“You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you”
Viktor Frankl survived the concentration camps during the Second World War, which led him experience that meaning can be found even in the worst situations and environments.
Losing it all
“We really had nothing now except our bare bodies – […] our naked existence.”
Setbacks are necessary in life, because when we have lost everything curiosity sets in. When we have nothing to lose anymore, we might as well find out what is possible if we just give it a try.
This curiosity sets in after the shock, which represents the first phase of a psychological experience. Extreme experiences challenge our beliefs and can lead to questioning everything we know.
“At that moment I saw the plain truth and did what marked the culminating point of the first phase of psychological reaction: I struck out my whole former life.”
“[…] it is not the physical pain that hurts the most; it is the mental agony cause by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.”
The second phase is highlighted by relative apathy or emotional death; a longing for home, what we know and what we are used to, sets in. We are disgusted by the ugliness surrounding us.
This leads to a regression of mental activity, basically retreating to a more primitive mental life.
The prisoners were frightened to making decisions or of taking any sort of initiative, like for example planning an escape or rebellion, because they believed that fate was their master. This led to conformity, submerging into the mass to not bring any attention to them, and ultimately the loss of individuality.
“Sometime the situation in which man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action.”
In order to keep autonomy over our own lives we have to make choices. Mankind is not living based on animal instincts anymore.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation – […] we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Even though everything had been taken from the prisoners, the inner attitude towards the environment remained in their control.
“[…] 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.”
However, the responsibility which comes with this freedom needs to be treated with care. Taken into account what effect our behavior has on the people around us.
Suffering is part of life
“Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”
The ‘size’ of suffering is absolutely relative since it fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter if the suffering is great or little. This is based on the uniqueness of every human.
“No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny.”
Frankl states that suffering is not necessary, but exceptionally difficult external situations give us the opportunity to grow. The human being is able to get used to anything, but how this happens is to be questioned. In fact, the prisoners who had lost faith in their own future, who had no goal to look forward to, were doomed. However, the ones that used these life challenges to make a triumph to these experiences were the mentally strong ones. In the words of Nietzsche:
“What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
The meaning of life
“His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
The mental strength came from a belief that the prisoners had something in their life which gave them meaning. The outlook to see their children again or finishing a book they have started before being imprisoned.
Frankl argues that we should stop asking about the meaning of life and instead should act in a responsible and authentic way in every situation.
“We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and mediation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets to each individual.”
“[…] no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”
The third phase of the psychological experience is the liberation. Although it might seem like the ultimate salvation, it holds some potential risks. After being released from the concentration camps, the prisoners had to slowly re-learn the ability to feel pleasure again. The pressure that has been put on those people had to be released. However, if it was done in a sudden way, it could lead to moral deformity. A phenomenon described was that decent man suddenly copied the brutality of the SS guards.
What contributed more to moral deformity was the disillusionment that there is still more suffering possible after surviving a concentration camp. In addition, there was also the bitterness which arouse from others not being able to understand the own pain.
The only lookout is that after the suffering, there is nothing to fear anymore.
About the author
In Frankl’s view the book is not about the terror and great horrors which one cannot grasp and that have been told enough already. Instead it is just a personal reflection of an average prisoner. Although giving credit to his humbleness, Frankl was by no means an average prisoner. He was a psychologist who later founded logotherapy. This theory is based on the belief that the most driving force in humans is the will to find meaning in our lives. In the horrifying environment of the concentration camps he was able to test and verify his theory based on his own experiences.
“For the whole world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
Man’s search for meaning was first published in 1946. The original German title was: Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager. Although the book is already 70 years old, the content is more relevant than ever.
Since the first publishing the book has been translated to more than 24 languages and has been sold over 12 million times. In 1959 it was published in English the first time. It is considered to be among the ten most influential books in America.
“Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.”
How do you find meaning in your life?
In my opinion this book needs to be read by everyone. Not only touches it on the cruelty of concentration camps given from a prisoners perspective, but it also provides so much wisdom for personal growth.