Humanity, Perspective and Suffering – My Search for Meaning with Frankl Part 1

Hello again – and welcome to this series of blogs, where I will be exploring a number of thoughts and themes derived from the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Dr Viktor E. Frankl – the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist. Dr Frankl was a survivor of several concentration camps in the Second World War, including Auschwitz. His compassion, wisdom and indefatigable inner strength led him to write many books – with Man’s Search for Meaning the most well known of them. The book is split into two parts – the first explores his experiences in the camps, while the second illuminates his own branch of psychotherapy called logotherapy (which I’ll cover in more detail throughout these posts). It became known as the third Viennese School of Psychotherapy after Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler’s individual psychology.

Logotherapy is all about our will to meaning – while Freud explored humanity’s will to pleasure and Adler (via Nietzsche) our will to power, Frankl believed that our quest for meaning and purpose was the defining drive and motivation of the human being. And he explored our human nature through an existential lens – insisting that we are all beings with freedom and responsibility. A famous aphorism of Nietzsche’s underpins logotherapy, and Frankl’s inspirational belief system, rather beautifully. Here it is:

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Frankl essentially believed that human beings have the capacity to get through any amount of suffering, or any dreadful or hopeless situation, provided they have a purpose – something to live for; something which gives their life meaning. In fact, he believed that there was meaning to be found in suffering itself – if one was able to do so bravely, defiantly and with dignity. And, let’s face it, the man knew what he talking about – he spent years living in some of the most horrendous and inhuman conditions imaginable. And came through it – with his dignity intact, his head held high, and without losing his sense of humanity. He refused to give up. He refused to allow his moral compass to be swayed. He refused to allow his soul to be corrupted by ill feeling. An incredible feat, given the utter desperation of his situation. And he wasn’t the only one.

Of course, one can understand why anyone would ‘give up’ the will to live in those circumstances – there were endless beatings and extreme starvation, boys who had their frostbitten toes picked off, men forced to sleep in cramped, freezing, soaking wet, highly unsanitary bunks (urine-soaked beds, rat infections, rampant disease breakouts, etc). Shreds of clothes wearing away to nothing as these battered ‘slaves’ were worked until their bodies were covered in sores. Feet so battered and blistered that it was hell to even stand up, yet if they appeared even for a moment to be lame and unable to work, they knew a quick execution in the gas chambers would soon follow.

Frankl explains how he knew a campmate was ready to end his life when he gave up his small ration of bread and watery soup for a cigarette – he wanted to enjoy that final pleasure; he could no longer continue the ceaseless, miserable, hopeless struggle of existence. What a truly barbaric, disgraceful state of affairs. There are clearly countless lessons to be learned from reading Frankl – and I hope to share some of those with you over the course of these four posts. The suffering that he and his campmates had to endure certainly has meaning for me – it has given me a fresh perspective on my own life and the person I want to be. How I wish the world to be.

As far as I’m concerned, everyone should want to read this book – not for pleasure (although it’s still captivating, despite its grim content), but because we should never allow such attrocoties to occur again (perhaps, sadly, that should actually read ‘any more’). The point is, we can all learn so much from the insight, strength of character and courage of people like Frankl. I just hope I can do justice to the plight of those who suffered in this horrific war with some of the issues I’m about to discuss with you. All those deaths, and the chastening experiences of those lucky enough to survive, were not in vain – and we must continue to use what happened as a means to guide us to a brighter future.

Man’s Search for Perspective

First up, I’d like to discuss this new perspective that I previously mentioned. Because for me this is probably the most important thing I’ve gained from reading Man’s Search for Meaning. Like most people, I’m prone to little bouts of depression – or occasions when I feel sorry for myself. Why do these things always happen to me? Why is life so unfair? Why does everyone else seem to get all the luck and good fortune? How often do you wish your life was ‘better’ in some way? Whether it be more money, a bigger house, a nicer car, more glamorous holidays, whatever – I know that I sometimes wish I had a little more. And there’s nothing wrong with having goals, aims and aspirations. It’s just that one shouldn’t have them at the expense of appreciating what they DO have.

This is something I’ve discussed before in my blogs in reference to Taoism, and Dr Frankl’s book just adds another layer of meaning (oh yes!) to the notion that, however hard your life might be, there are millions who’ve had it so, so, so much harder. This book truly puts things into perspective. When you think of the horrors that Frankl and his campmates had to endure, day after day, for years, seemingly without hope, it makes you realise just how pathetic and petty some of your troubles can be. I have a beautiful family, a nice home, a decent job and plenty of great friends who enrich my life every day.

I’m not particularly wealthy, but I have more than enough money to live a contented and comfortable life. I don’t get by on small morsels of hard, dry bread or meagre rations of watery soup. I never have to sleep on urine-soaked hay, crammed into tiny spaces with hundreds of other men, all disease-ridden, foul-smelling, angry, heartbroken and hopeless. I have never had to witness a comrade being hauled off to a gas chamber to be executed. I have problems in my life – we all do. But do they even remotely compare to those suffered by Frankl and others, with such dignity, humanity and strength, every day for years on end? Not at all.

And I need to remember that the next time my take-away arrives cold, or my Amazon delivery turns up late, or my friends fail to show up for a meet I organised, or my son pushes my buttons, or my train gets cancelled, or my ear gets clogged up with water, or I get oil on a shirt, or someone or something hurts my pride. Some people will think it’s dumb to compare normal everyday life to the suffering experienced in events like the Holocaust – and I don’t wish to seem melodramatic. I understand there is a world of difference between these things. I just think it’s worth remembering that even when things seem to be quite bad, they’re REALLY not that bad at all. All one really needs is a little perspective – and Frankl’s experience gives us that.

Are we human? Or are we arseholes?

Something else that Frankl’s experience gives us is the opportunity to ask the following questions – what does it mean to be human? How does one ‘act’ humanely? Is it all an act? How much of ‘being human’ comes naturally to us? And why do human beings treat others in an inhuman way? After looking into several definitions of the word ‘human’, there are a few categorisations I find interesting – the first is the reference to our ‘weaknesses’ from Google’s dictionary:

human

/ˈhjuːmən/

adjective

adjective: human

“of or characteristic of people as opposed to God or animals or machines, especially in being susceptible to weaknesses.”

And then Google’s reference to ‘morality’:

“showing the better qualities of humankind, such as kindness.”

And finally this from Merriam-Webster:

“representative of or susceptible to the sympathies and frailties of human nature.”

It seems that frailty, weakness and vulnerability are at the very core of what it means to be human. As is our capacity to be kind and demonstrate our ability to ‘love’ – the “better qualities of humankind”. And there is one more aspect in the various definitions that cropped up again and again which I think is significant. As Collins Dictionary puts it:

“having or showing qualities, as rationality or fallibility, viewed as distinctive of people.”

Rational and fallible – beings with the capacity to apply their own reason and rationality to any situation. To use their brains. To think. To understand. To make judgement calls. To have opinions. To make decisions. To assume responsibility for our actions. And yet – prone to errors. An ability to make mistakes – poor judgment calls. The ‘wrong’ decisions. Now would probably be a good time to turn to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperatives, but I write too many lengthy blogs as it is! So perhaps let’s just accept for now that to be human is to be capable of demonstrating all of these traits – all the good and all the bad. We are beings that use our sense of meaning (that ‘kindness’) to create values – and we are beings with the ‘fallibility’ to forget them, misuse them or lose then altogether sometimes.

Frankl discusses the way one’s ego is particularly prone to suffering this ‘loss of values’ in conditions like those in the camps – where the value of human life and dignity is gone. Man is robbed of his will – he ceases to be human, becoming instead an ‘object’ to be exterminated. He/she is used to the last ounce of their physical resources. Frankl suggests that such treatment ensures one “loses the feeling of being an individual”. He speaks of their “last effort to save some self-respect”. Men in the camps were only counted as prisoner numbers – with very little value placed on human life. But, as Frankl insists, a being with a mind is one with inner freedom and personal value. “What stood behind that number and that life mattered even less: the fate, the history, the name of the man,” he writes. If you take anything away from reading this post, it’s that every person you ever met had a name. And a history. And a future. Of some kind. Everyone deserves to be treated like the human being they are. We are more than just numbers. We are spirit, mind and soul – and we deserve to be treated with kindness, respect and dignity.

My dad and dementia

Which is the perfect segue into our next topic – dementia and, specifically, my father. I’ve actually written a blog entirely on my dad before – and you can read that here. I’ve also spoken about this issue in other posts, so I’ll keep it brief this time. He suffers from dementia after suffering a brain infection (aphasia) the best part of a decade ago. The decline was gradual at first, but for the past few years he’s essentially operated on the level of an infant. He needs to be fed and changed, he can’t converse in any sort of remotely meaningful way and it’s becoming increasingly difficult just to gauge his attention, even for the briefest of moments.

And yet, he is actually able to occasionally mutter a phrase, or what sounds like a phrase, from deep inside the well of his consciousness, which has all but dried up now. He also smiles occasionally. Those smiles – or bright flickers of recollection or joy of some kind – have become increasingly rare. But even in this present shell of a body that he now inhabits, there still resides the merest kernel of humanity. In some ways, it feels like my dad died a long time ago. And in others, he’s still very much with us – certainly somatically anyway. All of this makes one wonder about the nature of humanity, the human being, the human spirit, soul and essence of a person; of a self. My father isn’t the man he used to be – he just isn’t.

And I know if he had the choice, he wouldn’t want to be alive any longer. But he is, and while he is, he will always retain some semblance of humanity. This is why we must do all we can to ensure that the end of his life is as comfortable as it can be. We need to look after the vulnerable. And protect those who can’t protect themselves. All of those things that I mentioned before – kindness, respect and dignity – must still be afforded to those human beings who are no longer able to perhaps even appreciate what they mean. It is their right. Make sure you do what you can to uphold this essential aspect of our shared humanity.

Schopenhauer shapes

Frankl references Schopenhauer in Man’s Search for Meaning when he speaks of “freedom from suffering”. Schopenhauer’s philosophy was heavily influenced by the East – and in Buddhism we are told that freedom from suffering is possible by following the Eightfold Path. There is a beautifully succinct article on this on the Oregon State University website that you can read here. The key take-aways are that one must aim to free oneself of attachment, ignorance and hatefulness and avoid harmful speech like lying and abuse. We are encouraged to abstain from harmful behaviours like killing and stealing, avoid a livelihood where we might be dishonest or hurt others and make an effort to try to nurture the good qualities of our minds and expel the bad ones. We are advised to focus our minds to overcome craving, hatred and ignorance and realise a true understanding of imperfection, impermanence and unity.

Frankl explains how the meagre pleasures of camp life provided a sort of ‘negative happiness’ – and a route towards that ‘freedom from suffering’ which Schopenhauer and Buddhist practices illuminate. The concentration camp prisoners were grateful for any small mercies that came their way – such as an air raid alarm sounding when they were getting badly beaten. He experienced glimpses of this ‘relative happiness’ in the small acts of humanity he witnessed in the camp. There was a cook he would watch feeding prisoners equal amounts of potatoes and quality of soup. Unlike most cooks, he wasn’t looking at the faces of the men he was serving to favour certain people (friends or countrymen) – he treated them all the same.

This small kindness – this act of fairness – meant a great deal to Frankl. A small pocket of freedom from suffering in an otherwise relentless dredge of ill treatment. Frankl is also quick to point out that he harbours no grudge towards the cooks who did save the best food for their friends and compatriots – as we all tend to favour those we care about or those who mean something to us. The point is that he really appreciated the relative happiness that the unbiased cook’s actions brought. And, of course, everything in life (in existence) is relative. Imagine how those men and women must’ve felt when they were stripped, herded and doused like cattle – when they had nothing left but the bruised skin on their weary bones.

Any small mercy must’ve felt like they’d won the lottery ten times over. It would be a good philosophical life lesson to try to appreciate all the small wins that make up a good life. All these little things that perhaps one takes for granted. As Schopenhauer discussed, freedom from suffering is essentially impossible. As Frankl shows us, while suffering is inevitable, the way we choose to experience suffering can give our lives meaning. Appreciate the relative happiness in your life and try to suffer with bravery and dignity – and perhaps you will find that your life has more meaning than ever before.

Frankl and the contemporary landscape

This goes back to something I’ve already mentioned in this post, but I’ll reiterate it because I believe it’s important – kids in secondary schools should be reading this book. Hell, adults who’ve long since finished school should be reading this book – especially those involved in politics. With Trump, Boris, Brexit and the left and right media war, it’s like the world has forgotten books like this exist. Or that these horrors were actually experienced by people. Children should be AT LEAST encouraged to read this book, or at least books like it, to ensure we never repeat these times again. Or perhaps that should say – stop similar things that are STILL occurring in the world today. We need to rediscover that vital existentialist responsibility – for ourselves, for our planet and for our fellow human being.

We don’t want to get tied down by the past – life is to be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards, Soren Kierkegaard famously wrote. But that’s exactly what Man’s Search for Meaning gives us – an understanding of what man is a capable of. And what we must do better to ensure a brighter future for successive generations. I am deeply saddened by the contemporary political landscape – the selfishness, greed, corruption and desperation for power that seems to have become the dominant position, in the UK and US. We need books like this to teach us the dangers of allowing the wrong people to assume positions of power and responsibility; those who wish to manipulate, subjugate and dominate in order to cater for the needs of the few.

One who has nothing to live for ceases to have meaning in their life, Frankl shows us – and thus begins the end of their existence. Those who seek power and wealth ceaselessly will always be searching for something – always wanting more. And will never truly be happy. Learn from Frankl – find the things that give your life meaning, be it family, friends, a hobby, sport or something you wish to create – whatever. Love that thing – and put your whole heart and soul into it, and you will forever be one step ahead of the wretched fools who wish to do nothing but further their own greedy cause. Especially those man babies who try to bully Greta Thunberg – jeez… pathetic idiots.

Nothing left to fear?

As we move towards the end of this blog, I’d just like to touch on another theme raised by Frankl that has long interested me. What must it feel like to experience such suffering in your life that you no longer fear anything any more? I’m talking about those unfortunate people who’ve lost their whole families in tragic circumstances – or any sort of similarly horrendous event that left someone feeling so hopelessly nihilistic that they’re essentially impervious to any more woe. As Frankl himself writes: “The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more – except his God.” I can only imagine how it must’ve felt for Frankl and his fellow campmates to reintegrate into society after all they’d been through.

Once you’ve been to hell, surely everything else in life is much easier to tolerate, get through and accept? Maybe not? Maybe it’s worse – because you’ve seen what a human being is capable of; the brutal, barbaric and monstrous. I wonder if for some people it might be a weight off their shoulders – once you’ve got no-one left to care about it, surely you can just go around doing whatever the helm you want. Kind of like Ricky Gervais’ lead character in After Life. However, as that show teaches us, this sort of Nietzschean Superman-gone-wrong devil-may-care attitude only leads to more misery. Because, as Frankl teaches us, a life without meaning, purpose and something to live for, is not really a life at all. So I guess in that case fear is good – if you’ve got someone or something to look after, to care about, and to wish to protect, then you’ve got a reason to live.

Final note

I’m not a religious person, but I think the example of Jesus Christ in The Bible does illustrate one of Frankl’s key points quite poignantly – the way he experiences the suffering of his crucifixion. And so I’d just like to add a final note if I may – regarding a word that cropped up earlier in the definitions of human. That word is weaknesses. And I think it’s important. Because it is weakness, this vital component of what it means to be human, that actually gives our species the platform to achieve what Frankl writes about so beautifully – finding meaning in suffering. If we can suffer with courage and dignity, with our heads held high, and retain our sense of humanity, moral strength and goodness, like Jesus Christ in The Bible stories, we can achieve this level of meaning. And be proud of it. You don’t need to believe in God or Jesus to take inspiration from the way the latter suffered with bravery and dignity in The Bible story.

I don’t necessarily think any of it’s true – but I appreciate the way the message aligns with Frankl’s. I have been very dismissive of religion in the past, and religion undoubtedly has plenty of flaws – but there are also lots of good ideas that can provide us with insight and wisdom. It is our tendency to weakness which gives us the opportunity to show the courage in suffering that Frankl refers to. We need to be capable of this frailty to show we also have the courage to overcome it. And so this blog ends with a rather Adlerian/Nietzschean premise – life is all about overcoming oneself to be the best YOU you can be. This is perhaps unexpected, because Nietzsche and his will to power rails against everything pious and piteous religion stands for, with its ‘anti-life’ values. But with a little Frankl thrown into the mix, suddenly the plight of Christ begins to offer something to even those who have little time for such tales. We are all weak. We are human. But we can also be strong. And we can show that strength in how we CHOOSE to cope with suffering. Try to adopt an attitude like Frankl’s – and no-one or nothing can ever defeat you.

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