The Psychologist That Survived Auschwitz & Discovered the Meaning of Life

Viktor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Around our teenage years, some of us may grapple with the question over what exactly is the meaning of life. Such questioning may lead to very depressing results, namely that life appears devoid of meaning. Others may find the answer in a loved one, a vision, or simply may abandon the question all together, leaving it up to big wig philosophers to rip their hair out in search of any meaning whatsoever. In the 1930s, Viktor Frankl, a young psychiatrist preoccupied with this issue, founded a youth counselling program in Vienna. His mission was to motivate his suicidal and depressed patients to find meaning in their lives. Unlike his psychological predecessors, Freud and Adler, who believed that our motives and behaviour were based upon a search for pleasure or power, Frankl interpreted our psychology as a system in search of meaning and value.

With the war nearing and his position as the head of neurology in a Jewish hospital in jeopardy, the US embassy notified Frankl that he was eligible for an American visa. However, despite this, Frankl’s stayed in Vienna to take care of his aging parents and allowed for his visa to lapse. Shortly before 1942, Frankl began formulating an argument suggesting that an individual’s mental health and well-being was based entirely on our quest for meaning. Then, in September, Frankl and his family were arrested, separated, and within three years Frankl would relocate to 4 different concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau.

This interesting and dreadful situation, in which a highly talented and compassionate psychologist found himself subjected to the greatest and largest degradation of human life in modern history, could have ended far worse. Instead, Frankl survived his imprisonment, founded a new school of psychology, and published one of the greatest books of the 20th century: Man’s Search For Meaning. In what appeared to be a hopeless situation characterized by meaningless suffering became a rebirth for Frankl. He used his perceptive and highly trained skills to document, as best he could, his and others reactions to being placed in a death camp. Within the camp, he witnessed the worst and best of humankind. “We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz’s; however he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s prayer or the Shema Yisreal on his lips”

Frankl distinguishes three psychological phases one experiences in a death camp: the period following his admission, the period in which they have become entrenched in the camp routine, and finally release and liberation. In the first period he observed that many, including himself experienced a delusion of reprieve, in which one believes that they will spontaneously be saved. At first this seems strange. The chance of being saved in those camps was nil. However, as he quotes Lessing “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour”. Plainly put, the death camps were far from a normal situation .

Prisoners of Auschwitz

Secondly, the prisoners sank into apathy, which Frankl calls ‘emotional death’. This was a necessary mechanism of self-defence, according to him, where the only goal was preserving your life as well as your friends. Furthermore, the undernourishment of the prisoners led to a certain regression in their desires. Those who had once dreamt of luxury cars and romance now groaned in the middle of the night, dreaming of an extra loaf of bread. Death was tomorrow’s reality. And suffering was today’s.

One early morning, stumbling in the darkness, amidst the shouting of guards and icy wind, a man next to Frankl joked “If our wives could see us now!” For Frankl, this thought invigorated him. “Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink lights of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with uncanny acuteness.” I understood 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”. Frankl would continue private mental conversations with his wife throughout his days of labor and soon he found that this intensification of inner life allowed for both escape and hope. With it, his feelings towards the beauty of nature and art became enhanced. The world appeared far less bleak.

Frankl was able to dissociate and see suffering for what it truly was. “A man’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the size of human suffering is absolutely relative”. In this sense, Frankl embraced his experience in the camp, not as a tragic and hopeless journey to nowhere, but instead as an extreme test to our human will against ever-present suffering.

It is this test where Frankl makes his greatest point. In this camp, he could no longer see man as merely a product of his surroundings. “The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action”. In spite of ones sociological or biological conditions, Frankl believes that all of us are free within one specific and highly important domain: our ability to choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. He argues that it is this freedom alone that gives life meaning. Acts of heroism and humanity within the camp, both from SS officers and prisoners, assured him of this fact.

Frankl developed that suffering is the third and most significant way in which one may find meaning in their life. 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”. The other two ways of arriving to ones own existential meaning are found either through an active life, in which one realizes their values in creative work, or in a passive life, in which one finds meaning through another person or thing. In suffering however, we are given the greatest challenge, attempting to find meaning and value within the most horrendous condition one can experience. “Emotion which is suffering ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it”, writes Spinoza.

Finding such meaning within suffering was only achievable when we stopped asking about the meaning of life and started identifying exactly 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. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual”

This practice of answering life’s challenges with a fulfilling responsibleness was fully established in Frankl’s school of psychology that he would later develop after liberation. Logotherapy asserts that man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and that this meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning. By using ‘will to meaning’ Frankl contests Freud’s will to pleasure (that we all are motivated by pleasure) or Adler’s will to power (that we all strive for superiority). Instead, these other desires are simply secondary, appearing as products of existential frustration over our own inability to find meaning. Frankl aptly identifies the emergence of existential frustration in his generation, naming it an existential vacuum. His description of modern man is just as relevant today: “No instinct tells him what he has to do and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism). Perhaps our ancestors, that had Gods and monarchs to make choices for them, never felt that “Sunday neurosis”, when the rush of a busy week has subsided and the void within ourself becomes manifest. Boredom and the anxiety of choice are perhaps the greatest targets of Frankl’s logo therapy.

How then can we fill the existential void? How can we eliminate that strange moment at 10:43 AM on a Saturday where your lying in your bed staring at the ceiling, paralyzed by a sense of absolute dread and self-doubt, unable to determine what you should that day and then asking yourself why you should even do anything at all, with your debt and divorce looming and now your neighbour has started mowing his lawn and you want to drive a spike into his chest but you then realize that he too is just another pitiful and weak creature cast unto this earth without his consent. What is the meaning of all of this? What is the meaning of life? Maybe you should see a therapist.

If you ask a logotherapist, they probably won’t prescribe you pills or ask you if you think that your mom is a 10. Frankl sees logotherapists as playing the role of an eye specialist rather than a painter. A painter creates for us a picture of the world as he would like interpreted. An eye specialist helps us see the world as it is. The logotherapist, in theory, would help their patient see the entire spectrum of meaning as an eye specialist would help their patient see all spectrums of colour. And if you saw a logotherapist and asked them about the meaning of life, as Frankl explains, they may tell you this. For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: Tell me Master what is the best move in the world?

In asking what the meaning of life is, we should be aware of who exactly is posing such a question in the first place. Us! Now the tables have turned. Life questions us and we can only respond for our own lives. It is you and only you that is responsible for your life. Frankl asserts that responsibleness is the very essence of existence. He asks us to, in each moment “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” In doing so, we see the very moment passing as something already solidified in the past and, simultaneously, understand that this past can be shaped and changed. But first we must assume responsibility for it.

“According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: By creating a work or doing a deed, by experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” This last point, an argument that Frankl established in the death camps as he endured some of the most extreme forms of suffering conceivable, makes us realize that, even if we cannot change the situation at hand, we must take upon the challenge to change ourselves. However, aren’t our attitudes somewhat pre-determined? A man who appears chronically depressed will most likely fail to greet any suffering with such a call to action. And yet, Frankl argues that “man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words man is ultimately self-determining”.

He brings up the case of Dr. J He, an incredibly evil Nazi doctor who enthusiastically ran the gas chambers. Years after the war, Frankl had asked about his last days to an Austrian diplomat who had been imprisoned with Dr. J. He shortly before the doctor disappeared. According to him, the doctor lived up to the highest conceivable moral standards and was his best friend. This same man that Frankl considered Satan was now supposedly a Saint. Frankl then asks: “How can we dare predict the behaviour of man?”

In logotherapy, ‘tragic optimism’ stands above all else as an opponent to what Frankl describes as the tragic triad of human existence, namely: pain, guilt and death. Optimism, in the face of tragedy, that is, not denying that the circumstances themselves are tragic, and in view of human potential, uses the triad to create meaning. Firstly, in pain, tragic optimism gives human suffering the status of an accomplishment. Secondly, tragic optimism uses guilt to help us better ourselves and find our potential. Thirdly, with death, tragic optimism allows us to see the impermanence of our own existence and, through this, we recognize that taking responsibility for our life is necessary.

In his experience in the camps, where each day promised absolute suffering and hopelessness, Frankl exemplified this state of tragic optimism. Why wouldn’t someone just kill themselves? As a young doctor, Frankl dealt with a great number of suicidal individuals (he estimates over twelve thousand). He notes that after meeting someone who had attempted suicide, they would be quick to realize that there was, generally, a solution to whatever problem led them to such a position, an answer to their question, a meaning to life. He would use this to help other, more hopeless patients. “Even if things only take such a good turn in one of a thousand cases, who can guarantee that in your case it will not happen sooner or later? But in the first place you have to live to see the day on which it may happen, so you have to survive in order to see that day dawn, and from now own the responsibility for survival does not leave you”. If Frankl had offed himself earlier on in the camp, he may have never seen liberation and he may never have saved many others with his words.

Freud believed that exposing a large and diverse group to hunger and deprivation would lead to the group blurring into one unitary mass that would only reflect one desire: to eat. However, Frankl lived through this very thought experiment and saw something very different: that individual differences magnify when challenged by miserable conditions “both the swine and the saints”. He also properly observes that the saints, more often than not, appear as a minority. “And yet I see therein the very challenge to join the minority. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best. So, let us be alert-alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.” For Frankl, the betterment of the human race starts at the individual level. Instead of blaming others, we should ask ourselves if we too would act more heroically in certain situations. We too should bear the responsibility of our own lives before labelling our search for meaning as a lost cause. Each of us are called upon. Not because we are destined to improve ourselves and the situation of others but, instead, because we carry the potential to do so. “What then is man? Thus we ask the question again. He is a being that always decides what it is. A being that within it at one and the same time the possibility of sinking to the level of an animal or of soaring to a life of near-holiness”.

Instead of using our energy to blame others, victimize ourselves, and complain, whether how tragic or insufferable our conditions are, perhaps we should be a little more quiet. In being so demanding we achieve little. Instead, we should demand heroism only of a single person…and that is oneself!

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