This book is Frankl’s account of surviving the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, as told from his perspective as a psychiatrist. He readily admits that the conditions were so brutal that every ounce of energy had to be put into survival to even have a chance. He gives the example of earning a “bonus” for hard work in the prison; he knew somebody had given up when they used the “bonus” for the pleasure of a cigarette rather than for an extra soup ration.
Another example is his memory of when another prisoner died and he stared blankly and continued to eat his soup while others looted the corpse; he said that the only reason he remembers such an everyday occurrence was that his psychiatrist self observed with wonder that he had lost all ability to care about the other prisoner’s fate because he was too focused on his own survival.
But this book goes beyond his vivid account of life in the concentration camps as he reflects on deeper questions such as what a man clings to when even his own survival depends on a tremendous amount of luck to survive the harsh and unrelenting conditions. His main observation was that those who did survive the randomness of death were often fighting for life for a reason beyond mere survival.
There is nothing in the world that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is meaning in one’s life.
The second part of his book is his summary of what he calls logotherapy, the practice of using meaning to inform psychotherapy. As the quote above shows, he felt that humans have the unique power to infuse their lives with meaning no matter how bad their situation is. In particular, Frankl says “we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
(1) and (2) are fairly straightforward in that we can create meaning for ourselves through our works and deeds, or through our relationships. Frankl himself credits part of his survival to him fighting to stay alive for his dreams of (1) completing a book summarizing his life’s work, and (2) being reunited with his beloved wife, who was separated from him at Auschwitz and who would die before the war was over.
Finding meaning in “unavoidable suffering” seems much more difficult. Frankl states, though, that “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning”. Even if every day was endless suffering while they starved, some prisoners found a way to imbue their suffering with meaning. They may have had no control of their lives, and yet, they could choose how they responded to the suffering. Frankl writes “it is this spiritual freedom – which can not be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful”. Some prisoners responded to their suffering with despair, or with cruelty, or by just giving up…but Frankl shares that some found a way to exalt in their suffering due to the meaning and purpose they created.
Frankl sums up logotherapy by stating that “what man actually needs is the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” He goes on to note that what makes a goal worthwhile is that it is selfless; “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”. Meaning and purpose come from devotion to a cause greater than oneself; he shares the stories of a few patients he saw after the war who he concluded were not neurotic, but were suffering from a lack of meaning in their lives.
I first read Frankl’s book many years ago and was struck by his account of the power of meaning to shape one’s experience. In re-reading the book this past week, I was struck by how many of his ideas show up in my coaching, as I often help clients find their magic sauce aka their meaning/purpose. Frankl’s book echoes other timeless spiritual traditions such as the Buddhist teachings around the inescapability of suffering; perhaps it should not be surprising that the challenges of the human condition are described in so many different contexts. Our lives might be unrecognizable to those who lived through World War 2, but finding meaning is as critical in today’s complex times as it was in the concentration camps.