Book review ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ by Viktor E. Frankl

A little booklet it is, in its 2004 paperback version, but a crucial message it contains and so a classic it became. Originally, the book was written and published in 1946 with the title ‘Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager’ (‘A Psychologist Survives the Concentration Camp’) and then in 1978, with the English translation, it got its new title, that aptly summarises the book: how to find meaning in even the most ghastly plights.
Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna in 1905 and died there in 1997. He studied Medicine there, specialising in neurology and psychiatry. He focused on depression and suicide and the knowledge and insights this brought him, he took with him when he was deported first to Theresienstadt (1942) and later to Auschwitz and Dachau (1944). The book basically consists of two parts. Part 1 is an account of his stay and travails in the concentration camps and Part 2 is an explanation of ‘logotherapy’, the psychotherapeutic method he developed already before the Second World War, but that he meticulously described and practised post-war after his return to Vienna.

Logotherapy is sometimes called the ‘Theory of Meaning’, because at its core it deals with the question of how to find meaning (logos meaning ‘word’ or ‘meaning’), to remain resilient in the face of adversity and injustice. There may be many reasons to lose hope and faith, and one may be robbed of personal freedom, but there is one freedom, in Frankl’s view, that cannot be taken away from any person: the choice to decide how to respond to external circumstances. In the context of ACEs this is quite relevant, seeing that the essence of trauma is losing the connection to one’s true self. If there are ways to nurture that connection and remain authentic, it is important to share those with people who have (had) to go through dire circumstances.
At first, Frankl wanted to write the book anonymously, but he changed his mind and felt he had to ‘have the courage to state [his] convictions openly’ (p.20).

His first-hand description of the proceedings in the camps is impressive. Most readers will have something of a general knowledge about what these tragic places were like, but the clarity with which Frankl looks back at it, is admirable. Those circumstances were so dreadful that he writes one can hardly blame people ‘for trying to dope themselves’ (p.24), either with alcohol or by any other possible means.
He describes the phases people would go through upon entering the camp: shock (at first paired with painful emotions like longing, pity, horror, and disgust), apathy (emotional death, not caring anymore, an attempt at self-protection), and lastly the psychological response after liberation.
This third and last stage was difficult in the sense that joy had to be ‘relearned’: ‘The pressure which had been on [the prisoner’s] mind for years was released at last [and] his desire to speak was irresistible’ (p.96). Frankl describes this process as ‘from that war of nerves to mental peace’ again (p.97). Ideally this is done very slowly, step by step, so as to prevent ‘moral deformity’ in the form of revenge being taken and doing harm to (properties of) offenders.
We can see a parallel here with other kinds of trauma: feeling happy again, letting go of pain and loss, can be difficult, if those have been your developmental habitat for a lifetime.

The biggest part of the book, however, is focused on the second stage, that of apathy and how to either deal with or prevent it. Some people were able to achieve ‘spiritual life to deepen’ (p.47), Frankl writes:

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 make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature (p.47).

He describes it as the ‘survival of the sensitive’. What under normal circumstances might be described as dissociation could under severe adversity be seen as identification with the riches of inner life by drawing on previous experiences such as love and joy and gratitude, humour and curiosity. All of this is what we could see as ‘the wisdom of trauma’, using the mind’s abilities to survive the unbearable present. It also means that the more abundant those previous positive experiences are, the greater the likelihood of people being able to draw on them, or, put differently, to manifest resilience. Frankl says: ‘An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior’ (p.32). In line with this were prisoners’ efforts to disappear in the crowd, so as not to draw attention to themselves, whereas in normal life, people may love to be seen and recognised for their unique individuality. Tiny pockets of privacy and solitude were considered pure luxury, moments to connect to Self again (p.61).

Yet, humans are not merely the product of biopsychosocial factors, Frankl states, pointing to the emotional, spiritual dimension of mankind. Throughout all of life, ‘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 circumstance, to choose one’s own way. (…) It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful’ (p.75,76). Remaining ‘brave, dignified and unselfish’ (p. 76) within the suffering, while nurturing hope and faith for better times to come, can give a deeper meaning to life. It can even lead a person to reach immense personal and spiritual growth.

Next week, we will discuss Part 2 of the book.

Posted in Book and movie reviews.