Frankl Finds Meaning Outside Self
Viktor E. Frankl. 2008. Man’s Search for Meaning: A Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust (Orig Pub 1946). Translated by Ilse Lasch. London: Rider.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
What is the meaning of life? “To glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever.” Reminding ourselves of the centrality of God in our lives is a good theme for Holy Week.
For unbelievers, life is a bit more complicated, kind of like the mathematics of planetary motion for people who still believe the universe revolves around the earth. The mathematics of planetary motion became so much easier after Copernicus demonstrated that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl shares both his concentration camp experiences during the holocaust and his observations as a logotherapist (meaning therapist) on the meaning of life. (104) His purpose in writing, as stated in his preface, is that: “I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.” (12)
Problem of Despair
This purpose statement is a massive understatement, as we later learn from Frankl’s own summary of the predicament of our times, when he writes:
“Every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to copy with it. The existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as a contention that being has no meaning.” (31)
Neurosis can be defined as an “excessive and irrational anxiety or obsession” while an existential vacuum (lack of meaning in life) “manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom” which afflicts 25 percent of European students and about 60 percent of American students, according to Frankl’s own statistics. (110) As a parent, I used to say that the two most dangerous words in the teenage vocabulary were “I’m bored”; apparently, Frankl would agree.
Meaning of Life
In reading Frankl’s work, we can surmise that Frank’s life work as a logotherapist arose immediately out of his experience during the Holocaust, but we are never explicitly told. What is remarkable is that Frankl, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was offered the opportunity to immigrate to America before such opportunities went away, but stayed in Vienna to look after his parents who were not offered this opportunity (13).
Why link meaning in life to experiences in a concentration camp? Viktor again does not explicitly tell us, but he does explain how he managed to survive the Holocaust when 27/28 camp inmates did not. Frankl busied himself in the camps contemplating the lectures that he would give after the war on the psychology of the concentration camp! (82) In other words, this book was the therapy that he administered to himself in the camps—outlining what he would write in this book. Contemplating the meaning of life in the camps gave life meaning, as he spent his days laying railroad tracks and, later, caring for inmates dying of typhoid.
Surviving in the Camps
Frankl offers numerous tips to prospective concentration camp inmates on how to survive. Among his observations are:
- Don’t draw attention to yourself from sadistic guards.
- Shave daily, walk briskly, and stand up straight to look healthy enough for work.
- Applaud profusely when sadistic guards read poetry.
- In walking in formation, stay in the middle or the front to avoid those that stumble and the beatings that follow.
- Offer free psychiatric counseling to guards in need of it.
Short timers, who have given up on life, ignore these rules and smoke cigarettes that might otherwise be traded for food.
Critical Role of Meaning
A critical point in all this craziness is that, according to Frankl, survival depended on finding meaning in suffering. Frankl reports that the death rates in the camps days after Christmas in 1945 rose dramatically, not because of any external deprivation, but simply because inmates who had hoped to be released by Christmas gave up the will to live in the days thereafter. (84) When life hangs by a thread, small changes in attitude make a difference. Frankl writes:
“Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost…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.” (85)
So Frankl learned that inmates needed to live for other people who depended on them and to live to finish unfinished tasks, like the book he was to write. (87, 109) In other words, meaning comes not from looking inside one’s self, but from transcending one’s self.(131)
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is an unusually fascinating book. Frankl does not dwell on the horrors of the camps, but develops lessons from it for daily life in a postmodern world. When he discusses his survival tips, my mind immediately jumped to office situations where the same tips would be pertinent, suggesting not an opportunity for dark humor but that the camp experiences helped Frankl strip away the thin veil of the civilized world to see more fundamental truths. This is a book that you will want to read and, perhaps, return to occasionally for reference.
Ein Psycholog ergebt das Konzentrationslager (A Psychiatrist’s Experience of the Concentration Camp).
“The Larger Catechism” (7.111) The Book of Confessions. Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Part 1. 2004. Louisville: Office of the General Assembly.
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