In 1945, within months of his liberation from a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, Viktor Frankl sat down to write a book. He was forty years old. Before the war he worked as a successful psychologist in Vienna. He wrote the manuscript in nine successive days. Although the book tells the story of the unfathomable horrors and suffering he endured as a prisoner at Auschwitz, Dachau and other camps, the primary purpose of the text is to explore the source of his will to survive. The book, titled Man’s Search for Meaning, went on to sell over 10 million copies in 24 languages.
Some see life as a never-ending quest for pleasure. Others believe life is about the accumulation of power and money. Frankl sees life as primarily a quest for meaning.
As humans we often look to the margins, those extreme situations that test the fiber of human character. Viktor Frankl survived at the ultimate margin. He concludes that the ultimate test for all of us is to find meaning in our lives. And it is within the power of everyone to find meaning, regardless of your health, wealth or circumstances – no matter how miserable or dire.
1. We always retain the ability to choose our attitude.
Frankl was a keen observer of human behavior and thought. One of Frankl’s most profound observations was this:
“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 and his fellow prisoners had everything stripped from them. Their families, friends, jobs, health, possessions, even their names and the hair on their bodies; but there was one thing that remained truly their own. It is what Stoic philosophers refer to as our inner discourse or guiding principle. Namely, we get to choose how to react to any given thought, emotion or set of circumstances.
“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis, it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner-decision and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally then, any man can, under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually.”
No matter what life experiences we confront, we always have the inner-freedom to decide our attitude, and to remain true to our character and duty.
2. There will be Suffering – It’s how we React to Suffering that Counts
Frankl claims that one finds meaning in life through three ways. Through work, especially when that work is both creative in nature and aligned with a purpose greater than ourselves. Through love, which often manifests itself in the service of others. And through suffering, which is fundamental to the human experience. It is this third category that was put to the ultimate test through Frankl’s experience in the concentration camp:
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an eradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”
The test then for all of us is how we respond to the suffering in our lives.
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
3. The Power of Purpose
Frankl observed that those prisoners who survived, who found a way to endure, always had a greater purpose that carried them onward through difficult conditions. For some it was a child who was sheltered away in some distant country and who was waiting for them upon liberation. For others it was a spouse or family member. For others it was an unfinished task or creative work that required their unique contribution.
Frankl and his friends were constantly on watch for fellow prisoners who lost their purpose for life:
“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and become subject to mental and physical decay.”
While working in a camp hospital, Frankl noticed the death rate spiked the week between Christmas and New Year’s in 1944. He attributed the dramatic increase to the number of prisoners who were naively holding out hope for liberation before Christmas. As the end of the year drew closer and it became clear that their situation was unchanged, they lost courage and hope. This in turn impacted their power of resistance and their ability to survive.
Frankl refers several times to the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
4. The True Test of Our Character is Revealed in How we Act
Frankl comes to the conclusion that there is no general answer to the meaning of life. Each person must answer the question for themselves. We find our own unique meaning based on our circumstances, our relationships and our experiences. Life is essentially testing us, and the answer is revealed in how we respond.
“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Therefore, the meaning of life is not found on some mountaintop, rather it is revealed daily and hourly, in our choice to take the right action and to perform our duties and responsibilities.
5. Human Kindness can be Found in the Most Surprising Places
One would assume that the camp guards and camp commander were, as a whole, terrible people. However, Frankl occasionally experienced startling moments of human kindness from guards. Frankl recalls a time when a guard, at great risk to himself, secretly gave him a piece of bread. “It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at the time. It was the human “something” that this man gave to me – the word and look which accompanied the gift.” At the same time, the senior prison warden, who was a prisoner himself, beat other prisoners at the slightest opportunity.
“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.”
Frankl claims there are really only two types of people; decent human beings and indecent human beings. Both can be found everywhere. They penetrate every group and every society.
“Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil?”
Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is a profoundly moving and ultimately inspiring book. Finding and cultivating meaning in our daily lives is critical if we want to achieve what Socrates calls “a life well-lived.” Frankl’s insights teach us that, not only is there value in our search for meaning, but it is the duty of each and every one of us to find that meaning for ourselves and pursue it.
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