Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl Explains Why If We Have True Meaning in Our Lives, We Can Make It Through the Darkest of Times

In one school of pop­u­lar rea­son­ing, peo­ple judge his­tor­i­cal out­comes that they think are favor­able as wor­thy trade­offs for his­tor­i­cal atroc­i­ties. The argu­ment appears in some of the most inap­pro­pri­ate con­texts, such as dis­cus­sions of slav­ery or the Holo­caust. Or in indi­vid­ual thought exper­i­ments, such as that of a famous inven­tor whose birth was the result of a bru­tal assault. There are a great many peo­ple who con­sid­er this think­ing repul­sive, moral­ly cor­ro­sive, and astound­ing­ly pre­sump­tu­ous. Not only does it assume that every ter­ri­ble thing that hap­pens is part of a benev­o­lent design, but it pre­tends to know which cir­cum­stances count as unqual­i­fied goods, and which can be blithe­ly ignored. It deter­mines future actions from a tidy and con­ve­nient sto­ry of the past.

We might con­trast this atti­tude with a more Zen stance, for exam­ple, a rad­i­cal­ly agnos­tic “wait and see” approach to every­thing that hap­pens. Not-know­ing seems to give med­i­tat­ing monks a great deal of seren­i­ty in prac­tice. But the the­o­ry ter­ri­fies most of us. Effects must have caus­es, we think, caus­es must have effects, and in order to pre­dict what’s going to hap­pen next (and there­by save our skins), we must know why we’re doing what we’re doing. The deep impulse is what psy­chol­o­gist and psy­chother­a­pist Vik­tor Fran­kl iden­ti­fies, in his pre-gen­der-neu­tral­ly titled book, as Man’s Search for Mean­ing. Despite the mis­use of this fac­ul­ty to cre­ate neu­rot­ic or dehu­man­iz­ing myths, “man’s search for mean­ing,” writes Fran­kl, “is the pri­ma­ry moti­va­tion in his life and not a ‘sec­ondary ratio­nal­iza­tion’ of instinc­tu­al dri­ves.”

Fran­kl under­stood per­fect­ly well how the con­struc­tion of meaning—through nar­ra­tive, art, rela­tion­ships, social fic­tions, etc.—might be per­vert­ed for mur­der­ous ends. He was a sur­vivor of four con­cen­tra­tion camps, which took the lives of his par­ents, broth­er, and wife. The first part of his book, “Expe­ri­ences in a Con­cen­tra­tion Camp,” recounts the hor­ror in detail, spar­ing no one account­abil­i­ty for their actions. From these expe­ri­ences, Fran­kl draws a con­clu­sion, one he explains in the inter­view above in two parts from 1977. “The les­son one could learn from Auschwitz,” he says, “and in oth­er con­cen­tra­tion camps, in the final analy­sis was, those who were ori­ent­ed toward a meaning—toward a mean­ing to be ful­filled by them in the future—were most like­ly to sur­vive” beyond the expe­ri­ence. “The ques­tion,” Fran­kl says, “was sur­vival for what?” (See a short ani­mat­ed sum­ma­ry of Fran­kl’s book below.)

Fran­kl does not excuse the deaths of his fam­i­ly, friends, and mil­lions of oth­ers in his psy­cho­log­i­cal the­o­ry, which he calls logother­a­py. He cer­tain­ly does not triv­i­al­ize the most unimag­in­able of in-human expe­ri­ences. “We all said to each oth­er in camp,” he writes, “that there could be no earth­ly hap­pi­ness which could com­pen­sate for all we had suf­fered.” But it was not the hope of hap­pi­ness that “gave us courage,” he writes. It was the “will to mean­ing” that looked to the future, not to the past. In Frankl’s exis­ten­tial­ist view, we our­selves cre­ate that mean­ing, for our­selves, and not for oth­ers. Logother­a­py, Fran­kl writes, “defo­cus­es all the vicious-cir­cle for­ma­tions and feed­back mech­a­nisms which play such a great role in the devel­op­ment of neu­roses.” We must acknowl­edge the need to make sense of our lives and fill what Fran­kl called the “exis­ten­tial vac­u­um.” And we alone are respon­si­ble for writ­ing bet­ter sto­ries for our­selves.

To dig deep­er in Fran­kl’s phi­los­o­phy, you can read not only Man’s Search for Mean­ing but also The Will to Mean­ing: Foun­da­tions and Appli­ca­tions of Logother­a­py.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Exis­ten­tial­ist Psy­chol­o­gist Vik­tor Fran­kl Explains How to Find Mean­ing in Life, No Mat­ter What Chal­lenges You Face

A Crash Course in Exis­ten­tial­ism: A Short Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Paul Sartre & Find­ing Mean­ing in a Mean­ing­less World

Albert Camus’ His­toric Lec­ture, “The Human Cri­sis,” Per­formed by Actor Vig­go Mortensen

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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