Viktor Frankl on Suffering and Meaning

Viktor Frankl’s best-selling memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, is a work that I have read many times and which I appreciate better with each perusal. The author was an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist who initially followed the theories of Freud and Adler, but later broke from them to form his own school of “Logotherapy.”

Frankl wrote many books, but this volume is undoubtedly the most engaging and of enduring value. Most of the memoir describes Frankl’s experiences in a Nazi concentration camp from 1942-45. Though not religious in a traditional sense, he diverged from his peers by leaving room for spiritual belief.

The religious interest of the prisoners, as far and as soon as it developed, was the most sincere imaginable. The depth and vigor of religious belief often surprised and moved a new arrival. Most impressive in this connection were improvised prayers or services in the corner of a hut, or in the darkness of the locked cattle truck in which we were brought back from a distant work site, tired, hungry and frozen in our ragged clothing.

The author had years of experience as a therapist counseling people with suicidal tendencies. He put this same expertise to work in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, helping both himself and others to survive the brutalities of Nazi imprisonment. The key to Frankl’s “search for meaning” is that man must be able to achieve a sense of purpose even in the midst of suffering.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity… to add deeper meaning to his life.

He quotes Dostoevsky’s famous saying: “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” It is a paradox, but nevertheless observably true, that if we cannot find meaning even in the worst circumstances we will not be able to discover it in the most congenial situations. The constant laments of pampered celebrities, who enjoy pleasures and luxuries far beyond the rest of us, is proof of Frankl’s assertion that happiness does not depend on purely external conditions.

Frankl referred to his outlook as one of “tragic optimism.” His attitude towards Nazism was unequivocal. He had lost his wife and parents to Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Yet he remained objective and free of hatred and bias. The lessons he learned transcended any immediate political or historical experience:

[T]here are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.

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