on February 20, 2012
I had the good fortune of knowing my great-grandfather, may he rest in peace, for the first ten years of my life. Being a Holocaust survivor, my great-grandfather always had a story or piece of wisdom to share with my family when we visited. He gave my father Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl as a gift and it remains one of my father's favorite books to this day. Although I was too young to read the book at the time, I know now that it rings truth in a new perspective on the Holocaust. My ancestors survived the horrors that the Nazis inflicted upon them, and they lived to tell me the tale. In an engaging and fascinating way, Frankl sheds some light as to how exactly people made it out of the concentration camps alive, with a will to live and with hope for the future.
In the first part of the book, Frankl describes his personal experiences as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps. He traces the mental state of an average prisoner in the camps, beginning upon arrival, and through liberation. Frankl writes that after the initial shock of reaching the infamous camp, a prisoner would be overcome by a "delusion of reprieve", an irrational feeling of hope that his situation would somehow be changed for the better. However, after being separated from loved ones in the dreaded selections, and watching them walk towards the gas chambers to their deaths, the reality and horrification of it all dawned upon the prisoner. Frankl describes the next emotional stage as "relative apathy", which was a complete weakening of the prisoner's senses and feelings, leaving a body merely going through the motions of everyday camp routine rather than a person. According to Frankl, apathy was essential for the preservation of a prisoner's life, because it channeled every emotion he had towards the goal of making it through the day alive. The third and final stage that a prisoner experienced was the complete inability to grasp the meaning of freedom. Following this the prisoner would have to re-learn what emotions such as joy and pleasure meant. Throughout this development, there still remains the question: what were the thoughts that gave a prisoner the drive to live, completely necessary for the conservation of his life? Frankl provides answers to this question in the second section of the book.
Throughout the book, Frankl often quotes Nietzsche: "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how." In the second section, Frankl elaborates on how this phrase sums up, in a nutshell, the mentality with which he survived the war. Having a purpose in life, writes Frankl, is the key to withstanding almost any suffering. Frankl named his theory "logotherapy", since logos is Greek for meaning. A method employed in psychology, "logotherapy" causes a patient to pinpoint and become familiar with the meaning of his life, which according to Frankl is the patient's will to strive, succeed, and to live. Frankl goes on to suggest three ways in which one can strive for meaning. The first one, understandably, is to accomplish something. Additionally, meaning can be found by loving another. Finally, man can find meaning by suffering. When one is faced with suffering, and there is nothing he can do to change his predicament, the only remaining option is for him to change his perspective, to change the way in which he views the situation. An example that Frankl gives is of a story of a grieving widower who had lost his wife. The man came to Frankl to ask for advice. Frankl asked the man, "What would have happened...if you had died first and your wife would have had to survive without you?" Through this question, the suffering the man was enduring gained a new purpose, he was mourning, but his wife would not have to mourn him. This story illustrates the usage of "logotherapy", and how by using it, one can utilize his suffering and find meaning through it.
The Holocaust and World War II is a time in world history that has been studied and pondered by many scholars. There are volumes upon volumes written about this dark time in history. Man's Search for Meaning is unique because Frankl focuses on the psychology of it all. He brings proofs to back up his claim that man's search for meaning is, in and of itself, a will to live. Through starvation, sickness, torture and brutality, surrounded by death and despair, man can endure it all, he can even gain something from it, so long as he has a reason to keep going. Each individual has a different source of meaning, yet no matter what the cause, the meaning alone is what gives that man the drive to wake up each morning and endure whatever life sends his way. Even when faced with death itself, man can survive if he has a reason to.
This book was written specifically about the Holocaust and the concentration camps. Nonetheless, there is a life-changing lesson that one can learn from reading the book, no matter what his life circumstances may be. Life is full of challenges, but those challenges eventually cause a person to question who he is and what he stands for, thereby forcing him to determine the meaning in his life. No matter where a person comes from, and no matter where he is headed, he must have a purpose in his life in order to move forward, and to be able to look back at the end of his life and feel proud of all that he accomplished. In a brilliant and insightful way, Victor Frankl has ultimately handed his readers the key to success and happiness, and the answer to many questions; he has affirmed that above all, meaning is what makes life worth living.