|March 26, 2016|
Viktor Frankl's 1946 book Man's Search for Meaning chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding a reason to live. According to Frankl, the book intends to answer the question "How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?" Part One constitutes Frankl's analysis of his experiences in the concentration camps, while Part Two introduces his ideas of meaning and his theory of logotherapy. It is the second-most widely read Holocaust book in the bookstore of Washington's Holocaust Museum.
According to a survey conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man's Search For Meaning belongs to a list of "the ten most influential books in United States ." ( New York Times , November 20, 1991). At the time of the author's death in 1997, the book had sold 10 million copies in twenty-four languages.
The book's title in German was Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager , and the title of the first English language translation was From Death-Camp to Existentialism . The book's common full English title is Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy , although this subtitle is often not referred to on modern book covers.
Frankl identifies three psychological reactions experienced by all inmates to one degree or another: (1) shock during the initial admission phase to the camp, (2) apathy after becoming accustomed to camp existence, in which the inmate values only that which helps himself and his friends survive, and (3) reactions of depersonalization, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment if he survives and is liberated.
Frankl concludes that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. In a group therapy session during a mass fast inflicted on the camp's inmates trying to protect an anonymous fellow inmate from fatal retribution by authorities, Frankl offered the thought that for everyone in a dire condition there is someone looking down, a friend, family member, or even God, who would expect not to be disappointed. Frankl concludes from his experience that a prisoner's psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his life, but also from the freedom of choice he always has even in severe suffering. The inner hold a prisoner has on his spiritual self relies on having a faith in the future, and that once a prisoner loses that faith, he is doomed.
An example of Frankl's idea of finding meaning in the midst of extreme suffering is found in his account of an experience he had while working in the harsh conditions of the Auschwitz concentration camp:
Frankl also concludes that there are only two races of men, decent men and indecent. No society is free of either of them, and thus there were "decent" Nazi guards and "indecent" prisoners, most notably the kapo who would torture and abuse their fellow prisoners for personal gain.
His concluding passage in Part One describes the psychological reaction of the inmates to their liberation, which he separates into three stages. The first is depersonalization???a period of readjustment, in which a prisoner gradually returns to the world. Initially, the liberated prisoners are so numb that they are unable to understand what freedom means, or to emotionally respond to it. Part of them believes that it is an illusion or a dream that will be taken away from them. In their first foray outside their former prison, the prisoners realized that they could not comprehend pleasure. Flowers and the reality of the freedom they had dreamed about for years were all surreal, unable to be grasped in their depersonalization.
The body is the first element to break out of this stage, responding by voracious eating and sleeping. Only after the partial replenishing of the body is the mind finally able to respond, as ???feeling suddenly broke through the strange fetters which had restrained it??? (111).
This begins the second stage, in which there is a danger of deformation. As the intense pressure on the mind is released, mental health can be endangered. Frankl uses the analogy of a diver suddenly released from his pressure chamber. He recounts the story of a decent friend who became immediately obsessed with dispensing the same violence in judgment of his abusers that they had inflicted on him.
Upon returning home, the prisoners had to struggle with two fundamental experiences which could also damage their mental health: bitterness and disillusionment. The last stage is bitterness at the lack of responsiveness of the world outside???a ???superficiality and lack of feeling...so disgusting that one finally felt like creeping into a hole and neither hearing nor seeing human beings any more??? (113). Worse was disillusionment, which was the discovery that suffering does not end, that the longed-for happiness will not come. This was the experience of those who like Frankl returned home to discover that no one awaited them. The hope that had sustained them throughout their time in the concentration camp was now gone. Frankl cites this experience as the most difficult to overcome.
As time passed, however, the prisoner's experience in a concentration camp finally became nothing but a remembered nightmare. What is more, he knows that he has nothing left to fear any more, "except his God" (115).
Frankl's meaning in life is to help others find theirs.
GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Man's Search for Meaning".
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