Viktor Frankl is one of the most profound modern thinkers and his work turned the age old philosophical question “what is the meaning of life” on its head. Through his work and experiences he posits that we find purpose in the dedication to a cause, finding love and meaning in both success and suffering.
The book starts by telling Frankl’s experiences in the Nazi concentration camps of World War 2. It is a harrowing and inspirational story of emotional strength and endurance.
I don’t say this lightly, but this is not a story for the emotionally weak – I often felt emotionally scarred as he recounts the atrocities he witnessed and had to bear, more than once i found myself close to tears, heartbroken that human beings could treat each other in such a detestable manner. As Neitzsche one said “Man is the cruelest animal”.
That his experiences could lead him to write a book that is renowned as one of the most life-changing books in existence is testament to a man that was forced to endure some of the most horrible conditions that humans have endured.
In the book he writes: “I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.”
Frankl tells of how those that escaped the gas chambers were made to endure the cruelest manual labour in the harshest of conditions. Many prisoners who had completely lost their ‘why’ quickly lost their ability to carry on. He often refers to how the “why” provides meaning and the meaning provides strength.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”— Nietzsche
Frankl’s work highlights three key “whys”:
- Dignity in suffering
Frankl found work as a doctor in the concentration camps and always kept his wife (whom he loved dearly and did not know the fate that befell her until after the war) close to his heart. He also learned to find dignity in his suffering despite all his possessions, even a beloved transcript of a paper he had been working on for months being taken from him.
This sentiment has such profound meaning and like much of Frankl’s work resonates with the writings of the ancient Stoics, indeed Marcus Aurelius, the last of the five good Emperors of Rome once wrote: “Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not “This is misfortune,” but “To bear this worthily is good fortune.”
Indeed, Frankl opines “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Eventually Frankl finds himself surviving the war and after recovering from his trauma starts working again, where he uses his experiences in the concentration camps to develop what he calls logotherapy – his contribution to the world as an alternative to psychotherapy to help man reconcile meaning and his place in the world.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one’s own way”