Viktor Frankl - Man's Search for Meaning
There’s no question that out of all the books I’ve read, Marcus Aurelius has had the biggest impact on me. I mean, not on the blog – where out of the grand total of three so far, it wouldn’t be much of an achievement – but in general. So wherever that recommendation came from has serious priority for future choices as well.
So I was rummaging around in Ryan Holiday’s reading list, which is where I ran into Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, yet again. I’ve seen it many times in “most important” book lists; in best-of self-development selections; and now at the priority spot, too. No point in hesitating further, then, let’s continue our search for meaning right here.
When I finally took a glance at what it’s about, though, I was very surprised. Turns out, Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who lived in Nazi concentration camps between ‘42 and ‘45. I don’t know how familiar people usually are with the subject, but my knowledge pretty much began and ended with the fact that these camps had existed. You could say that, up to this point, they were simply filed away in my mind as “abstract evils”, but that was it. Now… let’s just say this book provides a slightly more detailed picture.
The content is divided into two parts:
an autobiographical account of his daily life in the concentration camps, and
a practical philosophy that made even that survivable.
The two sides support each other mutually, since A) without the philosophy, he probably wouldn’t have survived the camp, but B) without the camp, he probably wouldn’t have a real sense of how powerful the philosophy can be. So it’s worth paying attention to both sides of the equation.
The foreword practically spells out the main lesson in advance – which, of course, does not make the book any less enjoyable. Rather, it just helps us have a “second read” feeling even during the first read, and be able to get the point more clearly. And the point is this: You can’t control external circumstances; but even if the world takes everything away from you, you’re still free to choose how you react. And in this light, it is reminiscent of the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, or the hardship-handling part of Flow. Looks like we’re still on the right track…
I found it interesting that the author almost chose to publish anonymously because he just wanted to pass on the lesson, not become famous. And in spite of this – or perhaps, because of this? – he’s made quite a name for himself. As he mentions in the foreword, success and happiness should not be chased, because that only makes us miss the mark even more. However, if we devote our efforts to something greater than ourselves, success will come of its own accord.
I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run […] success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.
But he had to get to this attitude, and to these results. And the road to get there wasn’t exactly a stroll in the park… So after this little introduction, let’s see what life was like in literal hell.
Experiences in a concentration camp
The author starts by emphatically stating that these are only his personal experiences, from his own point of view, and that he just wants to capture the average, everyday life in camp. Funny that he should mention this as a kind of defense, while for me it was a straight-up gift that we’re not discussing the subject with textbook dryness – a tone that would be very inappropriate anyway. And such authoritative accounts are rare, perhaps because:
We dislike talking about our experiences. No explanations are needed for those who have been inside, and the others will understand neither how we felt then nor how we feel now.
What strikes me first is the difference in “level” the soldiers felt towards the prisoners. It is literally as if the latter are animals who (what?) can be systematically and inhumanely exploited. A vivid example is when those unable to work were sent to the “baths” on the left with just a casual wave of the hand…
Even more surprising to me was the “capo” layer, who were a kind of middle ground between warden and prisoner, and who often treated other prisoners more cruelly than the real prison guards. It is a good indication of the dark filth lurking beneath the thin layer of civilization in some of them that they were almost proud of their role in the new world order – a point humorously made by the author.
Imagine! I knew that man when he was only the president of a large bank. Isn’t it fortunate that he has risen so far in the world?
Call it an occupational hazard, but our psychologist protagonist tried to observe his own reactions to events as an outsider. The first phase is, inevitably, horror – which is what most of us would expect, I guess. He had to watch as everything and everyone he had was lost, gradually (but inevitably) destroying any shred of hope he’d managed to hold onto somehow.
What perhaps fewer of us think about is how quickly horror can burn a person out, relatively speaking. What comes after is the apathy phase, with its complete lack of emotion. Within a few weeks – by which time starvation and all its consequences really come to the forefront – one could watch the suffering of others while eating soup without batting an eye.
This process is essentially a consistent slide to the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, where only basic biological needs exist. Work, beating, starvation; work, beating, starvation; sometimes a little sickness and death thrown in for good measure. It is interesting to note, however, that the more educated prisoners, despite their stunted physique, seemed to have endured the camp years better than their buff but “simple” camp mates. The author’s theory is that having an active, complex inner life to retreat to meant more than some extra muscle and fat buffer.
He also gives some examples of inner retreats, ranging from the mundane (riding the bus, turning on the lights) to detailed daydreams about his wife, with whom he even had imaginary conversations. Even a colorful sunset amid the constant gray can be immediately apparent. As a counterpart to his total insensitivity to negativity, any tiny amount of beauty could clear his stimulus threshold. And there were small little positives, even in a fucking concentration camp! We should take a minute and compare how many incredible things and experiences we walk past on a daily basis in a “normal” life, by contrast.
Of course, we don’t have to rely solely on the outside world for positives – we can create them ourselves. And so, in some twisted, morbid form, there was still art, culture, and humor in the camps. The privileged sometimes held semi-serious séances, poetry readings, and lectures. So the Maslow pyramid was not fully validated, after all… for those who could remain human.
Because no matter how great the external pressures and suffering, becoming an “animal” in order to survive is ultimately a choice. Our choice! I mean, sure, there really weren’t many prisoners who were able to stay themselves the whole way through… But if there was just one, that’s proof enough that it can be done.
Nobody said it would be easy. But if, unlike the majority, someone still believes that it’s possible to achieve human “greatness” despite – or even because of – prison, then it is possible.
He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.
Finally, for the few who managed to endure that far, liberation came in ‘45 – which is also the beginning of the third psychological phase Frankl observed. And the most important thing to understand about being freed is that it’s not an immediate change, but a process!
We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.
Getting rid of such a huge and harsh dose of mental pressure often led to a serious moral distortion. “If I’ve been stepped on before, now I’m going to step on others” – the justification might sound. Even people who would otherwise be labeled “perfectly normal” had to be gradually brought back to civility.
Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.
Of course, everything didn’t just automatically become peachy, even after getting free; many a liberated prisoner continued to struggle with bitterness and disillusionment. The bitterness in this case mostly refers to the fact that “ordinary” people didn’t give a fuck about what prisoners had been through. Not that their pity would have been worth anything – but the fact that there wasn’t even pity was a pretty big slap in the face after all that’s happened. And by disillusionment, he means that, even after the concentration camp, fate had more suffering in store for many. Destroyed homes, lost family members… Even getting home wasn’t all positive.
Speaking of human psychology, let’s also take a quick detour and mention the guards. For example, how could they do this?! What we need to understand is that, in addition to the inevitable sadists, there were also some relatively humane ones. Just as there were brutal animals among the prisoners. So it’s not really a question of guard vs. prisoner, but of kindness vs. cruelty, good vs. bad. We can find both everywhere in life, so we shouldn’t be so surprised here either…
Logotherapy in a nutshell
Okay, we’ve been to camp. The brevity of the above outline obviously doesn’t do justice to the horrors, but let’s just say it’s hard to sink much lower than what happened there. Let’s now turn a little more towards the kind of attitude it took to survive the camp. Starting with what “logotherapy” is, in Mr. Frankl’s proverbial nutshell.
When a fellow psychologist asked for a one-sentence summary of this new approach, the good doctor first asked for the same about the “traditional” methodology. Here is his colleague’s elevator pitch for the traditional approach: “During psychoanalysis, the patient must lie down on a couch and tell you things which sometimes are very disagreeable to tell”. And in contrast, the author’s witty reply summarizing logotherapy: “Now, in logotherapy the patient may remain sitting erect but he must hear things which sometimes are very disagreeable to hear”. Of course, Frankl is quick to add that it is quite an oversimplification to summarize 20 volumes of research so succinctly… But a stupid question gets a stupid answer.
The essence of logotherapy is to look forward rather than backward or (predominantly) inward. In my read, we are not concerned with why the situation is shitty, but with setting a goal – and it’s the pursuit of that goal that will put things in order and make things less shitty. It is not always clear, of course, what that particular goal should be. And in such cases, it is still “allowed” to rummage in the past or within, but strictly only as long as it is necessary. Once there’s a clear goal candidate, we should go and do that. If we continue digging further to find out whether it was mom or dad who didn’t love us enough to get here… Well, that’s just a waste of time.
Another (very Stoic) approach is to put life in perspective, and to focus on big-picture decisions. For example, we should:
Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!
Logotherapy is also called “high psychology” as opposed to the traditional (deep) techniques, because it is about climbing rather than digging. And although it can treat specific neuroses, – or complement other treatments – it often “just” fills a gap in the (lack of) spiritual guidance of today’s world.
Some of the people who nowadays call on a psychiatrist would have seen a pastor, priest or rabbi in former days.
The other classic mistake, besides over-digging, is the striving for balance and homeostasis in everything. According to Frankl, there is nothing wrong at all with the right kind of tension – say, if it’s because of a gap between a life goal and the present state of affairs. But for this, of course, there must be a goal, because if there is none, there will be an “existential vacuum” instead. The bad kind of tension.
Instincts have been left behind along with our animal nature, and traditional life patterns and signposts have been discarded with the advent of the modern age. And with so much “freedom”, few people know what they should actually be doing. Two common solutions are to imitate what someone else does, or to do what someone else says. Both can work for a while, but both require unwavering diligence, because if we stop for just a moment, we might have to look in the mirror… And who wants that?!
This existential vacuum is the mass mental illness of our time. A private, personal nihilism, whispering something like “Well, maybe not all lives are meaningless, but mine sure is”. The key word to overcome it is responsibility! No matter the what, or the who, or the how…
A very good example is the contrast between an ophthalmologist and a painter: ophthalmologists don’t want to dictate what we see, they just want to help so that we can see. After that, we should realize that it is our responsibility to actually see!
Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
According to Frankl’s philosophy, the meaning of life can come from:
- some kind of work or action,
- the deep experiencing of something (or someone), or
- the way we endure inevitable suffering.
The first two are pretty self-explanatory – his main contribution lies in emphasizing the third point.
If we are unhappy, we must first ask ourselves whether it is avoidable. If it is, then… what the hell are we talking about?! In that case, we have a moral obligation to resolve the situation, so let’s get to work! But if it’s not avoidable, then the last thing we need is to feel unhappy about being unhappy. There is indeed a deeper meaning in how we bear what is inevitable.
The best example of this is one of Frankl’s elderly patients. The old doctor had lost his wife, with whom he had lived his whole life, and simply could not cope without his partner. This is how Frankl changed his perspective:
Frankl: What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?
Doctor: Oh, for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!
Frankl: You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering – to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.
Has the situation changed? No. What has changed is the attitude of the doctor. And the new perspective gave meaning to his inevitable suffering.
Everyone has to come to terms with the transience of life somehow. And for those who didn’t like Marcus Aurelius’ approach so much, Frankl offers an alternative metaphor for life. Imagine that out of the myriad possibilities floating before us, we always choose with our decisions which one to “save from non-existence”, make real, and file away into the past. The pessimist may see his days dwindling, but the optimist sees his lived days increasing, his possibilities becoming reality, and he doesn’t envy the youth of others.
But we are then responsible for these choices. We should never place our future in the hands of our parents, our genes, or our childhood, despite modern psychology trying to explain everything in terms of mechanical cause and effect relationships. While existential vacuum is caused by too much freedom, it makes no sense to cure it by leaving too little freedom.
The right to decide, to choose and to change is given to everyone. If it isn’t coupled with responsibility, though, our great freedom will probably end up in a random jumble. But if it is, then we can behave saintly – even in a fucking concentration camp!
Well, what can I say, this short little book turned out to be quite dense. The first part horrified with the concentration camp stuff, while the second part intrigued with its psychotherapeutic approach incorporating the lessons learned.
Both have their own value and significance – the camp part is a “harsh” test of Stoic principles, the logotherapy part is about looking ahead rather than behind – but underlying them both is the importance of taking responsibility.
I’d like to conclude with two quotes from the postscript, which probably need no extra commentary:
All we can do is study the lives of people who seem to have found their answers to the questions of what ultimately human life is about as against those who have not.
– Charlotte Bühler
[…] there may be such a thing as autobibliotherapy – healing through reading.