Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor Frankl

Holocaust survivor Vicktor Frankl combines personal memories of his time in various concentration camps with philosophical insights and an outline of the school of psychology that he went on to develop. It is an impressive feat in a book that runs to around 160 pages and can be read in the space of a few hours.
The words ‘nine million copies sold’ on the cover actually put me off when I saw it by chance in a bookshop in Belfast yesterday but a browse through it convinced me that there was enough in it to make it worth buying.
In the first hundred pages Frankl recounts his experiences as an Austrian Jew who refuses to abandon his parents in Vienna, despite having a visa for the US, who is rounded up and shipped from one camp to another. His parents and his wife both died in the gas chambers but despite the odds Frankl survived.
Although he tells us that it is right to do everything we can to avoid death or suffering Frankl writes that it is often inevitable and that it is sometimes better to trust to fate.
He recounts how on several occasion when in the camps he took what seemed the less favourable option only to find that those who thought they would be better off had been sent to a gas chamber. Just days before the war ended most his fellow inmates were taken from the camp in which he was imprisoned. Initially he was bitter because he had to stay behind in squalid conditions but only later found out that those who he had envied because he believed they were being fed and given proper shelter had in fact been taken to another camp and burned alive.
Despite what he witnessed, Frankl prefers to focus on the ability of people to adapt and to even grow from the situation in which they are in.
“… it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy; 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 and completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the size of human suffering is absolutely relative.” P55
He says that when suffering has filled the human soul to such a degree any relief, no matter how pathetic, takes on epic proportions so that even while walking barefoot in the snow to a days labour with only a meagre bit of food he can be blissfully grateful that he is not the one who has to empty the toilets, or work for a harsher foreman than the one he has. To paraphrase the old maxim ‘someone is always worse off than yourself’.
Frankl is astounded at how some men react to their circumstances.
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting other, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have few in number bit they offer sufficient proof that 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 circumstances to choose one’s own way.” P 75
Most people of course are more concerned with self-survival and some will gladly sacrifice those around them to ensure it.
However, it is the few who can rise above and grow from what they are suffering that interests Frankl. In sometimes Dostoyevskyan prose he writes: “When a man finds it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No-one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
It is not jus those few who have survived life in a concentration camp who this applies to, Frankl had developed his ideas that would come to the form the psychological school of logotherapy by 1938 and from his experiences in the concentration camps Frankl begins to draw out the threads of philosophy that he would develop into ‘Logotherapy’.
He is someone who is intensely interested in the individual and believes that everyone has something to offer.
“What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you. Not only our experience, but all that we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all that we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.” P93
He continues: “One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”
Frankl outlines the basic principles of logotherapy in the final 50 pages of Man’s Search for Meaning.
He contents that people can discover a meaning to life in three different ways – by creating a work or doing a deed, through experiences or in relationships with or to others, and by the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering.
In purely practical terms he says that someone can overcome a phobia or psychological trauma by using paradoxical intention. In the case of insomniacs he says they are unable to sleep because they are wishing too hard for sleep to come. Frankl argues that by reversing that logic the insomniac should simply resolve not to go to sleep when they go to bed and be determined to stay awake – the paradox of this intention will result in them falling to sleep.
It worked for me first try last night.
In the broader approach to life he calls for optimism in the face of tragedy that enables someone to turn suffering into human achievement, deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better and even to come to terms with the inevitability of death by deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.
Frankl acknowledges that it will not work for everyone and that those who successfully live a logotheraputic life will be in the minority. But he concludes: “… I see therein the very challenge to join the minority”.


Fionnchú said...

One of about only four survivors from the Jewish community of Salonika who were taken to one of the worst camps came to talk to my son's school a few years ago. I asked him how he found the willpower to wake up and get out of bed each day in the camp. He replied simply: "No matter what, every day is another day of life."

Lou said...

It's interesting what Frankl posits about fate, destiny and the acceptance of suffering. A few years ago I went to see The Road to Guantanamo in the Black Box followed by a Q and A with two of the former detainees. When asked how they retained their sanity, one of the men responded that the only way he mentally survived the experience was to abandon any thoughts of hope and to accept the fact that he was going to suffer on a daily basis for the rest of his life and there was absolutely nothing he could do to change that.

Tony Bailie said...

Thanks for comments Lou and John. When I was reading Finkl I was also thinking about Christopher Nolan, who died last week, and also Christy Brown who both endured seriously disabilities and managed to turn them into something positive and become successful writers.