Saturday, 13 July 2013

Man's Search for Meaning

Not many books in the world are genuine "must reads" but surely Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is one of them*.  How could it be that I bought this book for two dollars from a throw-out table at my local shopping centre?  How is that none of my teachers, lecturers, pastors or mentors has ever recommended it to me?

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who died in 1997 at the age of 92.  He is famous as the founder and leading light of the psychiatric technique he called "logotherapy", and as a high profile holocaust survivor.  He was interred in Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic in 1942 with his wife and extended family, transferred to Auschwitz in late 1944 and finished the war in a camp affiliated with Dachau. 

Man's Search for Meaning is a collection of three brief essays.  The first and longest, Experiences in a Concentration Camp, describes his time in Auschwitz and Dachau as a means of illustrating his psychological ideas and was written in 1945.  This essay, and its basis in Frankl's own horrific experiences, is what gives this book its power.  The second, Logotherapy in a Nutshell, is a summary for lay readers of the basic concepts behind logotherapy and the third, The Case for a Tragic Optimism,  is a reflection on how we can remain optimistic in the face of pain, guilt and death. 

It is hard to get across to you just how profound this book is.  There is more food for thought in its 130 booklet-size pages than in whole shelves of other books.  The best I can do is give you some extracts and direct you to the book itself - I guarantee you will struggle to find a better way to spend the couple of hours it takes to read it.

He opens by reminding his readers that the overwhelming drive of any prisoner was the simple imperative of survival.

There was neither time nor desire to consider moral or ethical issues.  Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends....On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves.  We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles - whatever one may choose to call them - we know: the best of us did not return.

Is this a veiled confession of things in Frankl's story he is too ashamed to admit openly, or is it merely survivor guilt?  In what follows he divides his analysis into three periods: "the period following his admission; the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; and the period following his release." 

The first period is characterised by shock, and there could hardly be a bigger shock than arrival in Auschwitz.  They were greeted by a camp guard who sorted them into two groups.

He had assumed an attitude of careless ease, supporting his right elbow with his left hand.  His right hand was lifted, and with the forefinger of that hand he pointed very leisurely to the right or to the left.  None of us had the slightest idea of the sinister meaning behind that little movement of a man's finger, pointing now to the right and now to the left, but far more frequently to the left.

Those sent to the right were assigned to labour gangs, those to the left went straight to the gas chambers.

This was only the beginning of their dehumanisation.  All their possessions, including their clothes, were removed.  Frankl was forced to give up the manuscript of a book he had written in Theresienstadt, his first work on logotherapy.  Even their names were taken, and in place they were assigned numbers by which they were invariably addressed by camp guards. 

Most of the prisoners were given a uniform of rags which would have made a scarecrow elegant by comparison.  Between the huts in the camp lay pure filth, and the more one worked to clear it away, the more one had to come in contact with it.  It was a favourite practice to detail a new arrival to a work group whose job was to clean the latrines and remove the sewage.  If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during its transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would be punished with a blow from a Capo.  And thus the mortification of normal reactions was hastened.

This process of "mortification" and brutalisation was relentless.  The prisoners were forced to sleep huddled together in overcrowded huts with few blankets, to labour long hours in freezing weather on starvation rations, to wear thin rags and broken shoes tied up with scavenged bits of wire, and were beaten on the slightest pretext.  They were forbidden, on pain of beating, to attempt to prevent their fellows from suicide and were forced to watch daily executions, murders and deaths from untreated illness.  Those who became too feeble to work were loaded on carts and sent to "rest camps" which everyone knew to be a euphemism for the gas chambers. 

I shall never forget how  I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare.  Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fretful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man.  Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do.  At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him. 

These horrors are told with remarkable restraint, in a matter of fact way which is perhaps Frankl's own defence against being overwhelmed by the horror.  How was it possible to remain sane in such an environment?  This is the central theme of the essay.

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.  Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain...but the damage to their inner selves was less.  They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.  Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy makeup often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a more robust nature....

He goes on to describe his experience, marching in the frozen dawn towards a labour assignment and holding an imaginary conversation with his wife. 

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.  The truth - that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.  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 understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in contemplation of his beloved....For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."....

Another time I was at work in a trench....I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying.  In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom.  I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious "Yes" in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.  At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria....Once again I communed with my beloved...I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers.  The feeling was very strong: she was there.  Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.

What, then, is Frankl's secret to surviving the concentration camp?  In a sense he recognises that there is none.  There was a lot of luck involved, a lot of chance or circumstance.  It is more accurate to ask: What is the secret to sustaining the will to live?  His answer is deceptively and blindingly simple.

Any attempt at fighting the camp's psychopathological influence on the prisoner...had to aim at giving him inner strength by pointing out to him some future goal to which he could look forward....It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future....

Frankl's own future hope was twofold.  For one, as suggested, he fervently hoped to be reunited with his wife.  His second future hope was in his work.  His manuscript had been taken from him on his entry to the camp.  He was determined to rewrite it.

I became disgusted with the state of things which compelled me, daily and hourly, to think of only...trivial things.  I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject.  Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room.  In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats.  I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp!  All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science.  By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment....The prisoner who had lost faith in the future - his future - was doomed.

For Frankl, this is not a question of abstract meaning, or of finding some ultimate "meaning of life".  Instead it is a far more practical, down-to-earth matter.

We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life but rather what life expected from us.  We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly....Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment.  Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way...."Life" does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life's tasks are also very real and concrete....No situation repeats itself and each situation calls for a different response.  Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action.  At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realise assets in this way.  Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross.  Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.

Frankl survived, although it took him some time to realise that his freedom was a blessing. 

One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, towards the market town near the camp.  Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song.  There was no-one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks' jubilation and the freedom of space.  I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky - and then I went down on my knees.  At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world - I had but one sentence in mind - always the same: "I called the Lord from my narrow prison and he answered me in the freedom of space."

It is perhaps fortunate for Frankl that he had identified not one but two reasons to go on living, because his wife did not survive the Bergen-Belsen camp to which she had been sent.  Frankl's devotion to his work saw him found what has been described as the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.  The first, Sigmund Freud's, was focused around the "pleasure principle" or "will to pleasure", the second, founded by Alfred Adler, was based on the "will to power".  Frankl, by contrast, focused on the "will to meaning".  Although his ideas were confirmed and strengthened in Auschwitz and Dachau, they were already part the manuscript taken from him there. 

There are some authors who contend that meanings and values are "nothing but defence mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations".  But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my "defence mechanisms", nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my "reaction formations."  Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values!

As a consequence he shows a healthy, although courteous, contempt for some of the hocus pocus that goes under the name of psychotherapy.  He tells the story of an American diplomat who came to see him to continue a course of psychotherapy he had been following with a psychiatrist in another city.  This man's "problem" was that he could not feel fulfilled in his diplomatic career and had serious reservations about the direction of American foreign policy.  Five years of fruitless therapy had focused on his need to come to terms with his anger against his father, which he was sublimating into resistance to his employer and nation.  It quickly became clear to Frankl, as I am sure most of my friends will realise, that this man did not need psychotherapy, he needed to find a career he could believe in. 

This, I think, is what he would say to all of us. 

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self determining.  What he becomes - within the limits of endowment and environment - he has made out of himself.  In the concentration camps, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints.  Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualised depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Find a copy of this book.  Read it.  You won't be sorry.

*Frankl wrote before the practice of non-gendered language became common, and so he uses male pronouns throughout.  I would mangle his prose if I tried to fix it - apologies to my female readers.

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