There are moments in our lives which bend the fabric of understanding. These instances are rare, often painful, bittersweet reminders of life’s beauty and fragility. Suffering and love cannot exist without the other, and this becomes apparent in times of great loss. Hope moves us forward but memories keep a foot in the past, our souls longing for the unappreciated comforts of yesterday.
Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, reawakened the existential awareness I’ve only known in times of great joy and great despair. I’d recommend everyone read it, but those who struggle with defining their life’s purpose or suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts may benefit most from its content.
Overall rating: 4.5/5
Synopsis (Minor Spoilers)
Viktor Frankl and his family were captured by the Nazis in 1942 and were sent to Thereisienstadt, a concentration camp. He was transported to four other camps during his three year imprisonment, including Auschwitz, but somehow managed to survive.
In the first three-quarters of the book, Frankl examines the changes in human consciousness as he describes the horrors he and his fellow inmates experienced. It started in the trains where everyone stood naked, body-to-body in the middle of winter without enough room to sit. I’d assume they knew their misery would grow exponentially worse from there.
A large batch of people were killed every day, and no one knew whether they’d be selected to be in the next group.
Frankl details his internal struggle to find meaning during a time where his meaning was erased. His family had been taken and were presumed dead, and he was forced to work tirelessly, shoe-less in the snow while guards beat him for the sake of beating him. He was starved, forced to sleep in a blanket-less shed against several other naked men who did little to generate warmth since they were mostly bone. Some of them would not make it to the next morning.
Of those who managed to survive long enough, many camp members inevitably lost all hope in finding meaning or purpose to keep moving them forward. Those poor souls were trapped in a dark place within their minds, and Frankl teetered on entering it himself on multiple occasions. Somehow, he was able to devise a mentality that allowed him to hold on when there was literally nothing to hold on to. He was expected to work, then die, just like everyone else.
The last quarter of the book briefly describes his mindset when he was freed, and his invention of a new school of psychological therapy called Logotherapy. In a nutshell, this therapy ‘focuses on the idea that humans are strongly motivated to live purposefully and meaningfully, and that we find meaning in life as a result of responding authentically and humanely to life’s challenges’—source here.
Frankl argues that to combat depression and suicidal thoughts, therapists should assist their patients in defining their purposes and guide them toward a life in which they find meaning.
Why This Book Resonated With Me
A few events Frankl mentioned stood out to me. One was the indifference of the German general who decided which Jews lived and which Jews died when they arrived at camp. According to the author, the inmates were lined up and forced to walk toward the guard who would glance at them, and without much deliberation, point his finger either to the left or to the right. The left meant gas, the right meant forced labor. Frankl was fortunate to, I guess, get labor.
The second event came as no surprise considering how fickle human morality is when faced with torment, starvation, and death. There were Jews who were “promoted” to what was called the Kapo—Jews responsible for supervising other prisoners. The Kapos weren’t on the same level as the guards but were given special treatment if they enforced the rules of the camps. This meant a guaranteed meal every day, clothing, a blanket, and reprieve from the gas chambers. Most of the time the guards didn’t administer the beatings, it was the Kapos who were trying to stay in good standing with their superiors.
Frankl asked himself whether he could do to his comrades what the Kapos did to him. The conclusion was that he was stripped of everything except his will to survive, so yes, if it meant survival, he could. It’s easy for me to say I wouldn’t do that but instinct and who we really are is revealed when our backs are against the wall. The majority of people probably would join the Kapos too.
The third and last event, though there were many other significant ones, was Frankl’s depiction of the Jews who lost the battle within their minds. These people were in such despair, they would void themselves where they laid in bed. When they were whipped, they didn’t flinch or budge, they just took it. They accepted death as the only way forward and it is a darkness I hope myself, nor anyone else, ever experience. To give up forthrightly like that…
I thought I knew what loss and suffering was until I read this book. It turns out, I don’t know what it means to live a hard life. One could argue all life is suffering but we experience it differently, but Frankl put into perspective how little I have to complain about. His story allowed me to re-examine how I view my circumstances. It made me grateful to live in the society I am in, in spite of its many faults.
Before You Go!
Have you read this book before? Do you think you’ll consider it now that you’ve read my review? Be sure to leave your thoughts in the Comments section below! And remember, life is short, the road is long, keep moving forward!
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