Since being published in 1946, just one year after World War II, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning has stood as an invaluable resource for the thoughtful seeker searching for a way through adversity and answers to some of life’s most important questions.
Having been an occupant of four different concentration camps throughout WWII, including Auschwitz, Frankl experienced some of worst horrors ever known in the history of humankind.
It’s during his three-year stay in these camps that he compiled much of the information he’d later use to write Man’s Search for Meaning, part one detailing his occupation in the Nazi camps and what he learned as a result of it, and part two detailing the psychological approach formed in part by those experiences. He named it “logotherapy.”
The book is rife with valuable lessons and deep wisdom combined with Frankl’s psychological insight.
The book offers endless value (and, for that reason, I’d suggest reading it yourself), but here are some of its most significant lessons.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
– Viktor Frankl
1. You’re far stronger than you think
Most of us struggle with doubt and a lack of self-confidence, questioning whether we’ll be able to talk to that girl we like or ask for that raise.
However, that’s just the beginning. Many of us are tormented by clinical anxiety or depression that, at times, makes it impossible to do anything. Or you experience verbal or physical abuse by a spouse or family member, killing your spirit and leading you to question your own value.
Understandably, it’s during intense suffering such as this that you question if you’re strong enough to go on. However, what Frankl experienced during his time in concentration camps, and the insights he came away with afterward, are a testament to the strength that exists inside of each and every one of us.
The medical men among us learned first of all: ‘Textbooks tell lies!’ Somewhere it is said that man cannot exist without sleep for more than a stated number of hours. Quite wrong! I had been convinced that there were certain things I just could not do: I could not sleep without this or I could not live with that or the other.
He goes on to detail the other incredible hardships he and others were subjected to and how, miraculously, they were able to persevere beyond reason:
We were unable to clean our teeth, and yet, in spite of that and a severe vitamin deficiency, we had healthier gums than ever before. We had to wear the same shirts for half a year, until they had lost all appearance of being shirts. For days we were unable to wash, even partially, because of frozen water pipes, and yet the sores and abrasions on hands which were dirty from work in the soil did not suppurate (that is, unless there was frostbite).
2. A reason to persevere allows us to endure extraordinary pain
You can realize peace and happiness. This is a gift made available to each of us at birth.
However, you have to get through a lot of crap before you can have a shot at the good stuff. There is no bright side, silver lining, or pot of gold at the end of the rainbow during these moments of intense suffering. That is, unless you have a strong reason to persevere.
Sometimes, you need to suffer before you can ever have a chance at finding peace and joy in your daily life. And it’s with a strong reason, Frankl learned, that you can persevere through extraordinary levels of pain and suffering.
Frankl says this can come in the form of love and your work, however, any compelling reason that drives your life forward has great power.
Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why – an aim – for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence.
When in a camp in Bavaria I fell ill with typhus fever, I jotted down on little scraps of paper many notes intended to enable me to rewrite the manuscript, should I live to the day of liberation. I am sure that this reconstruction of my lost manuscript in the dark barracks of a Bavarian concentration camp assisted me in overcoming the danger of cardiovascular collapse.
3. You can resist the influence of even the most toxic environments – your actions are your own
Interestingly, Frankly also offers wisdom on resisting the influence of toxic, demoralizing environments.
You often see examples of desperation in T.V., film, and books. When a human being is put in the direst of situations, they’ll turn against all who are around them in an effort to survive. That desperate, dangerous environment has caused the person to “transform” into little more than an animal who will fight to the death to preserve life and limb.
And, while this may be true for many, it’s not for all. Frankl experienced first-hand examples of incredible heroism and selflessness even in the most dangerous and difficult environment ever:
The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.
When all else is stripped from you, you still have one thing: your actions. No matter how difficult things get, you have the power to choose to be something better, something smarter, and something purer than your environment, serving as a beacon of light either just to yourself or all those who experience that suffering with you.
A key aspect of Frankl’s logotherapy treatment, which he continued to formulate while remaining captive, paradoxical intention states that “overindulging” in fears can actually help us overcome them.
Frankl explained it in this way:
Logotherapy bases its technique called “paradoxical intention” on the twofold fact that fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes.
In this approach, the phobic patient is invited to intend, even if only for a moment, precisely that which he fears.
For example, take being deathly afraid of speaking with the opposite sex. According to Frankl’s logotherapy, by placing yourself around the opposite sex more often and allowing yourself to become steeped in those feelings and anxiousness and nervousness, you can overcome your shy nature and grow more confident.
And the applications are limitless, from overcoming a fear of public speaking to overcoming the fear of what others will think of your work as an artist.