on November 25, 2001
The first section of this book (which makes up over half of the text) consist of Victor Frankl's account of his experiences in the concentration camp. This section seems unique among the Holocaust accounts that I've seen and read because Dr. Frankl approaches the topic from a psychological perspective. He discusses the ways in which the different prisoners react to their (note: men and women were seperated at the camps, so Frankl is mainly disscussing his experiences with the men in Auschwitz) imprissonment. He writes about the psychological effects of being completely dehumanized; of losing even your name, and becoming simply a number. Also he disscusses the effects of not being able to contact loved ones, or even know is they are still living. Another issue that Dr. Frankl talks about in this book is the idea that none of the prisoners of the concentration camp had an idea as to when there imprissonment would end (if ever). Thus, they were faced with the thought of living the rest of their lives as workers at the camps. Dr. Frankl discusses how people can find meaning to life in these conditions. He also describes how finding meaning in life, or a reason to live, was extraordinarilly important to surviving the camp.
One of the most interesting, and disturbing, issues in the book was the idea of the Capo. These were were people put in charge of their fellow prisoners, in order to keep them in line. Dr. Frankl describes these people as, often, being more harsh than the actual guards. This seems to be a disturbing lesson in the abuse of power. This also goes along with Dr. Frankl's discussion of how the camps brought out the true personality of the people within it (after all the social trapping had been stripped away): The cretins, the saints, and all of those in between.
The second half of the book is made up of two sections "Logotherapy in a Nutshell," and "The Case for Tragic Optimsism." These two sections basically describe Dr. Frankl's theory on as to how to conduct therapy (Logotherapy). The idea behind this therapy is that man is driven by his search for a meaning in life. This differs from the psychoanalysis perspective (driven, at this time, by the ideas of Sigmund Freud) in that the psychoanalytic school believed that humans were driven by their unconscious desires. For Frankl, the need for meaning seems to outway the unconscious. In fact, he goes into detail about the negative effects that the abscence of meaning, or what he calls the "existential Vacuum," has on people. To illustrate many ideas, he often uses his experiences in the concentration camps, as well as various cases for treatment (which help to solidify his view of life, and therapy).
I would recomend this book to almost anybody. I feel that it's interesting, and worthwhile. I would especially recomend this to people interested in psychology, as well as those who wish to learn something about the experiences within the concentration camps.
on August 21, 1999
I was recently diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. I am 41 years old with two small children. I was finding it hard to find something to hold on to after getting the news. This book has helped put the cancer in perspective and is giving me the courage and encouragement to keep on living...no matter what. And if I die, then there has to be meaning in my life before then. I am now beginning to understand that I should not ask what can I get out of life, but what does life expect from me.
This is a WONDERFUL and INSPIRATIONAL book that I recommend for anyone suffering from any tragic cirucmstance...cancer, death in the family, divorce, etc. All of the phsychiatric nonsense might help (I doubt it), but this book will get you on the right road.
on January 16, 2004
Several years ago a friend had an operation for a cancerous growth behind his eye yet today is well and tells of the importance of the right mental attitude when facing adversity. Another friend faces a similar experience but appears to be in the process of succumbing in ignorance of the importance of mental attitude. Seeking guidance as to what I might do to help, I turned to this book.
After recounting the horrors of everyday life in a work camp - the initial selection process in which 90% were sent to the gas chambers while 10% were kept to extract the last ounce of work as slaves for construction firms; the Capos selected from the most brutal who had lost all scruples in order to save their life; how everything was subservient to keeping oneself and one's closest friends alive - Viktor Frankl tells of the psychological problems they met.
The most important seems to be the hope of release as shown by the very high death rate in his camp in the week between Christmas 1944 and new year 1945 which had no explanation in food, treatment, weather, disease or working conditions; it was that the majority had lived in the naïve hope that they would be home again by Christmas. In the absence of encouraging news, the prisoners lost courage; disappointment overcame them and their powers of resistance dropped. Frankl noticed that it was the men who comforted others, who gave away their last piece of bread who survived longest and who offered proof that everything can be taken but one thing - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.
In the camp every decision determined whether or not you would submit to loss of inner freedom. The sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision and not of camp influences alone. It is this spiritual freedom which cannot be taken away which makes life meaningful and purposeful. Only those who allowed their inner hold on their moral and spiritual selves to subside eventually fell victim to the camp's degenerating influences. Most inmates believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. In reality, however, one could make a victory of those experiences, turning them into an inner triumph.
Frankl saw himself giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp, living Spinoza's observation that "Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it." Armed with the insight that any attempt to restore man's inner strength had first to succeed in showing him some future goal he tried to help would-be suicides to realize that life was still expecting something from them - a loving son awaiting his return, an unfinished work to complete. When the impossibility of replacing you is realized it is impossible to throw your life away. When you know the why of your existence you will be able to bear almost any how.
Frankl had to learn and then teach that it really did not matter what we expect from life but rather what life expects from us. The answer lies in right action and in right conduct; life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill tasks that it constantly sets for each individual. These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man and from moment to moment, making it impossible to define in general terms or in sweeping statements. No man and no destiny can be compared to any other man or destiny. It may require a man to shape his own fate, contemplate or accept his fate. There is only one right answer to the situation at hand.
When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his single, unique task. His unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden. Once the meaning of suffering has been revealed, suffering has hidden opportunities for achievement. When he had the opportunity to address a group of prisoners his purpose was to help each man to find a full meaning to their life in that practically hopeless situation by pointing out the joys each had experienced in the past and that no one had suffered irreplaceable losses. Whoever was still alive had reason for hope; health, family, happiness, professional abilities, fortune, position in society, could all be restored. Life never ceases to have meaning and this infinite meaning includes suffering and dying, privation and death. God or someone alive or dead would hope to find them suffering proudly.
After the war, Frankl introduced Logotherapy, which focuses on the meanings of life to be fulfilled by the patient in the future. The patient is confronted with the meaning of his life. The meaning of human existence as well as man's search for such a meaning is unique and specific and can be fulfilled by him alone. He is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values. The more that you forget yourself by giving to a cause or serving in love, the more you actualize yourself. We can discover meaning in three ways - creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or encountering someone; and by the attitude we take to unavoidable suffering.
When we are no longer able to change a situation such as inoperable cancer we have to change our attitude. He asks his patients to project themselves forward to their deathbed and look back on the meaningful things in their lives. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be; he has control over what he will become in the next moment.
This book has certainly provided much food for thought!
"Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done, and of love loved but of sufferings bravely suffered." (p. 123)
My connection to Viktor Frankl dates back to a Hannukah party in which I found myself conversing with a baker who used to deliver his bread. It took me a few more years to discover this absolute gem of a book, itself both bread for the soul and leaven for the mind.
The first half of this book consists of Frankl's reflection on his time in a Nazi concentration camp. "An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior," (p. 18) he notices, "Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent." (p. 43) Distilling the essence of his experience at the hands of the Nazis and the resilience of his soul, he states, "If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering." (p. 67) Finally, he notes 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." (p. 65)
He segues into the second part of the book, a description of "logotherapy," based on the challenge learned behind barbed wire, downwind from the ovens "Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why--an aim--for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible _how_ of their existence." (p. 76)
Frankl states that "Man's search for meaning is a primary force in his life and not a 'secondary rationalization' of instinctual drives." (p. 99) He finds this meaning specific & unique to each individual. Logotherapy focuses on the future, the assignments and meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in _his_ future, breaking up the self-centeredness of the neurotic instead of fostering and reinforcing it.
He believes that "the meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected," (p. 101) that "_logos_, or 'meaning', is not only an emerging from existence itself but rather something confronting existence." (p. 100) This _logos_ frustrates by not being available to finite minds, but nevertheless continues to confront man. In wrestling with this confrontation, each individual enacts their "will to meaning," defining a "meaning of life [that] differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment." (p. 110) Logotherapy sees responsibility as the very essence of human existence: "each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by _answering_ _for_ his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible." (p. 111) Thus, the "categorical imperative" of logotherapy is "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!" (p. 111)
Beyond the philosophy of logotherapy, Frankl discusses technique briefly, addressing anticipatory anxiety, "it characteristic of this fear that it produces precisely that of which the patient is afraid." (p. 123) The mechanism for this is "hyper-intention," which, by focusing on the problem, magnifies the problem. He confronts this with "paradoxical intention," suggesting that the insomniac try to stay awake and that the phobic patient "intend, if only for a moment, precisely that which he fears." (p. 125)
He concludes the book with "Our generation is realistic for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who has invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who has entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips." (p. 136)
I find this short book incredibly full of life and meaning; it's one of the most powerful I've ever read. The act of creating a philosophy and psychology of life out of the horrors of Auschwitz confronts my own whinings about the discomforts I find in life. I find courage here, not just Dr. Frankl's courage, but an inspiration to my own courage, and a challenge to live more fully, to create more meaning, instead of simply accepting the meanings thrust upon me by TV sitcoms, billboards, and internet banality.
The epitome of a five star book. Worthy of more if Amazon would allow it.
(If you'd like to dialogue about this book, please click on the "about me" link & drop me an email. Thanks!)
on June 2, 2000
This is one of my favourite books. It is really two books in one. The first is an account of the author's imprisonment in Auschwitz, and the insights he gained into the individual's search for meaning in suffering while there, and the second book is a more detailed introduction to "Logotherapy". Frankl does not deny the usefulness of Jung's or Freud's work, but he does not stop there -- he continues where they left off. His brand of pychology he calls "logotherapy" -- or "meaning therapy". In this sort of analysis, he tries to get the individual to look at their present life rather than examing complexes, phobias or dreams. Many people who are unsatisfied in their lives can trace this to a nagging sense of meaning starvation. This can be overcome, in Frankl's view. He doesn't give any very good ideas as to how one is to go about doing this in much detail, but then again, this is just an introductory text. The problem of meaning is a topic that also embraces a religious perspective on life, and it may be of interest to those who wish to pursue this further. It is a very inspirational book and contains many helpful insights for those who are struggling with any sort of suffering, pain, or grief, which they are powereless to combat. In such cases, Frankl suggests, one's only positive action may to be to endure the suffering in the right way, and to find meaning and worth in pain. This seems important to me, because life is not all happiness . . . the bad times as well as the good must be redeemed as worthwhile for an individual to feel a true sense of life's worth. Hopefully, in the future, Frankl's ideas will gain more prominence as they seem to offer more promise than most other forms of psychological theories do. A very powerful read.
on December 19, 2000
Frankl tackles a lot of ground in a short space, looking deeply into the profound question of meaning in our lives from the perspective of a Nazi concentration camp survivor.
The first half of this book is a recounting of the authors' experiences as an inmate in various Nazi death camps. My skin crawled reading about the brutality and inhumanity he tells us of. I've heard and read a lot about the concentration camps before, but this first hand experience was very powerful. Frankl had already developed his psychological theory before the internment, so he tells us how his experiences essentially confirmed his view that humans have a need to find personal meaning. He recounts numerous stories from the camps of how hope for the future kept him and his comrades alive. Frankl describes how the prisoners were able to create dreams and plans for the future in order to stay sane and keep their will to live in an environment where it was very easy to give up. What I got out of his recounting of the horrors of the death camps was that even though the Nazi's took away almost all of the basic human necessities we are used to in life, and brutalized their prisoners, they weren't able to control the minds of those imprisoned. We each have the ability to control our own thoughts no matter what the situation - this is our power.
The second half of the book delves into Frankl's formal psychological theory he terms "Logotherapy". He says traditional psychotherapy looks into our past to find cures for current psychological problems. His Logotherapy on the other hand he says helps people through finding hope for the future by getting in touch with the meaning in their lives. I felt his argument was in some ways simplistic in that he suggests those who are depressed and/or suicidal have lost a personal meaning to life - and that they need to find it. That much is probably already evident to the suicidal patient - they already know they have nothing to live for. Telling them to "go find meaning to your life" is surely good advice, but kind of obvious. How do you do it? Frankl does have some suggestions however.
I felt that overall this was a compelling read that challenges the reader to consider what role personal meaning has in their life.
on March 2, 2001
Of the many thousands of books I have read this is the most important. Frankl survived Auschwitz and derived meaning from the experience. Can we do any less in the face of our own small problems?
The book, to a large degree, is based on a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how." It's true, and Frankl's life proves it.
Frankl doesn't provide a road map for finding the meaning in every experience. He does something better. He asks us to ask ourselves what our experiences mean. We already know, if only we will stop to think. My favorite example is that of a man who greaves the loss of his wife. Frankl asks him why he greaves. The man answers that he greaves because he loved his wife. Frankl asks him, "Isn't that a good thing?" A light goes on in the man's mind, he nods, and gets up and leaves. Frankl's book can make a light go on in all of our minds. All we have to do is spend a couple of hours reading this wonderful book.
What makes "Man's Search For Meaning" such an enduring masterpiece, and, if such can be said, my preferred literary rendering of the holocaust experience, is that Frankl is able to concretely draw out meaningful truth and positive prescriptions for action from the deepest declivity of despair. Other works, including the deservedly revered "Night", give way at points to nihilism, cynicism, and bitterness, understandable in such devastation, but noticeably absent in Frankl's response. The humanity with which Frankl transcends the total assault he endures is more than laudable - and is the enabling and empowering turn in his destiny.
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." (86)
"Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such 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." These words frequently came to mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost" (87)
"But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete." (88)
These are the ultimate lessons - the wisdom, which in fact, can only emerge from the crucible of such suffering. Who is more deserving of our respect and attention than those who endured a challenge which so few survived to report? The wisdom articulated in this book is thus rare as it is hard-won, and we, the more fortunate, should heed the contents of this slender, accessible, and powerful record.
on April 12, 2000
I've always found it rather a cliché to say that a book has the power to change one's life. However, of any book that I've ever read, Viktor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning has come very close to doing so. For the first time, I have found a desire to read and re-read an individual book, and have already asked others to read it as well. While it would be a tad exaggerated to say that it actually changed my life, I can say that it has had some powerful effects on my perspective on life. For the most part, it has reinforced my existing beliefs, but it has also made many things clearer for me, including the importance of one's search for meaning in life. I found many parallels in Frankl's Logotherapy to William Glasser's Choice Theory, but Frankl's views were really more profound in many ways, due partly to his account of life in a concentration camp, and partly to his ties to existentialism.
Frankl's portrayal of life in the concentration camp moved me in many ways, and on more than one occasion while reading the book. From the beauty he was able to find in unexpected moments within the hellish world of a concentration camp, to his ability to remove himself from the experience in the most humble manner, Frankl portrayed a life of suffering and anguish beyond words as having rays of hope, and even, for some, a sense of meaning. This is simply remarkable, providing for the reader a new sense of perspective on all aspects of life. Additionally, Frankl's explanations of the psychological stages of an inmate are truly enlightening. Honestly, I find it difficult to find the words to describe the first portion of the book. While it is both informative and illuminating with regard to life in a concentration camp, it is also poignant and truly inspiring, written from a different perspective than most accounts of the same subject matter.
on July 19, 2004
After years of hearing others praise this book, I finally read it for myself, and found it is worth reading! Dr. Victor Frankl, an author-psychiatrist, experienced first-hand the horrible atrocities that were forced upon the Jews in Nazi Concentration Camps, and lived to tell about it. He shares the truths he learned as a prisoner, including man's search for meaning in life, and his ability to survive extreme physical and emotional hardships, despite the odds. In the process he developed a new approach to psychotherapy, known as "logotherapy." At the root of the theory is the value of helping others find their unique purpose or mission in life.
What was the key to the survival in the Nazi death camps? It wasn't survival of the fittest in the traditional sense of those who were the most physically robust of the human species. Rather it tended to be those individuals, described below, who found inner survival strength as follows:
(1.) Those who had a meaning in life, a sense of purpose, or intent to accomplish a goal. It was Dr. Frankl's desire to survive the death camps so that he could write and publish his experiences and truths learned through his suffering.
(2.) Those who had a spiritual belief in God and a faith that there was a divine plan for them. They believed God would help them through their difficulties. Dr. Frankl said: "In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen."
(3.) Those who had an intellectual life to fall back on (in their thoughts) during the monotonous, strenuous, and most painful times of endurance. He states: "Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain... but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom." This was something their oppressors were not able to take away from them.
(4.) Those who held on to the cherished bonds of loved ones. Dr. Frankl often found strength by carrying on imagined conversations with his beloved wife who had been taken to another death camp. His ability to communicate his love for her in his thoughts, and receive back her love, gave him the incentive to hold on to life during the toughtest of times. Unfortunately his wife was not able to survive, but he didn't know this at the time. (Perhaps it was her Spirit he was communicating with afterall.)
I was impressed with the description Dr. Frankl gave of a few of the prisoners, who despite being in a starving and sickly state, managed to go around offering aid and moral encouragement to others. Such individuals often gave of their meager piece of daily bread to keep another fellow prisoner alive. Such selfless service in the face of death, was truly admirable.
In the second half of Dr. Frankl's book he distinguishes the difference between his theory of logotherapy and that of traditional approaches to physcho-analysis. At the core of his theory is the challenge to help individuals discover for themselves their reason for being, even a worthwhile goal. He quotes Nietzche who said: "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how." Dr. Frankl says: "The meaning of life always changes, but it never ceases to be." This book can be a great resource for readers to evaluate their own purpose in life, and perhaps in the process choose a path that is worthwhile not only to them but that will benefit others as well.