Viktor Frankl was an extraordinary individual.
In WWII, he was a captive in Nazi Germany's concentration camps, where he lost his father, mother, brother, and wife.
Despite the atrocities he observed and the physical and emotional pain he suffered, he was able to live thanks to what he refers to as "the will to meaning."
Frankl recalls his experiences there in his book, Man's Search For Meaning, and how we were able to apply his ideas - termed logotherapy - to stay alive when most others were not.
We'll start with an overview of his beliefs and then move on to how he could apply them in Auschwitz and subsequently at Dachau in our synopsis.
It's one of the most influential works I've ever read, and I hope it has the same effect on you as it had on me.
Let's get this party started.
With Freud's psychoanalysis and Adler's individual psychology, logotherapy is known as the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy."
In contrast to Freud, who focused on the will to pleasure, and Adler, who focused on the will to power, his ideas center on the will to meaning.
Essentially, the concept is that the most motivating and driving factor in a person's life is the search for personal meaning.
Because "logos" is the Greek word for "meaning," logotherapy is helping a patient in discovering personal meaning in their lives.
Logotherapy is based on three key principles:
- Freedom of Will: Life has meaning in all situations, even the most depressing ones.
- Will to Meaning: Our desire to find meaning in life is our primary motivator for living.
- Meaning of Life: We have the freedom to find meaning in what we do and experience, or at the very least in how we respond when confronted with immutable pain.
Ways of Finding Meaning
People find purpose in life in three different ways, according to Frankl:
- Work: through producing a product or completing a job.
- Love: is defined as the characteristic of experiencing anything in life or meeting someone.
- Attitude: is defined as our attitude toward inescapable pain, as well as the fact 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."
In the book, Frankl offers an example that clearly demonstrates his point:
"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 stated, "for her, this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!"
"To which I replied, "You see, Doctor, such 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."
Let's move on to discuss how Frankl used his own ideas to survive the terrible suffering he endured during the Nazi concentration camps.
Suffering and the Human Body
One of the aspects of Frankl's account of his events that struck me the most was his comment on how resilient and adaptive the human body is.
The captives were stripped of nearly everything they had in their former lives when they entered the concentration camps.
The majority of those who had arrived at the camps did not survive the first day. Those who seemed to be ill or unsuitable for work were immediately dispatched to the gas chambers.
Those who had made it through the first round of choices were about to discover the limits of the human body and brain.
They were taken from their families, stripped naked, and shaved from top to bottom, and their belongings were seized from them. They were then given a number that was tattooed on their bodies.
They soon discovered that most of what they believed they understood about the human body was incorrect once they arrived at the camps.
Here are some of the punishments they had to suffer, according to Frankl:
"We were unable to clean our teeth, and yet, despite 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. Yet, the sores and abrasions on hands which were dirty from work in the soil did not suppurate (that is, unless there was frostbite)."
They were forced to survive on so little sleep, almost no food (a piece of bread and little amounts of watery soup were all they had), and labor extremely hard day after day, week after week, and year after year for those who were able to find meaning in this terrible misery.
Not to mention the emotional anguish they were subjected to. They strolled around, aware that they would be brought to the gas chamber and put to death if they began to display signs of physical pain. They were aware of this since it occurred every day.
(As a side note, it's difficult to convey the entire scope of the physical and emotional atrocities the captives would have experienced in a synopsis. To completely grasp their experience, read a book or conduct some internet study.)
Despite this, many people in the camps survived to tell their stories. How and why did this happen?
According to Frankl, those who survived the event used the power of their minds to find meaning in it. They could live if they held onto it, no matter how cruel and horrific the experience got.
He shares a poignant narrative of how they realized someone had lost their desire to live and how they knew that person would die soon.
If you were a very high performer, you might be offered cigarettes as a reward. In the camps, cigarettes became a sort of money. You might exchange your smokes for more soup or bread portions.
That is what you would do if you still had the will to live. A few additional calories went a long way toward making you stronger and more suited for work and contributing to your survival.
Those who had quit would light up their cigarettes. As a result, if they observed a fellow prisoner smoking, they knew it wouldn't be long before they were gone.
The will to live was what enabled Frankl and many other inmates to survive.
Let's look at the three different interpretations of logotherapy and how Frankl used them all to survive.
One of the things Frankl did while in the concentration camps was revising the manuscript confiscated upon his arrival.
This was not an easy assignment. He primarily had to keep his thoughts alive in his brain since the Nazis would not allow him to completely rework it. They'd simply seize it again and very likely execute him.
He was able to scribble some of it down on scraps of paper he stashed away. And he often pictured himself giving lectures on logotherapy and how he exploited its principles to escape the camps.
Even though his current circumstances made it impossible for him to look beyond the barbed wire walls surrounding the camp, he found true purpose in his suffering.
He understood that logotherapy had the potential to help hundreds, if not millions, of people overcome obstacles in their life. And he wanted to live long enough to share his tale.
As Frankl was passing by with his fellow captives on their work day, the person next to him murmured 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."
This, in turn, prompted Frankl to consider his own wife and to wonder whether love is the ultimate and highest aim that a person may achieve. He states:
"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."
For Frankl, love was the ultimate cure to pain. In the following section, we'll look at the concept that, no matter how difficult our circumstances are, we can choose how we respond to them.
The ultimate suit of armor for him was to respond to punishment with sentiments of love.
Keep in mind that it wasn't the prospect of his wife's survival that kept him going; it was the memory of his love for her.
He goes on to say:
"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 begin with a passage 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."
Simply said, you will die one day, and you will most likely suffer greatly along the way.
While none of us will likely experience the kind of pain that the unfortunate individuals in Nazi concentration camps did, we will all experience suffering somehow.
As Frankl points out, we are presented with a decision in these instances. Suffering may either be a significant experience in our lives. Or it can develop into a terrible battle for survival, causing us to lose our humanity and revert to animal status.
So, what does "suffer well" imply?
Suffering well is a personal victory. Every prisoner could see that their lives had come to an end. In those camps, they were going to be worked to death one way or another.
There would be no monetary compensation for "doing the right thing" for fellow inmates. In reality, the only external benefits were given to those who transformed into animals.
Those willing to beat up on their fellow inmates were promoted to guards, with better food rations, more comfortable sleeping quarters, and less difficult labor.
However, some of the inmates chose to suffer well despite this. Frankl relates anecdotes about certain inmates wandering about consoling other inmates and even giving the weakest of them their last bits of bread.
Their reaction to their own pain, and how they found purpose in it, was to seek out methods to alleviate the suffering of others, even if only for a little time.
That implies we have a choice in how we respond even in the worst of circumstances.