February 21, 2024

Man’s search for meaning, by Viktor Frankl – an unforgettable testimony of survival

On the profound insights of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and founder of logotherapy. My impressions on his most famous work, 'Man’s Search for Meaning', a timeless classic of survival literature.

As a future psychotherapist, and writer of WWII fiction, I’ve been drawn for a while towards discovering Viktor Frankl’s work. I did not know much about his school of psychoanalysis, apart from the fact that his experiences from Auschwitz and other concentration camps were a catalyzer in the birth of logotherapy.

Man’s search for meaning offers a vivid image of the endurance of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It is a powerful testimony to the will to live and find meaning even in the chains of inhuman evil. To Frankl, it was the meaning of suffering which gave sense to the hope of survival – it made life worth living. When one bravely accepts the challenge of suffering, life gains an unconditional meaning which lasts until the end.

Experiences from concentration camp

Dr. Frankl first recounts his struggle for survival in concentration camps through a psychoanalytical lens. Based on observations of himself and fellow prisoners he tries to make sense of how some found a way of coping with the inescapable torments. Amidst the variety of responses, he discerns a commonality - the ability to accept suffering and give it meaning. It is this transcendence of suffering which he recognizes as a uniquely human potential, to transform a personal tragedy into triumph.

Reading such words from someone who endured the hell of concentration camps is a compelling reminder of how even the most hopeless circumstances can be surmounted, by accepting the challenge to change oneself.

Towards logotherapy – finding meaning at the center of existence

Frankl’s experience of the Holocaust, his survival beyond hope, strengthened the psychological theories he conceived of before the war. In the second part of the book, he exposes the principles of logotherapy, placing the search for meaning as a primary motivation in life. Every person has a specific vocation in life in which he cannot be replaced. And one way of discovering this meaning is through the attitude adopted towards unavoidable suffering. Here, the testimony of Frankl’s survival in Auschwitz takes on a new light.

Given the autobiographical context, the exploration of human suffering takes on a central part. And yet, Frankl recognizes it is not necessary for finding meaning. Another path is through love, which makes one fully aware of the beloved person’s essence. Through love one can recognize potential not yet fulfilled and encourage the other to reach it. Here I recognized an affirmation of the most pure form of selfless love. Where one helps the other grow in virtue, fulfill a vocation, and become the best version of themselves.

I was moved by the incredible power of love recalled by the author.

In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, he can through the contemplation of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.

Love is a light shining through the thickest darkness, which even death cannot overcome.

Finally, I was struck by the emphasis placed on the attitude we adopt towards suffering. It is that which allows us to exercise our unique human freedom. For even in the most miserable, unchangeable circumstances we can rise beyond being passive victims. To me, this is a challenge, to take up my cross in every moment and accept life’s hardships as sacrifices. Even when their reasons seem unclear, there can be peace in surrender. A conscious surrender which does not equal passivity, but paves the way to later rise from the ashes. It is a serene acceptance, born from the trust that evil never has the last word.

I was impressed by the deep exploration of the inner life of concentration camp prisoners. Frankl offers a thorough analysis of how the latter holds power in dealing with insurmountable circumstances. The relatively short work exposes a wealth of insights. And despite this condensed knowledge and theory, the book reads smoothly, not requiring much psychological expertise for understanding. The human voice resonates deeply, giving a genuine color to technical details.

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