in Auschwitz and other concentration camps to explain three psychological phases through which the prisoners progressed (click to read more):
“The symptom that characterizes the first phase is shock.” (Frankl 22)
- Upon entering the camp many new prisoners experienced a condition known in psychology as ‘delusion of reprieve’ in which, “the condemned man, immediately before the execution gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute” (23). Over time, as the reality of their circumstances set in, this delusion was replaced with an unexpected grim sense of humour, and an emotionless curiosity about their environment around them.
- Other emotions included an intense longing for home and family, disgust with all the ugliness that surrounded their situation and pity for those who received the worst treatment. These intense emotions were quickly deadened (adaptation, as psychologists call it).
- Once new prisoners achieved this kind of ‘emotional death’, this marked the transition from phase 1 to phase 2.
“Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care anymore, were the symptoms arising during the second stage [and] the prisoner soon surrounded himself with a very necessary protective shell.” (Frankl 35)
- Frankl met with fellow psychologists in the camp and they all agreed that inmates underwent some kind of regression. This regression was shown when the activity of the mind retreated to a simpler form of focusing on survival needs and little else — although hopes and dreams would still rear their heads during sleep.
- Although outward expression dulled, inner life seemed to blossom. Inmates found beauty in nature and art that they hadn’t previously, which allowed them to escape their current circumstances. Frankl found relief in the idea of picturing his wife, memories or imagining scenes of the future, and discovered love was a powerful remedy to his situation:
“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” (49).
- For those in the camp who had all options taken away from them, the only thing to do with the suffering presented to them was to accept it as their task, their meaning in life. In this way there was a quiet culture (away from the generals and foremen) of not being ashamed of crying, because tears demonstrated that an inmate had the courage to suffer. Frankl laments several times throughout the book that these spaces, where vulnerability and unavoidable suffering are valued, are very few in the lives we lead today (86).
- Frankl identified what he called an ‘inner hold’, which some prisoners maintained while others did not. This inner hold has something to do with holding on to a goal (e.g. a job to do after they were freed or surviving for the sake of a loved one). Those with an inner hold were better able to maintain dignity than those who lost sight of that goal. To Frankl, this marked the difference between prisoners who maintained their humanity, while others regressed to a more primal, animalistic state.
“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 with almost any how’” (84).
“We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.” (95)
- The news that the war was over and the prisoners being freed was met with disbelief, an inner suspense, and complete relaxation. However, it would be a while before the prisoners could feel joy about their liberation.
- Prisoners with a weak inner hold saw their freedom as a role reversal from inmate to instigator. They used their suffering as a justification to inflict suffering on others and therapeutic efforts on their behalf involved reteaching them that “no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them” (98).
- Many prisoners speak about a moment, days after being freed, where the pent-up emotion burst out for the first time in talking constantly about their experiences, tears and anger…
“How long I knelt there… memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed until I again became a human being” (97).
Part 2 — Logotherapy in a Nutshell
Part Two details the therapeutic technique, a precursor to today’s existential therapy. This technique emerged from Frankl’s lifelong psychological practice and his experiences within the concentration camps.
“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” (110).
- Logotherapy (logos is the Greek word for meaning) is also known as “The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy” following Adler and Jung. Its primary interests are exploring the meaning of human existence and helping individuals find meaning in their own lives.
- The core belief of logotherapy is that every human being’s primary instinct is to search for meaning to their lives. The meaning has to be unique to the individual in that no one else would be able to accomplish it in their place; something that grants the individual importance in that situation. This is different from other psychological schools of thought which assume behavior is governed by operant conditioning (reacting to stimuli based on learned experiences) and defense mechanisms.
- When someone feels like they have no meaning in their life, while the source is not biological, it could show up in the body in the form of disease. When the psychological source is addressed the bodily symptoms clear up.
- Logotherapy believes that meaning in life can be discovered in three different ways: by creating a work or doing a deed (publishing a book, service to society), by experiencing something or encountering someone (loving someone or parenting a child), and the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering (as in Frankl’s experience in the concentration camps).
Some overall life lessons from Man’s Search for Meaning…
“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.” (75)
- Frankl often came up against the argument that “I have nothing to expect from life anymore.” To counter this, he taught that “it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us” (85). By reframing the situation so life demands an answer from us, he instilled a sense of responsibility in the individual to make meaning of their life.
- Everyone is capable of great good and great wrongdoing, and could demonstrate both at different times in their lives.
“It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils” (93).
- The big question: What is the meaning of life? Frankl says:
“What matters is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment” (113).
Frankl gives the example of asking a chess player what the best chess move is. However, there’s no definitive answer. Instead, the answer would depend on the convergence of many factors including the position of the pieces on the board, the temperament of the opponent, and everything that has already happened in the game. Similarly, the meaning of life becomes less of an achievement or goal and more of an unfolding of events from which meaning emerges — and in which we have the opportunity to change and direct with each passing moment.