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 burden.

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. Easier said than done, surely; it reminds me of an episode from House:

You can live with dignity but you can't die with it.

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.


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