Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl's theory-known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos ("meaning")-holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.
If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.
This seemed like a fitting book to read on the Remembrance Day weekend, especially since I recently read Anne Frank’s Diaries. It is a harrowing reading experience, but also strangely comforting. Frankl details his concentration camp history in order to show us the how and why of survival.
I think it was Frankel’s even-handedness that impressed me the most. He sees evil when it presents itself, in the form of sadistic guards and other prisoners who lord it over their peers, but he also acknowledges the presence of good people in difficult situations—the server in the food line who always scoops from the bottom of the soup pot, giving everyone a chance at one of those longed-for peas, the guard who nudges the weaker prisoner towards lighter duties, the fellow marcher who offers a hand.
Survival is often a matter of luck—choosing the right work assignment or choosing a favourable move to another camp, but each person was also responsible for their own luck by paying attention and helping others when they were able or stroking the ego of a guard when the chance arose. Frankl points out that most of those who survived had a bigger goal—a loved one to be reunited with or a project to be finished. He credits his half-finished book with getting him through a bout of typhus during his imprisonment.
A tale of grim survival, leading to a sympathetic psychiatric theory. Have you identified your purpose?