I have had this book on my shelves for years- at least a decade, but it wasn’t until my “non-fiction” book group selected it last month that I was finI have had this book on my shelves for years- at least a decade, but it wasn’t until my “non-fiction” book group selected it last month that I was finally spurred to read it. What took me so long? I have no idea, though I found so much significant to modern life between its pages, all my dog-earing has made it look a third larger than its one hundred seventy-nine pages.
Dr. Frankl, a trained psychotherapist and contemporary of Freud and Adler in Austria, was a prisoner of the Nazi death camp system from 1942-1945. He was a “guest” at four different camps, including Auschwitz. His training helped spare him a bit of the back breaking labor forced on other prisoners, but not all of it. Fortunately, the Nazi’s found they could use his services in the infirmaries and to calm the more distressed inmates. Combining his knowledge with his experiences in the camps, Dr. Frankl was able to construct a memoir quite different from other such writings. His memoir is not merely a recounting of personal histories, heartbreak, and Nazi brutality, as so many are, instead, Frankl’s writing examines the psyche of victims and victimizers as he strives to give the reader greater insight into how some men survived the depravity of the extermination directive, even as millions of others did not.
With professional detachment, Dr. Frankl explains how the death camp experience helped him to form and shape his own form of psychotherapy, which he refers to as Logotherapy or “meaning” therapy. In the camps it was apparent to Frankl that those inmates who possessed some glimmer of hope were the ones who were most likely to survive. If they could believe their lives, their present suffering, would have some glorious end after release from the camps, the sufferer could hold on a little longer, fight a bit harder to stay well and out of trouble’s way.
Often prisoners would set up artificial dates of reprieve, such as Christmas or New Year’s, with the belief that rescue would come by that day. When no one came to end their pain, it was not uncommon for these prisoners to lose all will to live and begin fading. Love, or rather the memory of it, was a strong motivator for many inmates. As few knew the fate of other family members, dreaming of seeing a lost spouse or children kept many a prisoner from giving up on life in the camps.
In an especially poignant moment in the memoir, while reflecting on relative comforts, Dr. Frankl comments, “The attempt to develop a sense of humor and see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.” 2 The doctor goes on to explain how human suffering is relative to what is known. Things that may not have seemed like a blessing in their previous lives, such as having a nice Capo or a better fitting pair of shoes, working in a factory, not in the snow, a train going in a different direction- away from a camp with a crematoria, extra peas in one’s soup, or a warm spring day, reach all new proportions when placed in the context of a Nazi prison camp. “Tender mercies” might be a good way to describe these bits of light amidst all the darkness. Whatever they are, these tiny specks of comfort made life a little more bearable behind the razor wire.
The thought that stuck with me while reading Frankl’s explanations about the importance of finding meaning in difficult circumstances, despite discomforts, despite physical or emotional pain, is how important those struggles, those peaks and valleys of mortality, are to making us better people.
The Lord has told us the poor will always be with us. “Poor,” in this case, can mean poor in wealth or poor in spirit, but both are guaranteed to always be part of our earthly lives. For all the altruism and desire to alleviate every worldly discomfort from poverty to illness, and don’t misunderstand me, there is good that comes to those who seek to help others or who are helped, I have to consider, “What exactly are those in difficult circumstances to learn?" Is the desire to give a man the proverbial fish rather than teaching and expecting him to fish for himself, robbing that person of some eternal growth opportunity?
The analogy of the child watching a butterfly struggling to exit its cocoon, then inadvertently killing the young butterfly when he assists in its release comes to mind here. That butterfly needed to struggle to get vital fluids to its wings, enabling it to fly away from the shell of its metamorphosis; the child’s well meaning intervention kept the butterfly from achieving its full potential. Frankl says we all need that struggle, and we need to embrace it whole heartedly. We physically and psychologically need to rise above our pains and reach out to others in order to find meaning in our own lives; the poor and the wealthy alike.
The good doctor also makes a strong case in his logotherapy theory for “responsibleness,” even advocating for a Statue of Responsibility on America’s west coast to be a balance to the Statue of Liberty on our east coast. 3 4 Our lives and what they are to become is completely up to us as individuals, despite everything. I recall in “Parenting with Love and Logic,” the writers remind parents that it is important to give children choices, and to remember that not all choice options are “bad” and “good,” many are “not as bad” and “not horrible,” but choices they are. Frankl appears to have the same philosophy. It is up to individuals to determine their own course in life, but to accept that each choice is to be owned, not deflected because the choices to be made weren’t preferred choices. Ultimately, we are more responsible for our lives than the “philosophy of men,” if you will, would make us be. Sounds familiar to me. How about you?
My criticisms of Man’s Search for Meaning are few. The book is divided in to three sections: Experiences in a Concentration Camp, Logotherapy in a Nutshell, and The Case for a Tragic Optimism. The weakest of these three is the middle. Dr. Frankl spends such a small amount of time explaining the tenets of his theories, that it feels rather rushed and only partially complete. He doesn’t lapse into heavy jargon, but his overlapping explanations almost feel like jargon. For the lay reader, it is easy to get bogged down in this area, as the flow from section one is interrupted. But I recommend you work through it, nonetheless, and discover the strength of the philosophy behind Man’s Search for Meaning.