Viktor Frankl: Finding Meaning in Suffering

“Wooden crucifix with figure of Jesus laying on a dark table” by IV Horton on Unsplash

Viktor E. Frankl (1905–1997) was a Jewish psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor. In this capacity, he wrote one of the most important books of the 20th century, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). The book is not so much a description of the horrors of life in the concentration camp than it is a meditation on the nature of man, and his eternal search for meaning. From a 21st century perspective, Frankl’s book is both unsettling and horrifying, and yet it is one of the most hopeful and awe-inspiring books one could ever read. In fact, it might be the most effective remedy against nihilism devised in the 20th century; it might even have cured me of my depression, of which I’ve written elsewhere. In this review, I will go through some of the key observations Frankl made while in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Kaufering, and Türkheim, and some of his main psychotherapeutic ideas.

As a psychiatrist, Frankl was mainly interested in the effects the oppressive environment of the concentration camps had on the Jewish prisoners. Many of his observations are as insightful as they are surprising. For example, as the Jewish prisoners were stripped bare naked and removed of whatever possessions they still had left after their arrival to the camp, the preferred recourse for many of them was to adopt a grim sense of humor: “We knew we had nothing to lose except our ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays!”

Since life in the camp was stripped to its bare minimum, and since every single day was a desperate struggle against the ravages of hunger, cold, sickness, fatigue, and the callousness of the guardsmen and the Capo’s (Jewish prisoners awarded special privileges by the Nazi’s), even the smallest little trifles could turn into a source of delight:

One morning I heard someone, whom I knew to be brave and dignified, cry like a child because he finally had to go to the snowy marching grounds in his bare feet, as his shoes were too shrunken for him to wear. In those ghastly minutes, I found a little bit of comfort; a small piece of bread which I drew out of my pocket and munched with absorbed delight.

But even under these conditions, it was possible to maintain one’s sense of integrity. Frankl writes that “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. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain… but the damage to their inner selves was less.” He observes that those who were of this disposition were able to retreat to a life of “inner riches and spiritual freedom”, even though they were of a more delicate constitution than some of the more robustly built prisoners.

Frankl’s main observation is that when the external conditions are as desperate and hopeless as they can get, one can still find salvation by looking inward, and that even in the oppressive and soul-crushing environment of the concentration camp, one could still make a choice. Apathy could be defeated, spiritual and intellectual freedom could be maintained, and one’s sense of humanity could be preserved:

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 the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Frankl notes that the one deciding factor behind the state of a prisoner’s inner self was a result of free choice, and that those who let their spiritual selves subside to the circumstances of the concentration camp fell victim to its degenerative influences. No doubt this was the case for most of the Jewish prisoners. The question is: how could one avoid such a fate?

Frankl realized that it was those who had no future goal to look forward to who were unable to resist the degrading and soul-crushing circumstances of the concentration camp. Instead of looking at the opportunities offered to them then and there, they focused on their past, and in so doing deprived themselves of the opportunity of psychological and spiritual transformation: “Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself… They preferred to close their eyes and live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.”

Frankl states that most people in the concentration camp believed that the real opportunities in life had passed, even though they in fact had been offered an opportunity — and a challenge: “One could make a victory of these experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.” In Nietzsche’s terms, making a victory of these experiences would require transforming every ‘it was’ into an ‘I willed it thus!’, that is, to take hold of the situation, accept one’s fate, and strive towards a goal worth pursuing. And Frankl believed that Nietzsche’s dictum “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” could have been the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic efforts concerning the prisoners in Auschwitz.

What was needed, then, was a “fundamental change” in the attitude of the prisoners towards life. It required that the prisoners abstained from asking about the meaning of life and started to think of themselves as ones who were being questioned by life on an hourly and daily basis. For Frankl, life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfil the tasks it sets for us. He did not think the question of meaning could be answered by sweeping statements, because life and the tasks offered by it are real and concrete.

One situation demands its own, unique response, and the nature of the response is dependent on the situation at hand, and on the individual facing it. “No situation repeats itself”, writes Frankl, “and each situation calls for a different response… Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.” And herein lies the answer to the problem of suffering:

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

After he was liberated from camp, Frankl developed a form of therapy called logotherapy (the term is derived from the Greek word logos, denoting meaning), which focuses on the meaning of human existence and man’s search for such a meaning. The basic tenet of logotherapy is that the search for meaning is the primary motivational force in man, and that the way towards a meaningful existence is to find a goal worth striving for:

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

This insight is not just an answer, but a challenge. It is a call to find something in our lives that is worth pursuing, or a goal worth striving for. It is a strong answer to a difficult question, a deep insight acquired under the most arduous circumstances. That a person could go through the experiences of someone like Frankl and emerge from it with the insight that meaning can be found even as a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz is a testament to the inexhaustible depths of human endurance and the unyielding strength of the human spirit. Although it might not always be the case that we emerge stronger out of our tribulations, Frankl has shown that even under impossibly difficult and horrendous conditions, it is still possible to look to the skies, ask whether life has any meaning, and receive a joyful and resounding yes as an answer.