The Meaning of Life — Explained by a Holocaust Survivor
“If we take man as he is, we make him worse. But if we take man as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”
In paraphrasing Goethe, Viktor Frankl just delivered a big lesson about what it means to be a good therapist to Canadian psychology students. The year is 1972.
Frankl is a neurology professor at the university of Vienna. He holds a PhD in philosophy, an M.D., and is a bestselling author and sought-after speaker.
30 years before, none of this seemed possible. On most days, it was more likely for Frankl to die than see another sunrise. Being Jewish, Frankl was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942, a concentration camp. He lost his father there. His mother and brother died in Auschwitz. His wife in another.
There is no combination of words that can paint a picture gruesome enough to convey what existing in a concentration camp must have felt like.
Frankl survived. Upon his return to Vienna, he dedicated the rest of his life to spreading a lesson he had learned during his darkest times: Humans can — and must — find meaning in their lives — even if it’s attached to suffering.
He also wrote a book about the topic. It’s called Man’s Search For Meaning and became a world-wide bestseller. It still is today. Here are 3 lessons about the meaning of life from a holocaust survivor, acclaimed academic, and teacher.
1. Indifference to death can allow people to survive.
According to Frankl, all camp prisoners went through several phases, one of which distinguished him and his surviving peers from the rest:
The only way to survive was to be okay with dying at any moment.
This is a paradox, but it makes sense: Looking at themselves as merely existing rather than living allowed prisoners to shield their minds from the terrors around them. Indifference to death allowed them, ironically, to do what was necessary to survive.
Everything you take for granted today was extremely limited inside the camps: Food, clothing, water, and sleep. To summon the apathy they needed to, say, grab a pair of shoes off a dead body or hide in a pile of excrement to avoid the guards, they had to completely surrender to the present.
Accepting death was the only way to survive.
2. Each life has its own meaning — you go find yours.
There is no such thing as “the best move in chess.” There is, however, a best move for any particular constellation of the pieces on the board.
“Best” is subjective. Always. It’s context-dependent. There’s a “best” for every situation, but no “best” can beat another in a different scenario.
Similarly, there is no general meaning of life. There is only your meaning — and it depends on how you think, act, and decide in any moment.
Rather than asking, “What’s the meaning of life?” Frankl says life asks us — and it is only by taking responsibility that we can craft our answer.
We do not ask life what the meaning of life is. Life asks us, “What is the meaning of your life?” And life demands our answer.
Logotherapy, the subject Frankl taught, thus clears up a common myth: You don’t have to find the meaning of life in order to live your best one; living your best life is the answer — that’s how you find meaning.
Frankl found meaning even while stumbling barefoot through the night, being forced to walk across icy rocks and through big puddles to carry stones from A to B for the Nazis. He imagined his wife’s face up in the clouds and, if only for a second, he found love and fulfillment before continuing his journey.
How much responsibility you bring to the decisions you make will determine how much meaning you can extract from your life.
3. Make your fears come true to make them go away.
To give people an increased sense of control over their lives, logotherapy pushes them to focus on their internal state rather than their external surroundings.
Viktor Frankl used something called paradoxical intention to do so.
If a patient couldn’t sleep, he told her to lie in bed at night and try really hard not to sleep. As soon as patients tried to force the very thing they were afraid of, it stopped working.
We’ve all experienced this. We really wanted to do well, to perform, to show our friends a cool new trick. Of course, that time, it didn’t work. While this “demonstration effect” will sometimes work against us, we can also use it to combat our fears!
If you’re afraid of stuttering in front of your friends, next time you meet them, try to stutter as much as you can. Your “ability to stutter” will likely “cramp up,” and you might find your stutter naturally fades.
Sometimes, the only way to destroy your fears is to make them come true.
Man’s Search For Meaning is a firsthand account of the darkest times in human history. On top of Viktor Frankl’s moving story, it teaches us resilience, patience, and how to find meaning in a chaotic world.
Here are 3 lessons worth remembering:
- In immediate danger, the only way to survive might be to surrender to death, focus solely on the present, and let your ancient survival instinct take over.
- Each life has its own meaning, and it’s up to you to define yours by bringing responsibility and dedication to everything you do.
- If you try to force your worst fears to come true, chances are, they’ll just go away. Use paradoxical intentions as a tool to take control of your life.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
— Viktor Frankl