The Meaning of Life Nobody Ever Told You
“Human freedom is not a freedom from but freedom to.”
It was 25 September 1942 when Viktor Frankl and his wife were deported to the Nazi Theresienstadt Ghetto. Here, Frankl served as a general practitioner in a clinic where his skills in psychiatry proved useful. He was allocated to a psychiatric care ward, establishing a service of mental health care. He set up a unit to aid the newcomers to the camp in overcoming the shock, depression and grief suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
Frankl had been interested in depression and suicide when he was studying medicine at the University of Vienna. He would later go on to treat people who had suicidal tendencies at the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospitaland and in 1937 he even set up his own private practice for those with depression.
On 19 October 1944, Frankl and his wife Tilly were transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. He was moved to Kaufering, a camp affiliated with Dachau, on 25 October, where he spent five months working as a slave laborer. In March 1945, he was offered a move to Türkheim, also affiliated with Dachau, where he worked as a physician until 27 April 1945, when American soldiers liberated the camp.
Viktor Frankl observed the psychological consequences of imprisonment on his fellow inmates. He quickly discovered that the inmates were engaged in a constant struggle to find a meaning to their suffering.
The horrific subjugation of the inmates caused many to view their lives as empty and defeated. Perhaps rightly so, but in order to survive the camp, Frankl wrote, each inmate had to discover a meaning within that would force them to keep on living.
The inmates needed, as Frankl wrote, to change their perception towards their lives. Inmates had to realise that their expectations no longer mattered. What mattered was whether they were able to answer the questions that life was asking of them. In other words, the inmates had to stop questioning the meaning of their lives, and instead begin to see that life was testing them.
“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 human freedoms — to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances — to choose one’s own way.”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
This change in attitude required immense strength and courage since it was easy, even perhaps justifiable, to fall into despair and allow death to take them away. The meaning of life in the camp, then, was to accept the challenge of suffering at every moment. Inmates had to admit their pain as a contest to overcome and remind themselves of this cause every waking moment in a deliberate fight to push back nihilism.
Frankl noted that humour was one tool the inmates used to show to life that they were braving its challenges. Laughter became their attack against the certainty of their hardships because to laugh at something is to show that you do not fear it. But, laughter also masked their pain, and the more the inmates laughed, the more they demonstrated to each other just how much pain they could handle. The laughter of the inmates acted as a protest, a refusal to bend to their horrific circumstances. Laughter showed to the others that they now viewed their suffering as a trial to pass through, rather than a chance to withdraw.
This change in perspective was critical if the inmates were to survive the brutal conditions of Auschwitz.
Of course, disease, hunger and exhaustion were great struggles that each inmate had to battle. But, Frankl wrote that if an inmate lost their reason to continue, death would always follow. The recognition of a purpose to their suffering allowed many inmates to avoid the main causes of death, namely apathy, disease and fatigue.
A meaning to life, Frankl believed, exists as a guardian angel that protects and serves the beholder.
Frankl gives the example of an inmate whose reason for living was based on rumours surrounding the date when the camp would be liberated. He grew ever more excited as the rumoured date neared, but when the expected day came, everything was as it always was and the rumours grew silent. The inmate refused to leave the hut the next day for work, dying days later from a loss of hope.
No inmate could rely on their own expectations of how life should or should not be. Instead, for a chance of survival, you had to view life as a constant struggle for answers.
Life, then, should be seen as a responsibility, a call to fulfil all that is expected from you.
“The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Viktor Frankl extended his experiences in the concentration camp to normal life after the Second World War. Frankl returned to Vienna and began lecturing his own approach to psychological healing. He named this approach ‘logotherapy’, the founding premise being that a meaning to one’s life is the most powerful motivational force anybody could have.
Frankl wrote that we can find a meaning to life in three ways. The first is changing the attitude we have towards unavoidable suffering:
“Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now how could I help him? What should I tell him? I refrained from telling him anything, but instead confronted him with a question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive without you?:”
“Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left the office.”
Page 178–179, Man’s Search for Meaning.
He also gives the example of how a distraught woman came to his clinic and told him that she wished to commit suicide. The single mother had three children, two had recently died and she was left alone to take care of her disabled son.
The mother was suffering from depression, but Frankl eased her mind by reminding her that if it were not for her care, her son would now be in a disabled institution living in squalid conditions without the love of his mother. Frankl’s calm words shifted the mother’s perspective. She realised that she held a great meaning to her life — to be a mother.
Love is another a powerful source of meaning to people’s lives.
Viktor Frankl held the image of his wife, Tilly Grosser, closely throughout his long struggle in Auschwitz and most definitely for the rest of his life. He would spend many nights visualising her face and even holding mental conversations with her whilst he worked.
The image of his wife protected his heart from breaking and the hope that he might see her again was enough to keep him moving.
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
It is in love that your eyes open and you discover the person for who they truly are; they are divine, they entice your heart and you wish to never part. It is a rather spiritual experience. Those who know better understand that to refuse such a love would be to refuse life itself, for love serves as a beacon, a sun that illuminates all other forms.
Love has always been, throughout history, a great source of meaning in people’s lives. And, it was love that carried Frankl through the long days of exhaustion, disease, mud and toil in the concentration camp.
Frankl’s wife was murdered in 1944 at Bergen-Belsen. He also lost both of his parents and a brother during the Holocaust. His sister left for Australia after the War.
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather a striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not a discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
In this time of peace and prosperity, Frankl noted that to live a life of meaning one must find their unique vocation. This will often be a discipline of sort — art, writing or perhaps carpentry — or maybe a specific purpose. For Frankl, this was a scientific manuscript that he had completed before the War. The guards of the camp had destroyed it and he wished to one day rewrite it and share his knowledge to the world.
Everyone, Frankl wrote, knows what it is they should do with their life and those who dare to take on the obligation will ensure a life of fulfilment.
Each person has a gift; it is the responsibility of the beholder to act on this gift and not deprive others of what has been provided to them naturally. It is during the pilgrimage, the struggle against the wind where people find true fulfilment. The act of realising your potential is a meaningful responsibility for everyone.
Each meaning to life will vary with significance at different stages in one’s journey. There are times of affluence and times of unavoidable hardships in everyone’s life.
All three meanings can intertwine with each other too.
But, Frankl wrote that it takes only one — viewing suffering as an opportunity, love for someone or striving for an achievement — to live a meaningful and therefore fulfilling life.
Thank you for reading.
Harry J. Stead