Vitkor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” can help deal with suffering

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.

Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl was the first book I read in 2018 and it left me feeling a number of different emotions. The book describes how Viktor survived the horrifying experience of being trapped in Nazi concentration camps. Immediately after finishing the book, I decided to make a number of notes about significant pages that had inspired me. I had written this blog many months ago but having just returned from Auschwitz, I felt I had to revisit this blog. It was one thing to read about Viktor’s experience in Auschwitz, it was another thing to actually see the conditions in which he lived in. For those who have never visited Auschwitz, I thoroughly recommend it as it was truly one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.

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Having a reason to survive allows you to go through excruciating levels of pain

One of the things that really struck me in the book was how many prisoners at the concentration camps wanted to die. They did not want to live in the conditions that they were living in even though many had families. Whilst the book goes into great detail about these horrendous conditions, it was still tough to fully relate or understand why many intended to kill themselves. Having visited Auschwitz, I fully understood why.

Being a Jew, meant that you would receive the worst possible treatment in concentration camps. Jewish prisoners were immediately persecuted when entering the camp, with the SS valuing their lives as the lowest. They were all victims of hunger, regular abuse, labour demands beyond the norm or they simply died in gas chambers. Another section of the prisoners were used in horrific medical experiments. The Nazis believed that all prisoners should be used to serve them or death in scientific research. Tests included hunger, sterlizations, genetic tests, electroshocks and many more.

How does any human possible survive in these conditions ? If the physical torture wasn’t enough, the mental capacity to survive and live would require something fairly special. A passage from Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning helps us understand his approach.

“As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners.

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. 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. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life any more.” What sort of answer can one give to that?

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, 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. We needed 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 meditation, 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 for each individual.

When in a camp in Bavaria I fell ill with typhus fever, I jotted down on little scraps of paper many notes intended to enable me to rewrite the manuscript, should I live to the day of liberation. I am sure that this reconstruction of my lost manuscript in the dark barracks of a Bavarian concentration camp assisted me in overcoming the danger of cardiovascular collapse.”

Vitkor’s book touches on many other areas such as logotherapy but I felt his passage on suffering especially after visiting Auschwitz particularly fascinating.

His book made me realise that you can enjoy both peace and happiness regardless of the situation you are in. This is something we have available from the day we are born. The reality is though that you will have to endure a certain amount of suffering before realising this. This is where having a strong purpose to continue is vital. Viktor showed that you can survive under incredible levels of suffering and pain which he states was only possible due to have a powerful reason that drives you forward in life. Sometimes you have to suffer before finding peace in everyday life. He finishes the book by stating that he feels the meaning of life is found in every day of being alive and that life always has a meaning even in death and pain.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”