Author: The Bible speaks of men and women being made into “signs” by their unique circumstances, which demonstrate a truth about human life in the unarguable sphere of biography. Viktor Frankl’s life (1905-1997) is one such “sign.” Having not only lived through the gruesome Nazi concentration camps, but being a psychiatrist by profession, Frankl gleaned some comforting and noteworthy insights into human nature from what he learned there.
While many personal narratives have been written about the Holocaust, Frankl is probably the only professional psychiatrist to write unite his firsthand experience with his trained opinions about the inner workings of Nazi concentration camps.
Overview: His primary thesis is that even in the worst possible circumstances, man never loses the power of will. Frankl saw that even concentration camp victims could maintain hopeful attitudes, encourage others, and show kindness to their persecutors. The first section, comprising the bulk of the book, is mostly anecdotes about people Frankl interacted with in the concentration camps.
A primary insight of the book relates to suicide:
“I remember two cases of would-be suicide, which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both men had talked of their intentions to commit suicide. Both used the typical argument—they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them. We found, in fact, that for the one it was his child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person. This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else, any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child’s affections.” (p. 87)
As a psychiatrist, Frankl had already worked with the suicidal in Austria before entering the concentration camps, and was developing his theory in this direction even before the war began. This work became the psychiatric theory of logotherapy, which focuses on finding meaning through responsibility. Each of us has an irreplaceable vocation and mission, so that life is always worth living. In his thinking, meaning must be found personally and vocationally by each individual, and is found in three ways: 1) achievement—helping others and succeeding; 2) experience—experiencing goodness, truth, and beauty, and loving others; and 3) enduring suffering—in this case, suffering can be viewed as a kind of achievement if we suffer well. The second section of the book is a popular introduction to his practices, but is well worth reading because it synthesizes truths from the many anecdotes in the first section.
Meat: As in any book about the Holocaust, depravity and virtue are placed in sharp contrast, and numerous insights are given on both ends. Aside from these fascinating tangents, Frankl’s thesis as a psychiatrist is summarized in his own words:
“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.”
Frankl believed that this freedom was unquestionable demonstrated to him by watching the effects of attitude on prisoners’ survivals. When they lost the will to go on, Frankl observed how quickly their health deteriorated and led to death. Others, though physically weak, could endure taxing labor if their life had meaning and purpose.
As a Jew, Frankl quotes Scripture here and there, and his book is not devoid of religious sentiment. That being said, for Christians, the takeaways are highly significant:
- Suffering becomes hopeless when we have nothing to look forward to—then no suffering is hopeless since even death is not the end for believers.
- No suffering is meaningless since we imbue life with meaning by working “as though for the Lord” (Col. 3:23).
- No oppression can take away our essential humanity and personality. When every earthly comfort is taken away, we can still express who we are.
- The two greatest commandments are always actionable. There is no time or place where it is impossible to love God and our neighbor.
Bones: Frankl’s ideas themselves are powerful and aptly stated, but today we often find ourselves contending with their abuses, which are many. The self-help literature has moved on from Frankl’s main thesis—that we maintain free will even in the most oppressive of circumstances—into completely man-centered philosophies: man’s will is not only powerful, but supreme; man’s will can not only supercede his circumstances, but change them.
Because of these abuses, we should state Frankl’s ideas carefully. Our free will, while powerful, has many limitations. As he points out himself:
“To be sure, a human being is a finite being, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.” (p. 132)
And again, a few pages later:
“Freedom, however, is not the last word … Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” (p. 134)
“When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.” (p. 116)
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” (first stated by Nietzsche but re-popularized by Frankl)
“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” (p. 117)
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
“In the concentration camps, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.” (p. 135)