Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor E. Frankl wrote this book based on his very own experience of being an “ordinary prisoner” in the concentration camps (Auschwitz and others) during the second world war. Reading this book, it is evident that his pre-war profession as a psychiatrist allowed acute observation and contemplation. This book tries to answer the question how was everyday life in a WWII concentration camp reflected in the mind of the prisoners. It is “not so much concerned with the sufferings of the mighty”, such as great heroes and martyrs, prominent Capos or well-known prisoners who had special privileges, “but with the sacrifices, the crucifixion and the deaths of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims”. It is about the unrelenting struggle for daily bread and watery soup, the hard fight to keep one alive for one’s own sake or for that of loved ones.

The following paragraph shows a glimpse of probably one of the many challenges for Viktor E. Frankl in writing this book. “To attempt a methodical presentation of the subject is very difficult, as psychology requires a certain scientific detachment. But does a man who makes his observations while he himself is a prisoner possess the necessary detachment? Such detachment is granted to the outsider, but he is too far removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man inside knows. His judgements may not be objective; his evaluations may be out of proportion. This is inevitable. An attempt must be made to avoid any personal bias, and that is the real difficulty of a book of this kind. At times it will be necessary to have the courage to tell of very intimate experiences.

The book focuses on examines the three phases of the camp inmate’s mental reactions to camp life. Firstly, the period following the admission; secondly, the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; thirdly, the period following his release and liberation.

The first phase is characterized by shock, “delusion of reprieve”, surprise, curiosity and so on.

“Like a drowning man clutching a straw, my inborn optimism (which has often controlled my feelings even in the most desperate situations) clung to this thought: These prisoners look quite well, they seem to be in good spirits and even laugh. Who knows? I might manage to share their favorable position…… We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad….Nearly everyone in our transport lived under the illusion that he would be reprieved, that everything would yet be well.”

“Thus the illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives.”

“A man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.”

“There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.”

The second phase is the phase of relative apathy, “in which he achieved a kind of emotional death”.

“If my lack of emotion had not surprised me from the standpoint of professional interest, I would not remember this incident now, because there was so little feeling involved in this. Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings. By means of this insensibility the prisoner soon surrounded himself with a very necessary protective shell.”

“A blow which does not even find its mark can, under certain circumstances, hurt more than one that finds its mark…That guard did not think it worthwhile to say anything, not even a swear word, to the ragged, emaciated figure standing before him, which probably reminded him only vaguely of a human form. Instead, he playfully picked up a stone and threw it at me. That, to me, seemed the way to attract the attention of a beast, to call a domestic animal back to its job, a creature with which you have so little in common that you do not even punish it.”

“…I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us…”

“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 innerselves was less. THey were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.”

“Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire…The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. ”

“Is that theory true which would have use believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? Is man but an accidental product of these?……The experience of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. May can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”

“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.”

“Not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. 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.”

“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”.

“What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you. Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind. ”

Lastly, the third stage of a prisoner’s mental reactions: the psychology of the prisoner after liberation, characterized with moral deformity, bitterness and disillusionment. At the beginning of this part, Viktor E. Frankl first talked about the psychological makeup of the camp guards and shared his analysis grouped to four thoughts on this (page 84 and 85, if you are interested in learning more). Here I only include some quotes to elaborate on the fourth one. “It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils…There are two races in this world, but only these two – the race of the decent man and the race of the indecent man.”

The realisation of the freedom that the prisoners long dreamed for was a slow process. For some time, the regained freedom seemed to be dreamy and there were no profound feelings about the world outside the camp, a world which they did not feel they belong to yet. The lost ability of having feelings had to be relearned after the sudden release of the mental pressure.  

“When we spoke about attempts to give a man in camp mental courage, we said that he had to be shown something to look forward to in the future. He had to be reminded that life still waited for him, that a human being waited for his return. But after liberation? There were some men who found that no one awaited them. Woe to him who found that the person whose memory alone had given him courage in camp did not exist any more! Woe to him who, when the day of his dreams finally came, found it so different from all he had longed for! Perhaps he boarded a trolley, traveled out to the home which had seen for years in his mind, and only in his mind, and pressed the bell, just as he has longed to do in thousands of dreams, only to find that the person who should open the door was not there, and would never be there again.”

“But for every one of the liberated prisoners, the day comes when, looking back on his camp experiences, he can no longer understand how he endured it all. As the day of his liberation eventually came, when everything seemed to him like a beautiful dream, so also the day comes when all his camp experiences seem to him nothing but a nightmare. The Crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more – except his God. ”

Here ends the book “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl. It is a small volume with mighty power on my inner being.