Thursday, July 16, 2009

Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl (Kindle)

In a comment from my last novel read and reviewed for my WWII Reading Challenge, "Night", I received a recommendation from my blogger buddy C.B. James to give "Man's Search for Meaning a try. In doing a small bit of research, it seems that this novel, written in 1956 by Holocaust survivor Frankl, has sold more than 10 million copies in twenty-four languages, and has been deemed one of the most influential books of our time. OK, good enough for me.

Between 1942 and 1945, Frankl, with a an MD and PhD in psychology, was interred in various concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Similar to a heart surgeon having a heart attack, or a brain scientist having a stroke, this experience allowed Frankl to observe and understand first-hand how, in a nutshell, attitude is everything, and that life holds potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.

Frankl explores three specific stages that the prisoners went through as a result of their imprisonment. The first stage is shock and denial. These people truly believed that it was all a big misunderstanding, and that they weren't really going to be shot or gassed, even though they were well aware of many before them had suffered this fate. Once they saw their mothers, fathers, wives and kids led off to the gas chamber, they quickly progressed in the second stage, apathy.

In the second stage, prisoners were "insensitive to daily and hourly beatings. By means of this insensibility the prisoner soon surrounded himself with a very necessary protective shell." A self-defense mechanism, if you will. If a prisoner exhibited any sign of revulsion, anger, or annoyance, they were beaten within an inch of their lives, so apathy was reinforced.

Frankl began to notice other differences between those that survived and those who did not. It wasn't always the physically strong ones that was the ones that found meaning in their lives. A loved one that was waiting on the outside, an unfinished novel, the desire to travel the world...when the deep spirituality of these motivators were lost, the person soon died. Humor was also another of the "soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation." Gratefulness for the smaller things, like having time to delouse before bed so they could sleep in peace, pulled them through the day. One of the most memorable quotes that I came across was this one - one that each one of us needs to remember on a daily basis:

"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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."

Paramount to all these other shifts in attitude was the ability to suffer with purpose and dignity. It is best described in this quote:

"When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden."

Whoa. This makes you stop and think, doesn't it? Can you imagine going through the day, with the highlight of being given the gift of time to pick the lice out of your head? That your destiny could possibly be to suffer, and that you should take the opportunity to do it right? I'm liking this guy more and more. There isn't a human being alive that couldn't learn a lesson here. It makes me ashamed for feeling depressed over the mountain of laundry waiting for me, or my complaining about my jet lag.

The last phase experiences by the victims was liberation, and how it was handled by the individual. Surprisingly, many prisoners did not handle freedom well at all. Likened to a psychological version of "the bends", getting freedom too quickly can cause a person to implode. Many were aggressive and angry. At a minimum, the victims had "lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly."

The last half of Frankl's book applies what he learned in the camps to his psychiatry practice of "logotherapy", where he explains that many of the afflictions and neuroses suffered today can be alleviated by finding the meaning to your life. In the words of Nietzsche, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how." Alcoholics, drug addicts and suicide threats often have resorted to such actions because they think they have nothing to live for. He says that "a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy." It may seem a little simplistic, but to me, makes a whole hell of a lot of sense. It inspired a long discussion between my husband and I about what we live for now, and what we will live for in our later years. We talked about how certain troubled individuals in our lives could really use some of this logotherapy.

The book is relatively short, but not the easiest to read in one sitting. It is compelling, though, and I believe has worthy of its reputation for making differences in people's lives. The latter half of the book on logotherapy could be considered a bit dry in parts (although I was somewhat sleep-deprived when I was reading it!), but I pulled through it and was glad I did. I doubt that I will ever view hardship the same again, and hope it serves as a permanent attitude adjustment that it was meant to be.

4.5 out of 5 stars


Unknown said...

That sounds fascinating! Does it contain graphic/disturbing scenes? Or is it just a study of their emotions? I think I'll have to read this at some point.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Jackie - don't hold me to it, but I don't remember anything very graphic. Frankl does make a comment that all those stories have been told, so he doesn't belabor the horror. He instead focuses on his professional perspective of how men dealt with it. It is an intriguing read!

Iliana said...

It's been a long time since I read this book and I wonder how much more I would appreciate it now. I did like it a lot when I read it but I think being older & wiser (wink) should help understanding it even more you know.

Jeane said...

I read this years ago and while it made a big impression on me at the time, I don't remember it very well now. Excellent review; thanks for jogging my memory about all the salient points.

Beth F said...

This was an incredible audiobook too. I read it once and then listened to it. My mother and brother were lucky enough to hear Frankl speak last year.

It is difficult emotionally, but important too.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Iliana - I'm pretty certain I would not have appreciated this book in my younger days. I've certainly got a better appreciation of the Holocaust now, and am more open-minded towards lessons on life!

Jeane - I can see where the message might get blurry in one's mind after awhile. There were so many great points, I doubt I have really even scratched the surface!

Beth - yeah, I know, I don't really shy away from difficult. There are some great learnings in these books. I would have loved to have heard him speak. I would have loved to have been his patient! Not that I struggle with my life's meaning, but still!

Literary Feline said...

Thank you for your wonderful review, Sandy. This does sound fascinating. I'm especially interested in his ideas. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention.

Melissa said...

THanks for the great review. I hadn't heard of this one, but will have to check it out!

Anna said...

We've posted your review on War Through the Generations.

Diary of an Eccentric