Viktor Frankl was a remarkable man.
He was a prisoner in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany during WWII, and lost his wife, father, mother and brother there.
Yet through all of the horrors he witnessed and the physical and mental suffering he endured, he was able to survive because of what he calls “the will to meaning.”
In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl recounts his experiences there, and how we was able to use his theories – called logotherapy – to stay alive when most people were not.
In our summary, we’ll start off with a summary of his theories, and then move on to how he was able to apply them during his time at Auschwitz, and later at Dachau.
It’s one of the more powerful books I’ve ever read, and I hope it has as big of an impact on you as it had on me.
Let’s get started.
Logotherapy is considered the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy”, along with Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology.
At the core of his theories is the idea of will to meaning, compared to Freud who focuses on the will to pleasure, and Adler who focuses on the will to power.
Essentially, the idea is that striving to find personal meaning in life is the most motivating and driving force in a person’s life.
“Logos” is the Greek word for meaning, and so logotherapy involves helping a patient find personal meaning in their life.
There are three basic principles of logotherapy:
- Freedom of Will: Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
- Will to Meaning: Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
- Meaning of Life: We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stance we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.
Ways of Finding Meaning
According to Frankl, people discover meaning in life in three different ways:
- Work: by creating a work or accomplishing a task.
- Love: by experiencing something in life or encountering someone, through the quality of love.
- Attitude: by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” and 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.
Frankl gives an example in the book that illustrates his point perfectly:
“”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.””
Now let’s move on to discuss how Frankl applied his own theories to survive the brutal suffering inflicted upon him in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
Suffering and The Human Body
One of the things that struck me most about Frankl’s retelling of his experiences is his reflection on how tough and adaptable the human body actually is.
Upon entering the concentration camps, the prisoners were stripped of almost everything they held onto in their previous lives immediately.
Most of the people who had arrived at the camps did not make it past the first day. Those who looked sick or unfit for work were sent directly to the gas chambers.
Those who survived the first round of selections were about to find out what the human body and mind were capable of.
They were separated from their families, stripped and shaved from head to toe, and any possessions they brought with them were taken from them. Then they were given a number which they had tattooed on their body.
Once they were in the camps they started to learn that much of what they thought they knew about the human body was not correct.
Here, Frankl recounts some of the punishment they had to endure:
“We were unable to clean our teeth, and yet, in spite of that and a severe vitamin deficiency, we had healthier gums than ever before. We had to wear the same shirts for half a year, until they had lost all appearance of being shirts. For days we were unable to wash, even partially, because of frozen water pipes, and yet the sores and abrasions on hands which were dirty from work in the soil did not suppurate (that is, unless there was frostbite).”
Frankl goes on to recount that they were forced to live on very little sleep, very little food (a piece of bread and small portions of watery soup were all they got to eat), and work insanely hard day after day, week after week, and for those who were able to find meaning in this unimaginable suffering, year after year.
Not to mention the mental suffering that was inflicted upon them. They walked around knowing that if they started to let their physical suffering show, they would be taken to the gas chamber to be put out of their misery. They knew that because they saw it happen daily.
(As a side note, it’s impossible to describe in a summary the full extent of the physical and mental horrors the prisoners would have endured. Find a book or do some research online to fully comprehend their experience.)
And yet, somehow, many of the people in the camps lived to discuss the experience. How? Why?
Frankl found that those that survived the experience somehow used the power of their minds to find meaning in the experience. If they held on to that, no matter how harsh and brutal the experience became, they could survive.
He tells a powerful story of how they knew that somebody had given up the will to live, and how they knew that, in quick order, that person would die.
If you were an exemplary worker, you would sometimes be given a reward of cigarettes. The cigarettes became a form of currency in the camps. You could trade in your cigarettes for extra servings of soup or bread. And so, if you still had the will to live, that’s what you would do. A little extra calories went a long way in making you stronger and more fit for work, and thus, helping you stay alive.
Those who had given up would smoke their cigarettes. And so, they knew that when they saw a fellow prisoner smoking, it wouldn’t be long before they were gone.
What allowed Frankl and many other prisoners survive was the will to live.
Let’s move on to cover the three different meanings of logotherapy, and how Frankl used them all to survive.
One of the things that Frankl did during his time in the concentration camps was to rewrite a manuscript that was confiscated from him upon his entry.
Of course, this was no easy task. He mostly had to keep his ideas alive in his head because there was no way the Nazi’s would allow him to rewrite it in full. The would simply confiscate it again and likely put him to death.
He was able to write portions of it out on scraps of paper he kept hidden, and often imagined himself giving lectures about logotherapy and how he used those principles to survive the camps.
Thus, even though his current circumstances didn’t offer him any hope of ever seeing beyond the barbed wire fences surrounding the camp, he found true meaning in the suffering he endured. He knew that logotherapy would have the ability to help thousands or even millions of people around the world overcome challenges in their lives, and he needed to survive to tell his story.
One day, as Frankl was marching along with his fellow prisoners to their work site for the day, the person beside him whispered in his ear:
“If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That led Frankl to think of his own wife, and also to contemplate that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.
In the book he says the following:
“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. I understand 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.”
Love, for Frankl, was the ultimate antidote to pain. We’ll explore in the next section the idea that, no matter how harsh our circumstances, we have the ability to choose our response to it. Responding to punishment with thoughts of love was for him the ultimate coat of armour.
Keep in mind that it wasn’t the hope that his wife was alive that kept him going – it was recalling the love he felt for her.
“I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out (during all my prison life there was no outgoing or incoming mail); but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying.”
Our Attitude Towards Suffering
Let’s start this section with a quote from the book:
“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.”
To put it simply, one day you will die, and along the way you are likely to suffer quite a bit.
While none of us will probably endure the intensity of suffering that the poor souls in the Nazi concentration camps had to endure, we will all have periods of suffering in one form or another.
As Frankl tells us, in these moments we are faced with a choice. Suffering can either be a meaningful experience in our life, or we can let it turn into a bitter fight for self-preservation, forgetting our human dignity and becoming nothing more than an animal.
So what does it mean to “suffer well?”
Suffering well is an inner triumph. It was clear to every prisoner that life as they knew it was over. They were simply going to be worked to death in those camps, one way or another.
There was going to be no outward reward for “doing the right thing” for fellow prisoners. In fact, the only outward rewards were reserved for men who turned themselves into animals.
Those who were willing to beat their fellow prisoners were promoted to guards, which came along with larger food rations, more comfortable sleeping quarters and less demanding work.
But that didn’t stop some of the prisoners from choosing to suffer well. Frankl tells stories of some prisoners walking around comforting the other prisoners, sometimes giving the weakest among them their last pieces of bread.
Their response to their own suffering, and how they found meaning in that suffering, was to find ways to alleviate the suffering of others, even if it was just for a moment.
Which means that, even in the darkest of our experiences, we have a choice in how to respond.
You may also like to read:
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a &%$# by Mark Manson
- Happy Hour is 9 to 5 by Alexander Kjerulf
- The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
- You are a Badass by Jen Sincero
- 12 Rules For Life by Jordan Peterson
- Payoff by Dan Ariely
- Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile
- Best Self by Mike Bayer
- Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis