Last week I read Viktor Frankl’s 1946 autobiographical and philosophical work, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” At only 165 pages, it’s a relatively short book full of profoundly deep insights. Frankl’s objective is to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” He achieves this first by recounting his experiences as a prisoner in four different camps during WWII, then by providing an overview of the psychotherapeutic approach he developed during that time, called logotherapy.
Part I, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” is expectantly rich with examples of the unimaginable cruelty humans are capable of inflicting upon one another. What I didn’t expect were the numerous beautiful accounts of the great dignity and courage humans are capable of living with, even under conditions of extreme duress and ever-present threats to their mortality. The book is masterfully balanced in exploring both the terror of the camp, and the stalwart strength of the prisoners. In one particularly poignant scene in which Frankl longs to be reunited with his wife, he exclaims, “Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.”
It’s this balance of exploration that gives way to one of the great insights found in the book. Numerous examples are provided throughout, reminding us that so often when examining the fallout of WWII, we focus primarily on the evils humans brought upon one another (and there were many). But in our haste to shed light on the darkness of the Holocaust, we sometimes fail to recognize the sea of flickering lights on the horizon, each a shining example of human survival, resistance, and resilience. In Frankl’s words, “After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
Part II, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” is Frankl’s condensed treatise and explanation of his unique approach to treating psychological neurosis. As he explains, “Logotherapy regards its assignment as that of assisting the patient to find meaning in his life.” Drawing from his own lived experiences over the course of WWII to develop his thesis, Frankl’s approach in practice is as much applied Philosophy as it is psychotherapy, for “it does not restrict its activity to instinctual facts within the individual’s unconscious but also cares for existential realities, such as the potential meaning of his existence to be fulfilled as well as his will to meaning.”
Logotherapy turns the cliche notion of asking “What is the meaning of life?” on its head. It is our task, Frankl claims, to instead find meaning in answering for ourselves the questions that life asks of us. And where does one find meaning? According to Frankl’s thesis, there are three possibilities: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), or in courage during difficult times.
Frankl’s belief was that neurosis isn’t necessarily pathological, but in many cases is caused by “existential frustration,” which is a kind of distress stemming from an inability to actualize one’s will to meaning. In other words, when one’s effort to find meaning in work, love, or suffering is stymied, existential angst develops, often presenting in the form of neurosis.
One example Frankl gives to illuminate his point is that of “Sunday neurosis:” a type of “depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.” It is this existential vacuum (a state of excessive cognitive boredom) where the existential frustration takes hold of an individual and side-tracks their will to meaning. Discontent emerges, and any effort at achieving meaningful existence is usurped by lesser forces: the will to power, the will to money, or the will to pleasure. But all is not lost, for Frankl reminds us that “one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them.”
For one trapped in this severe state of internal self-desolation, there is but one remedy: what Frankl refers to as the “self-transcendence of human existence.” A process which is much more easily described than done, self-transcendence differs from self-actualization in that it is a side-effect of right action, rather than an attainable end in itself. In other words, self-transcendence, like happiness and success, is something that must ensue, rather than be pursued.
Self-transcendence can ensue as the result of a number of different actions. From changing one’s perspective in order to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to changing one’s self internally when it’s no longer an option to change a situation itself, and even to show one’s courage in suffering through the outward expression of angst in the form of tears, self-transcendence is Frankl’s solution to life’s inherent meaninglessness. It is the key to his “tragic optimism,” which proclaims through the words of Nietzsche that even in the worst conditions, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”