Victor Frankl: Suffering and Meaning
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. In his book – Man’s Search For Meaning, he writes about the psychology of the prisoners in the Holocaust concentration camps.
I very recently read a passage on suffering (and what meaning people can derive from it) in Frankl’s amazing book. Perseverance in the face of suffering is a subject I have given significant thought to, and Frankl eloquently summarises some of the most important aspects of suffering and its meaning in life. This was by far the most profound piece of literature I have read on this subject and could very well be the crux of the whole book.
Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered
by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something
vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s
tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny,
which is different and unique for each individual. No
man and no destiny can be compared with any other man
or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each
situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation
in which a man finds himself may require him to shape
his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous
for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation
and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man
may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there
is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the
situation at hand.
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
For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations
far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that
could be of help to us. They kept us from despair, even
when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it
alive. Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was
the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as
the attaining of some aim through the active creation of
something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced
the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.
Frankl goes on to talk about how the prisoners who took it upon themselves to give meaning to their suffering fared better than those who gave up. Often, he says, finding meaning in the suffering was as simple as thinking about a loved one who was waiting for them to come home after the war was over.
In light of the mental anguish he faced at the camp, it is actually very surprising how objective Frankl was able to be when it came to observing his and his fellow inmates’ daily experiences. Frankl even sees this himself:
I became disgusted with the state of affairs
which compelled me, daily and hourly, to
think of only such trivial things (Frankl is talking about food and survival here). I forced my
thoughts to turn to another subject. Suddenly
I saw myself standing on the platform of a
well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In
front of me sat an attentive audience on
comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a
lecture on the psychology of the
concentration camp! All that oppressed me at
that moment became objective, seen and
described from the remote viewpoint of
science. By this method I succeeded
somehow in rising above the situation,
above the sufferings of the moment, and I
observed them as if they were already of the
past. Both I and my troubles became the
object of an interesting psychoscientific study
undertaken by myself. What does Spinoza say
in his Ethics?—“Affectus, qui passio est,
desinit esse passio simulatque eius claram et
distinctam formamus ideam.” Emotion, which
is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as
we form a clear and precise picture of it.
Maybe we all have a lesson to learn here. One can only imagine the horrors people go through during such events during wars – in the camps in Poland during the 40s as well in wars as around the world. Suffering is part of the human condition and according to Frankl the response to it is entirely upon us – the victims of such suffering. The way we respond to suffering is what differentiates us from each other – and is also the last of human liberties. Frankl mentions how even when everything was taken away from them (literally – prisoners were often striped naked during admission), the prisoners at concentration camps had one last liberty – the liberty to decide how to respond to such indignity. We often think suffering is a ‘test’ from God or is the result of random events just negatively effecting us. While either or both might be true, what really matters is how we rise to the occasion and keep our heads high.
Let us have the courage to face such calamities and come out better versions of ourselves; just as Nietzsche puts it, that which does not kill us, makes us stronger.