Victor Frankl is regarded as one of the world’s foremost psychologists. His most popular book, Man’s Search for Meaning, was published in 1946. The book has been translated into 24 languages; more than 12 million copies have been sold.
It has been described as one of the 10 most influential books in a survey of American readers.
In 1942 Frankl, his wife, his brother and his parents were arrested and sent to the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp. It was the last he saw of all of them.
Frankl survived the concentration camps for three years until he was liberated in 1945.
The first part of Frankl’s book recounts those years in the camps. It is hard to believe anyone could survive, yet he produced a book of such optimism and insight based on his original thesis and informed by his near death experience.
Auschwitz/Birkenau in the middle of winter, days before the Christmas celebration, is at its worst – the physical embodiment of evil, tangible, comprehensible proof of an incomprehensible period in human history. The atmosphere is cold, heavy, leadened with doom and sadness; taking pictures seems a desecration, an invasion of the sanctity of this memorial. I am only able to take a photo of the entrance.
Even the most warmly dressed of us are chilled within minutes. It is virtually impossible to survive days on end in freezing temperatures, walking kilometers in snow and ice without adequate footwear, laboring outdoors for hours in threadbare prison garb, existing on a few hundred calories, whipped and beaten by sadists, huddling together for warmth for a few hours of sleep in drafty horse barns – only to do it all over again, for days, months, years.
More than 1 million people were exterminated in the Auschwitz/Birkenau complex in less than three years. Every day, thousands were stripped naked, marched into the ‘showers’, gassed, and incinerated.
The most heart wrenching displays are the heaps of left behind possessions – gathered by the Nazis for recycling into cash – the amoral, relentless efficiency of it all is staggering. The barns that held this booty were called Canada (some notion connecting our limitless bounteousness to that of the sheds) – our small bitter place in this hellhole of Nazi hate.
These are dark, brooding places, sadness hangs over it all like a shroud – the buildings, the razor wire fences, the gas chambers, the ovens, the mass graves.
We attend; our collective desire to understand, to memorialize, to grasp the magnitude of evil, to seek meaning in the events of the past. Our presence is not prurient; we bear witness to the suffering, we honor the dead. We renew our vow that this shall never happen again.
Frankl found inspiration in these camps. The first half of Man’s Search for Meaning is the recounting of his time in the camps. This time in the camps exemplified the power of his psychological theory developed before the war, it gave him the strength to survive and with it he tried to help others find meaning in their daily suffering.
Frankl lost almost everything in the camps, enduring the most hurtful physical, emotional and spiritual degradation – yet he survived because, he believed that he retained something sacred; ”the last of the human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“It is this spiritual freedom which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
Throughout his book, Frankl quotes another philosopher, Neitzsche; “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”
I came across Man’s Search for Meaning decades ago. It carried a powerful message for me. It is on my shelf of must have books; I have given away dozens of copies, highly recommending it to friends and those whose need seems clear. It has been a powerful book in my life.
Frankl’s philosophy is simple; I need meaning in my life and, while I may not be in control of events that occur in my life, I am in control of how I respond to them and how I seek to manage that part of my life that is under my control. I have the power to choose.
Simple but not easy; I sometimes lose my way and forget these ideas. Some combination of restlessness, boredom and bored/restlessness can blind me to these simple guides to living.
There is never one shining beacon that offers total meaning to me, my search usually turns up a patchwork of Whys that make my life meaningful. Life evolves, changes; when times shift, I need to add a patch to the worn part of my quilt of purposes. The meaning of life is not always clear, nor does it stay stable over time.
Frankl is on my shelf with his story of survival, his simple advice – intellectually rigorous, spiritually uplifting, emotionally rewarding and experientially tested. Like millions of others, he has uplifted us all by telling the story of the camps, by offering hope to those who search for meaning and by offering simple advice to help us find purpose and meaning even in times of struggle. I recommend you read this book.