If there is a meaning in life, there must be a meaning in suffering.
—Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning
Frankl’s book, which I first read in my early thirties, made even a stronger impression when I read it again last week. I was reminded that this slender work was far more than a document of profound suffering. It was a work of philosophy—and an optimistic one. During his three years at Auschwitz and other death camps, Frankl had no way of knowing whether any of his family members had survived. He especially pined for his wife. But this did not lead to despair. Hoping fervently that she lived, he had long imaginary discussions with her.
As Frankl, a psychiatrist, recalled in his book published about fifteen years later, “I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may feel bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his suffering in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.
“In front of me a man stumbled and those following him fell on top of him,” Frankl continued. “The guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoner’s existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one: I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return and I answered.”
Frankl was certainly aware that his words might be interpreted as a delusion. But if so, it was a therapeutic delusion, one that may have saved his life. Suicide in the death camps was common.
As Frankl wrote, “Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not the person is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”
Frankl and other prisoners were eventually transferred by train to a work camp in Bavaria, where the conditions were not as brutal as in Auschwitz – one of many fortunate incidents that made possible his survival. Another, more subtle factor, according to Frankl, was an appreciation for beauty, both in the form of recollected poetry and the view afforded of the snow-capped Austrian Alps through their prison car.
Frankl wrote, “If someone had seen our faces ... as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty.”
But a glimpse of natural beauty, however lovely, is fleeting, and for Frankl and his fellow prisoners, the key question in the Bavarian prison camp was whether, or when, to plot an escape. By this time, in the early spring of 1945, the war was winding down, but the prisoners had no idea how long it would go on. Frankl ultimately chose not to join in the uprising. It turned out to be the right decision. Within days, International Red Cross vehicles arrived with food and medicine for the emaciated prisoners.
Frankl, who died in 1997 at age ninety-two, went on to pioneer a variant of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, defined as “less retrospective and less introspective than conventional psychoanalysis.” The Greek word logos means “meaning.” In his book, Frankl commented, “Man’s search for meaning is a primary factor and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ [as Freudians might assume] of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance that will satisfy his own will to meaning.”