Life in the United States of America is incredibly easy. On a typical day, the most difficult decision I have to make is which restaurant to visit to consume my over-requirement of calories. Even when I endure a particularly hard day at work, I have a device in my house that’s purpose is to provide mindless, care-removing entertainment for an entire evening, while I just sit. There is the occasional tragedy, a Sandy Hook shooting or a Hurricane Katrina, that injects suffering into an otherwise peaceful existence. Some Americans are plagued by chronic financial or physical concerns. But for the most part, this nation of 300 million-plus people enjoys a level of comfort and ease unparalleled in human history.
This safety and freedom has provided time for innovation, an opportunity to create something that helps others and makes the inventor rich. For others, the additional free time afforded by first-world living brings room for sports and activities with friends, a chance to kick back with a beer and a laugh. And of course, there is the time spent with loved ones.
All of these activities that we enjoy so much bring meaning to our lives. Humans need meaning and purpose, and, according to Victor Frankl, the search for such meaning is essential to our existence. In his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl explains how the pursuit of meaning allowed him and so many others to endure one of the most difficult burdens in human history: a Nazi concentration camp.
At the time of his arrest by the Nazis in 1942, Frankl was working at a psychologist in Vienna, Austria. It was a time of tremendous loss for the Jewish population. So many deaths, so much of life and so many goods taken from them, tossed into bonfires and trash heaps. The things that provided comfort and joy and normalcy were ripped from them, violently. Six million of them were summarily executed. For those that remained, some endured while others gave up. Frankl tried to understand “the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.” He endured the torture of the SS guards, the injustice of being beaten and broken, and the pain of seeing those around him “treated like nonentities,” and in the midst of the horror, he found what carried some through to the end: meaning.
It was meaning, or the quest for meaning in one’s life, that made the difference. This isn’t a general “meaning of life” feeling, but particular purposes that “differ from man to man, and from moment to moment.” For Frankl during his time in the camp, the desire to see his wife again (he didn’t know she was already dead) and his hope of publishing a book on his psychiatric theories gave him a meaning that helped bring him through his nearly three years of captivity.
While some died violent and empty deaths at the hands of their enemies, many more died internally. Frankl said that when a prisoner ignored a guard’s order to get out of bed and instead began smoking a cigarette, he knew that the prisoner would die within two weeks, not from weapons, but from purposelessness. “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed…. In the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.”
The first half of Man’s Search for Meaning describes life in the camp in light of the author’s discovery of meaning as a key survival factor. The content is intense though not overly graphic. But this is the Holocaust, and the details portray life stripped to the bone. “Everything that was not connected with the immediate task of keeping oneself and one’s closest friends alive lost its value.” Food was rationed to the point of intentional starvation, and warmth—both physical and emotional—was scarce. But the source of trouble did not come solely from the guards. “Even among the guards there were some who took pity on us…but the senior camp warden, a prisoner himself, was harder than any of the SS guards…. It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.”
Frankl tells the story of a camp commander, a Nazi, who used his own money to buy medicines for the prisoners from a nearby town. Upon liberation by Allied forces, the prisoners protected this “enemy” from harsh treatment by their rescuers. This kindness for a tender heart, even in an enemy’s garb, proved to Frankl the fallacy of a superior Aryan race. “There are two races of men in this world, but only these two—the ‘race’ of the of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race.’”
In the second part of the book, Frankl explains Logotherapy, his method of “curing the soul by leading it to find meaning in life.” Such meaning carried so many prisoners through to the time of their rescue. But for some who experienced the terrors of the camps, liberation brought a new kind of enslavement. “They were now the oppressors instead of the oppressed,” finding an “existential vacuum” that expressed itself in “bitterness and disillusionment,” and also a “state of boredom.” To counteract this emptiness, logotherapy promotes three methods of discovering meaning: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
Because he passed through some of the worst of what life has to offer, Frankl understood well that it’s not circumstances that define meaning, but what we take from those circumstances. Normally such an idea would be little more than an empty platitude. But his experiences inject into them the ring of authority. “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.”