Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl – Part 1

MSFM

Man’s Search for Meaning

Having been recommended by a couple of friends to give it a read, and having seen it referenced in a few books and by notable figures I follow. There are two main parts of the book, the first part covering Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps, and the second Frankl briefly states his theory of logotherapy and how one can apply it to one’s own life. The title of the book says everything about what I have been trying to do and what I am currently doing. And in reading it I have thought hard about the things in my life that bring it meaning and how I can develop and bring life more meaning. The book is an eye-opener and I suggest everyone to read it, as I will only cover so much of the book and will not be able to bring the full impact that it delivers. In the foreword of the book, it states that “this book is less about his travails, what he suffered and lost, than it is about the sources of his strength to survive.” Already one page down an I knew that I would have to share all that I learn to those of you that read my blog. I hope I can do this great book justice.

Frankl starts the main parts of the book with a preface, where he touches on why he wrote the book and how he initially wanted to publish it anonymously as to bring him no fame. However, thankfully he was persuaded by friends to at least release it with his name on the title page.  He also covers why he thinks that his book is not a best seller due to the thought-provoking content but rather of the times, in so much as that a book like this is read by millions searching for meaning in their lives and in their suffering. He recounts the story as to why he stayed in Austria, even though he had an immigration visa to continue his studies on logotherapy in America. Where he could not make his mind up between leaving and developing his theory or staying and looking after his parents. Through a piece of marble with a Hebrew letter engraved on it, which he asked his father what it stood for. The reply was “Honor thy father and thy mother that thy day may be long upon the land” which he states was the moment he made his decision.

Part one, as said above, covers Frankl’s experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. I wish I could include some of the whole pages in here as there is so much to relay to you. Frankl states that this book is not about the great horrors or the mighty who stood up to it but it is more about the millions of common prisoners, their sacrifices, and their psychology. Frankl states that there are three phases of an inmate’s mental reactions to camp life: the period following his admission, the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine, and the period following his liberation. He covers each of these throughout part one giving examples of each from his point of view and from what he observes.

He goes on to describe the train’s arrival to Auschwitz, and how upon the carriage doors being flung open a group of prisoners ran inside the station. He notes that they looked well fed and in high spirits, and his optimism that camp life might not be so bad and that he may be able to hold a position like that of the prisoners standing before him. Frankl states the condition in psychiatry known as “delusion of reprieve”, where at the last minute one hopes that the terrible situation turns around for them (often seen in death row inmates immediately before their execution). Noting that almost everyone, including him, all under the impression that things were going to be alright. I too have felt something akin to this, where after a few tests, I would be cleared of not having to go in for surgery. I believe this comes from the optimism that everyone has in dire straits, and one trying to protect themselves. I always said throughout my battle that I would hope for the best but expect the worst, this was a way to combat the feeling of ‘it can’t be happening to me.’

After recounting the horrors on the first day at Auschwitz, Frankl continues, “Thus the illusions some of us still had were destroyed… , and then quiet unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor.” To my friends, during my ordeal, I would frequently joke about my situation and my mortality. Once, the realization of the situation and the fact that it is very real and there is no way out, this humor comes out. I thought of it as a defense mechanism of sorts, as to reduce the seriousness of the situation, and why not make a joke about something so serious, there is a small chance that your life may end, why put yourself through more stress and focus on all that is bad.

There are many more aspects that Frankl talks about in the first phase, the longing for home and loved ones, the disgust in what was around him in the camps, the empathy towards other prisoners when they would be punished. However, once the prisoner had moved into the second phase, they would no longer look away when these beatings would happen, they had lost their emotion and watch unmoved. Emotions of disgust, pity or horror would no longer be felt, they had become desensitized to all that was around them. Frankl recounts many stories of things he saw but did not flinch at, a 12-year old’s toes being snapped off as they had become frostbitten, seeing typhus patients die before his eyes and others pinch the dead’s clothing and shoes. He does note that he only remembers the lack of emotion due to his surprise from a professional standpoint. I can only say that the only time I have had a similar feeling of desensitization is from my many blood tests and my hospital stays. I used to hate needles and would feel faint whenever I got them, I now have no problem with them, I no longer feel faint and feel nothing. Yet another way of protecting oneself from the situation.

Even through all this, Frankl still states that there was art, songs being sung, jokes being told, all in the effort to forget and even those that were fatigued, would miss food to witness the group and laugh with them. Frankl notes that humor is one defense that the brain uses to fight suffering. He uses an analogy to help explain how if you have no humor and let suffering take over your thoughts you will be absorbed by it completely.

“a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill it completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus, suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of the human suffering is absolutely relative.”

Frankl continues that those that let the suffering take hold, they would often never be able to come back from it and slowly wither away and die. After some time, prisoners would be able to pick who would go next with relative accuracy, this was just another aspect of the second phase of camp psychology.

Frankl recounts his first morning when one of his old colleagues, who had arrived at Auschwitz a few weeks before him, came into his block to comfort and calm the men. He urged the men to take it upon themselves to have a little discipline, shave daily if possible, to look younger, and for them to look fit for work. Stand tall and walk upright, even if they had blisters that caused them to limp. Otherwise, there was the high chance of them being noticed that they are not able to work and they would be sent to the gas chambers. I believe that discipline is often overlooked as a means to live a good life. As I wake up most days at 5am I often get asked why do I do it. The answer being quite simple, If I get up and out of bed at 5 I am able to fit more into my day. Starting with gym or jiu-jitsu, then I have won the first part of my day and allows me to focus on the next task, work or whatever may follow. The next question usually is but then how are you able to do anything else if you have such a strict timetable. This is often a great misconception, being disciplined doesn’t mean you can’t do anything else. This is the counterintuitive part, I have more time because I am disciplined, I can do more as I don’t deviate or get sidetracked. It also gets me into the mindset of completing tasks and I feel good when I win that challenge. I think that this would be the most important part of discipline in the death camps, having the attitude that you have won that part of your day, or you won that day.

A constant throughout the book is that everything can be taken from a man, except his attitude, and that life is not complete without suffering. Therefore, man is constantly confronted with choices, choices of his attitude, thoughts, words, and actions. Most of the prisoners had the attitude that life had already passed them, and there were no more opportunities in life though they would be wrong to think that, as Frankl writes:

“Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of prisoners.”

Going through suffering is part of life, and you can either let life slip by and as Frankl says, vegetate, or you can front up to the challenge given to you and overcome it. Everyone has their own challenges and suffering, and there is no point complaining about who has it worse off, as it is only up to the individual to overcome it.

Frankl tells of a rise in deaths at the camps around Christmas and New Years’ time, not due to execution or illness, but due to many holding out for the war to finish at that time. Many had hoped that they would be rescued at that time, and when it never happened they lost all meaning to stay alive and resist death. Referencing Nietzsche, Frankl says:

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

So, whenever he had the chance to give a man a why for his suffering he often carried on living, the could range from loved ones to careers after the camp. So, everyone has a ‘unique opportunity’ to bear their suffering and give life meaning.

Now coming to the third phase of the psychology of a prisoner, after his liberation. Frankl describes the morning of the day they gained freedom, walking from the camp to a nearby town they could not fully grasp their new reality, they could only get small sparks of joy, for example when they saw the meadows full of flowers, or when a rooster crowed. Once returning to the camp in the evening, Frankl notes the conversation between some of the inmates.

One said secretly to the other, “Tell me, were you please today?”

the other replied, “Truthfully, on!”

They had lost the ability to feel pleased, He states that the feelings of displeasure were due to the prisoners having been “depersonalized”. They had dreamt of the day, yet now that it was here, they could not fully grasp it. He goes on to say that the body, unlike the mind, had fewer complexes. From eating and drinking non-stop, to talking for hours it was now unrestrained.

Frankl tells the story of him and a friend walking towards the nearby town and come upon a field of crops, he starts to head around the crops, however, his friend decided to drag him through it. After Frankl protesting at this action and not wanting to destroy the crop, his friend became annoyed and aggressive, shouting, “You don’t say! And hasn’t enough been taken from us? My wife and child have been gassed – not to mention everything else – and you would forbid me to tread on a few stalks of oats!” This ruthlessness coming from being free after being under the influence of such brutality, they thought they could justify their actions and behavior by their own terrible experiences. He states that prisoners with this attitude could slowly be brought back to the everyday truth that “no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.” Many prisoners carried with them such bitterness and their morals often disillusioned from their camp life.

When the man who had been told that life still had meaning for him inside the camp, now out, he found out that the why that he had no longer existed outside of camp. These men had a hard time coming to terms with overcoming their suffering, not in the hope that they would gain the happiness to combat the suffering but they were not prepared for unhappiness. Frankl says that he had a hard time helping those men out, as he had a hard time coming to terms with his own losses and suffering. But he found a new meaning, the meaning of helping those prisoners out. Talking about how difficult overcoming the suffering will be, Frankl says:

“but this must not be a discouragement to him; on the contrary, it should provide an added stimulus.”

This is something a think a lot of people forget, that in their suffering instead of seeing an immovable object, they should see a challenge to overcome. How they do that is up to the person, and once the challenge is overcome, one can look back and see how much they have endured and know that they can overcome more.

I will cover part two in a separate review, as I have gained so much from this book and I wish to share all of it with you reading this. I recommend that you pick up a copy of this book to read it for yourself as I have left out a lot and I will never be able to do it justice.

Please like, comment, share and follow.

See you on the mats.

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