Man’s search for meaning by Viktor E Frankl

There’s something about the Nazi concentration camp stories that make you more than just uncomfortable- you actually squirm in your seat and feel guilty of being a human. 

Viktor Frankl’s narrative of his time at the concentration camp at Auschwitz is nothing short of life-changing. 

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4/5
Author : Viktor E Frankl
Originally Published : 1959
Publication : Beacon Press
Pages : 200
Genre(s) :-
Non-Fiction, History, Psychology

It tells a tale of how the human mind can triumph seemingly unsurmountable pain and suffering and emerge strong, positive and full of hope, everything the Nazi’s didn’t want to happen. 

The Nazi’s strategy was to break the soul of the prisoners so that they died even before death came upon them. They succeeded to a large extent, except in cases like Viktor Frankl where the mind’s power to imagine a future affected their longevity. 

Gordon Allport’s preface shows a glimpse of how a Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl used his understanding of the human psyche to survive the horror that was Auschwitz. Like Allport, no one can put the book down without finishing it in one sitting. 

Frankl’s story is now well known. He wrote this book in 1945 in 9 days flat and wished to publish it anonymously. Frankl narrates the harrowing situation at the camps where the able bodied were sent for back-bending work and the infirm went straight to the gas chambers to perish. Frankl endures through work that is unimaginable. The inmates took great efforts to look healthy- they shaved, did not show the blisters on their limbs and walked straight, even if it meant faking it. Those who survived one day, didn’t bat an eyelid to grab the food, clothes and any belonging of those who perished. 

Frankl’s story is one of disbelief and shock- from being a successful psychiatrist in Vienna, enjoying the beautiful life tastefully, one can sense the undertones of the fear of being a Jew in pre-world war Austria and Germany in the heat preceding what came about as the horror of the century. His training in the way of the human minds allowed him to nourish a sense of humor amidst all this, to find meaning in an otherwise horrible life (if one can call it that). Not knowing if his wife (and his parents and brother) was alive, Frankl made it his goal to emerge alive and strong from the camp and reunite with his family. These are the foundation blocks of what became his ‘Logotherapy’. Having spent years amidst prisoners who preferred death to the suffering, he also saw many who wanted to live for some goal, some purpose in life. Frankl went on to ask people this question even later in life- why would someone not commit suicide if life was really horrible and people began seeing meaning in why they must stay alive. When a human’s dignity and purpose of life is robbed, he loses his will to stay alive. 

Human psyche at its best and worst

Across the book, you see how the human mind functions- lured by rewards, afraid of punishment, refusing to leave hope or to accept fate, latching on to a dim hope and feeling a sense of depersonalization. Fearing what he’s getting may also be snatched away. Living with a deeply broken soul and giving up any hope of liberty or struggling tooth and nail to be free at any cost even at the risk of losing life. Should they hold on to strands of the unknown veiled future or of the known past? Give a man a reason to live and he can endure even the worst of life’s pains. 

Frankl’s Logotherapy

What became famous as Logo therapy is in effect man’s search for meaning that drives him to live and live a full life. When we change the way we think, we change our lives drastically. In Frankl’s words- man is capable of changing himself for the better, if necessary. He brought forth the three stages of a life of a prisoner, just when he enters the camp, during the camp and immediately after his release. That paved the way for what came to be known as Logotherapy which Frankl popularized till his death in 1997. 

Key takeaways

  1. Firsthand account of the Holocaust that makes you nervous and yet is unputdownable as I would call it
  2. Man’s indomitable spirit in the face of extreme adversity, his ability to create meaning in an otherwise hopeless life is something that is as much relevant today as it was back then
  3. Viktor Frankl’s story and his Logotherapy shows you how one can shape life with thoughts, even in the face of adversity. It’s all about human attitude
  4. For me, a key takeaway was also the dichotomy of human nature- on the one hand it is the same humans, the Nazis who inflicted unimaginable wrath against the Jews and it is also the humans like Viktor Frankl who survived that to find meaning in his life and that of others.

Doesn’t that make for some obvious choices for us?

Why I recommend this book

If you haven’t read Holocaust books, this one must be a good beginner. If it doesn’t make you squirm and feel nauseating, you’re a lesser human being. Read this book to understand the extremes to which human minds can go- in inflicting pain and suffering as well as in finding meaning from the same situation. Even if we believe there’s nothing good or bad in life, our choice of attitude and actions are meaningful indeed. 

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