Summary And Reflection On Man’s Search For Meaning By Viktor Frankl
“Man’s search for meaning” a thought provoking novel written by Doctor Viktor Frankl, tells his own experiences in various concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Such concentration camps were an integral feature of the Nazi Germany regime between 1933 and 1945. The mass killing of estimated six million European Jews and other persecuted groups, such as gypsies and homosexuals were carried out in these camps, with the intent to “exterminate” all these minorities perceived as the “inferior race” and a threat to the ‘racially superior’ German community. It was through these experiences that Frankl affirms “We cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose”. This is the key message which Frankl explores in this book through Logotherapy. The development of Logotherapy dates back to the 1930s, but Frankl laid down the foundations of a new and original approach in publishing this book (first published in 1938).
Although the external sufferings the prisoners endured is well shown though the many times Frankl writes about the cruelty of the guards and the abhorrent conditions of the camps, the central focus lies on the prisoner’s psychological reactions to their circumstance instead of the external suffering. This is Frankl’s area of interest, having obtained MD and PhD degrees in psychiatry and neurology at the Medical university of Vienna before his captivity, specialising in the areas of suicide and depression. More importantly, in this book Frankl reveals the psychological difference between prisoners and how those who were able to forget their former life, focus on the present, find purpose in their suffering, remain hopeful and realise the potential their future held where more able to survive at concentration camps. He argues “Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy makeup often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.” This knowledge is imperative to his own survival.
Frankl breaks down the psychological reactions of most prisoners into three distinct phrases, firstly, the period following admission into the concentration camp. Frankl writes many prisoners experienced “delusion of reprieve” upon entering the camps, he uses that analogue of “the condemned man”, “who immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.” The concentration camps had the reputation to be harsh but they “clung onto hope” that is would be different for them or that they might even be turned away at the gate. This hopefulness allowed them to make sense of the present without falling into despair, it helped them appear tough and suppress fear of the future.
Furthermore, de-individuation is a significant event that had a profound psychological consequence on the prisoners. Upon administration into the camps, future prisoners were stripped down of all their clothing, belongings, even completely shaved of their hair. Only a unique number was assigned to distinguished them, Frank reveals “We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives”. The process of de-individualisation facilitates de-humanisation of the prisoners, this is evident with the quote “One literally became a number: dead or alive — that was unimportant; what stood behind that number mattered even less: the fate, the history, the name …” It is the psychological process by which a person is seen as a member of a category or a group rather than as an individual and therefore perceived as inferior. This lead to the intense feelings of hatred and alienation among the prisoners and the guards, who although wore the same uniform retained their individuality as they held onto their names, belongings etc., unlike the prisoners. It is how the guards and the outside society came to believe the people in these camps were less than fully human and therefore not deserving of moral consideration or to be treated within social norms. This is well demonstrated in the later carried “Stanford Prison Experiment”.
Moreover, the first few days at concentration camp made prisoners feel in addition to expected psychological reactions, such as fear and disgust, other psychological reactions perhaps considered not part of the social norm, for example curiosity and even sense of humor.
Frank writes “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour”. The statement is very though-provoking and interesting for the reader, as it uses a double negative to suggest a positive, by stating that two abnormal together create a normal. Frankl also believed probably everyone at one point or another during their imprisonment had thought of suicide, especially in the initial phrase where they were less accustomed to being treated so crudely, “It was born of the hopelessness of the situation” and also “not know how long his term of imprisonment would be”.
Frankl explains that the campers slowly became acclimated to their situations, stating everyone “who has a way to live for can bear any how”. In the second phrase of imprisonment “well entrenched in camp routine”, psychological defense mechanisms adapted by prisoners become much more apparent to the reader. The feeling of relative apathy stood out the most, Frank defines apathy as “the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care anymore… and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings”. Also referred to as “emotional death”, Frankl explains how numbness overcomes a prisoner during this phrase and how he was able to watch a man be brutally beaten to death without diverting his sight or making him flinch.
In the second phase, they also felt lack of sexual urge and “Cultural hibernation’ with the exception of politics and religion. It is easy to understand why politics and religion remained of only importance to prisoners. Firstly, military situation was a key determinant in their freedom, how camps came to be liberated years later was largely dependent on soviet forces who were the first to advance and overran major Nazi camps, US and British forces also facilitated the liberation of small camps. In addition, although suffering largely challenges our beliefs in god, Frankl writes on the contrary “The depth and vigor of religious belief often surprised and moved a new arrival.” and also notes that there were improvised prayer services held everywhere. Those beliefs can be challenged and some can lose faith but for others the universe will not make sense without the belief in god, and so it’s impossible to eliminate or shut emotions to. Religion attempts to make sense of order in the universe, helps us find purpose in past or present suffering and find meaning even in death.
In addition, while prisoners become acquired to the physical pain the psychological pain becomes more apparent to the reader. Frankl describes “It is not the physical pain which hurts the most; it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.” With physical pain we often know what is causing the pain and often have an idea of the actions we need to take to relieve the pain, whereas psychological pain is much more complex with long term implications. Frankl proves this with the quote “Strangely enough, a blow which does not even find its mark can, under certain circumstances, hurt more than one that finds its mark.” Certainly, physical and emotional pain contributes to suffering.
The third and final phrase as categorised by Frankl, is the “Release and Liberation of the prisoners”. Depersonalisation is the first mental state Frankl writes about following his release, “At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world”. It is defined as: detachment within the self-regarding one’s mind or body. Furthermore, freedom was their deepest desire but came with the fear that it can be taken away as easily, immediately after they remained suspicious and unable to feel pleased. “It’s reality did not penetrate into our consciousness; we could not grasp the fact that freedom was ours.” Although being optimistic has many positive aspects, defensive pessimism is something that empowers us and allows us to prepare for any situation, for example being deceived as in previous occasion. Soon after, they acquire the feeling of fearlessness “…the crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more—except his God.” Religion is again prominent reflecting on Frankl’s profound belief in god even after all the suffering he endured.
Psychological reaction of most importance in the last phrase was moral deformity of the men, as a result of suddenly being liberated from enormous mental pressure they were under during their imprisonment. It is defined as the change in moral and spiritual health. Frankl reveals “They justified their behaviour by their own terrible experiences. This was often revealed in apparently insignificant events.” He gives his friend as an example of this, as they walk through the field together, instead of walking around the young crops, his friend walks right through them. Frankl shakes his head in disapproval to which his friend responds with the quote “And hasn’t enough been taken from us? My wife and child have been gassed — not to mention everything else — and you would forbid me to tread on a few stalks of oats!” Put simply, it is the lack of realisation that no one has the right to do wrong, even when wrong has been done to them.
Furthermore, they felt bitterness caused by a number of things they came up against in their former home towns. “When, on his return, a man found that in many places he was met only with a shrug of the shoulders and heard the same phrases nearly everywhere—’We did not know about it,’ and ‘We, too, have suffered,” He tended to become bitter and to ask himself “have they really have nothing better to say to me?” and why he had gone through all that he had.” These descriptions served to inform the reader the struggle of the prisoners to find meaning in their suffering even after they left the camps. Many awaited to be reunited with loved ones, but found no survivors, many thought they had acquired ultimate strength and nothing can hurt them anymore but country to their beliefs they are unlimited number of new ways one can suffer.
The psychological states described above gave me a deep insight as a reader to what life at concentration camp was really like, in addition to immediately after. It was considerably more effective than focusing on external suffering, as it allowed the reader to comprehend and empathies the position of these prisoners on a much perceptive and emotional level. However, even when Frankl went through similar experiences and psychological pressure as many others, he found meaning to life in many ways while others could not, made apparent by their “given up” attitudes and decisions to commit suicide, most commonly running into the electric wired fence. By revealing how he discovered meaning in concentration camp he subtly already introduces the main concepts of logotherapy which he further elaborates in the second part of the book. Logotherapy a type of psychological therapy which focuses on helping the patient find meaning in his or her life experiences and challenges.
One of the main ways Frankl discovered meaning was by making himself feel useful, taking actions and doing work to better himself. Serving as a doctor to those who were ill with typhus or other diseases, in addition to helping the sick physically recover he was also an emotional leader. For example, he encountered two individuals who had given up hope on life, he asked them to think of something worth living for-one answered that he had a son waiting for him at home, and the other said he was writing a book and wanted to finish it. Secondly, his strong and incessant will to finish his manuscript destroyed earlier, where he had begun his work on a theory he would later call logotherapy, also became the key for his believe in life and survival. His dream to finally hold a complete manuscript in his hand gave him a purpose to endure the suffering imposed.
Thirdly, remembering comforting or soothing images of the past. Every chance he got he thought about pleasant events from the past, glorifying nostalgic memories. Furthermore, his belief in fate- Instead of viewing his hardships in a negative light, he accepted them as a part of his life journey that is designed to help him grow. He believed that life expected more from them and that they had to live in order to accomplish this. Moreover, his intense inner life, allowed him to experience the beauty of art and nature even in those circumstances. Shown with the quote “If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset… he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty”. Finally, taking gratitude of small moments, for example when transferred to a different concentration camp: “All through the night and late into the next morning, we had to stand outside, frozen and soaked to the skin after the strain of our long journey. And yet we were all very pleased! There was no chimney in this camp and Auschwitz was a long way off”.
In addition, according to logo therapy we can find meaning in life in three distinct ways. Firstly, by creating a work or accomplishing a task, though which we give something to the society through self-expression and using our talents in various ways, includes the creativity involved in art, writing, music, and so on. Secondary, by experiences in life -receiving from the world, through nature, relationships, interactions with others and our environment. And finally, by attitudinal values, includes virtues such as compassion, bravery, a good sense of humor, and so on, but Frankl’s most famous example is achieving meaning by way of suffering, courageously bearing what cannot be changed. What happens when we fail to find meaning in life? A term Frankl calls an ‘existential vacuum.’ and defines as a sense that life has lost all meaning, as if existence has a large hole in it that cannot be filled. It is a state of inertia, boredom, and apathy. We might try to fill the existential vacuum with ‘busy-ness,’ eating beyond all necessity, sport, pleasure, or fill our lives with certain neurotic ‘vicious cycles’ or even with anger and hatred and spend our days attempting to destroy what we think is hurting us. If this state of ‘Existential vacuum’ persists, it progresses into ‘noogenic neurosis’, characterised by the feeling one has nothing to live for. But can also arise suddenly from a conflict of values that result in conflicts in conscience rather than just progress into this state over time. Frank then continues on this topic on a much greater detail, including scenarios and coping mechanisms.
It is thus possible to conclude that within ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, Frankl’s main aims and objectives are to attempt to inspire the reader and hopefully give an alternative perspective on the significance of the moment. The phrase ‘the moment’ referring to each moment, of each day and passing second, whether it is of suffering or of happiness. By emphasising the present meaning, he diverts the readers’ attention from long term perspective on meaning, such as achieving success and happiness. In his own final words “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue”. To ensue means to follow an action, as a consequence. Admittingly, with my first attempt at providing an answer to the question “what is the meaning of life?”, the first thought that came to mind was in fact “happiness”.
This book has certainly forced me to provide an alternative outlook as I came to understand the importance of thinking of present moment when thinking about this question. He learns a lot from his experiences in the camp and believes that a prisoner’s psychological reactions are not only caused by the sufferings or adverse conditions of his life, but also from the freedom of choice that he always has even at the time of suffering. The book inspires the reader to seek for meaning in the moment which is very dynamic, unique from person to person, it changes with the function of time and therefore impossible to define.
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“Man’s search for meaning” a thought provoking novel written by Doctor Viktor Frankl, tells his own experiences in various concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Such concentration camps were an integral feature […]