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Armchair philosopher

Lessons in humanity from Viktor Frankl

Powerful lessons in humanity from a holocaust survivor

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who, between 1942 and 1945, survived 4 different Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz.

Frankl witnessed and suffered nearly every indignation you can imagine. As well as being subjected to slave labour and torture himself, he had to watch his family, friends and fellow men be either directly executed, or worked to death by the Nazi camp guards.

After being freed from the camp at the end of the war, Frankl returned to Vienna where he wrote a book offering a unique insight into the life of a concentration camp inmate from the objective perspective of a psychiatrist.

Man's Search For Meaning is a profound, poignant, and life-altering read that offers so many lessons in what it means to be human, the importance of striving, and the importance of love and compassion. Not only are the stories of his and his fellow prisoners experiences of camp life moving, but the way in which Frankl's reacted to and interpreted those experiences was inspirational.

Frankl's survival and success after his ordeal was likely due to his remarkable mental resilience. From reading his work's it's clear he had an extra-ordinary knack for coping with difficulty through a rare mixture of pragmatism, positive thinking, and compassion.

Below are a few of the sections which I found most insightful...

...for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still knows bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.

Tears came to his eyes and I tried to comfort him. Then there was something else to do — to make my will: “Listen, Otto, if I don’t get back home to my wife, and if you should see her again, then tell her that I talked of her daily, hourly. You remember. Secondly, I have loved her more than anyone. Thirdly, the short time I have been married to her outweighs everything, even all we have gone through here.”

We who lived in the 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.

...we could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.

The prisoner who had lost his faith in the future — his future — was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.

When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsbility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any how.

From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two—the "race" 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"—and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.

I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygeine to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis,” i.e., a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves her. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in her, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.

These last two resonated with me the most:

By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic "the self-transcendence of human existence." It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.

Viktor Frankl brought strength and hope to his fellow prisoners and to the countless lives he touched after the war, both in his practice and through his writings.

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