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What I learned from Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning

A worthwhile 100 pages on life in a concentration camp during WWII. A further 50 pages covering a practical guide to meaning and life.

Points that stayed with me:

  • Three phases of experiencing a concentration camp.

  • Maintaining dignity when surrounded by inhumanity.

  • We too often look for the causes of anxiety instead of sources of meaning.

  • Parallels with loose stoicism.

  • The meaning of life is not a one-off finding.

Three phases of experiencing a concentration camp.

As one might expect, conditions are abhorrent, and reading the first 100 pages of Frankl’s book is worthwhile to get a sense of both conditions and psychology.

In brief. The first phase is of humiliation and abhorrence. The second is a dulling of one’s senses to the surrounding inhumanity, coupled with a constant yearning for food. It is impossible to think of much other than hunger. The third phase – for the one of twenty-eight, according to Frankl, who made it out of camps alive – is a sense of dead-ness or disbelief. After years (three years in Frankl’s case) where freedom was just a dream, freedom – when it does arrive – seems just that… a dream, a mirage.

Maintaining dignity when surrounded by inhumanity.

Frankl remarks how camps took humanity away from most prisoners, dropping them to the most selfish versions of themselves. Still, there was a minority who managed to maintain dignity while surrounded by suffering and degradation. The following phrase suffices in capturing this sentiment:

“man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

As I understand, “Shema Yisrael” is the most recited prayer in Judaism, often at night and as last words.

We too often look for the causes of anxiety instead of sources of meaning.

As mentioned, the first 100 pages of the book focus on depicting life in concentration camps as a prisoner. The next (and final) 50 pages of the book draws a little from concentration camp experiences, but also from Frankl’s life before and after as a psychiatrist/psychologist, especially while treating a wide range of patients.

Frankl names his philosophy/theory “logotherapy”, which centres around man’s life being centered around meaning, rather than centering around primal urges (Sigmund Freud) or power (Nietsche).

For Frankl, conflict is not necessarily something to avoid or solve with psychoanalytic treatment (e.g. deep exploration and linking to one’s past experiences):

“Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic; some amount of conflict is normal and healthy.”

For Frankl, what is treated as neuroticism would often better be diagnosed as an absence of meaning in the person’s life, or what he calls an “existential vaccuum”.

I apologise for using words such as “neurotic” and “psychoanalytic” loosely and inaccurately – I haven’t read much about psychiatry.

As to my own life experience, my sense is that – in the modern day – we treat anxiety as a problem to be solved, often by searching for a solution deep in our histories. I have seen – for friends and family – how this can turn out not just be a dead end, but a source of accelerating questions and pain.

In my experience, our therapy – whether professional or informally via friends/family – is too focused on sourcing root causes of anxiety (as though clear root causes tend to exist) and focus too little on instead finding meaning. When I read Frankl, I read a recommendation, rather than treating anxiety as neurotic (and indeed in some cases it might be is), is to direct oneself towards a pursuit of meaning.

Parallels with loose stoicism.

Perhaps I simply misunderstand Frankl, but I read parallels with writings of the Stoics – at least of Marcus Aurelius (I’ve read Meditations).

Stoicism emphasises separating what can be controlled in life from what one cannot control. If one cannot control an event or a situation, then one should instead focus on controlling one’s attitude to that situation. Facing the death of a loved one, nothing can be done to reverse that. However, one can take an attitude to live as that person would have wanted you to.

[Side-note: I say “loose” stoicism because the level of emotional detachment advocated for in certain texts is too extreme to be fun. Certain passages of Markus Aurelius’ wouldn’t be my top recommendation for setting the mood:

“Or making love—something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid”

A lot of Aurelius’ writing does emphasise the beauty of the world. Worth noting also his writings of how he loved his wife and the suffering he endured after she died young.]

The meaning of life is not a one-off finding

For Frankl, there is not “a” meaning of life. Further, it is not found at any single point of time or in any single place.

Rather, meaning – in one of its three forms (and one may not or need not live all three) – involves living. It is a continuous search, and a somewhat less continuous finding.

I finish, with Frankl’s three sources of meaning – quoted:

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed

  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone

  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

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