man’s search for meaning

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

man's-search-for-meaningAnd there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

Seen from this point of view, the mental reactions of the inmates of a concentration camp must seem more to us than the mere expression of certain physical and sociological conditions. Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.

— Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor E. Frankl)


I was just on my way to the supermarket when I took notice of this particular book which was displayed prominently in this kiosk-type bookstore of old books. It was situated near the entrance of the supermarket. I approached it with curiosity and upon discovering who the author was of this already “dilapidated” book (except its pages) probably due to the previous owner’s neglect, I got a clue right away what this book is about. I was happy that I bought it for P29.

The author was Viktor E. Frankl, one of the survivors of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, where during World War II, the torture, slavery, and massacre of millions of people mostly Jews took place.

Although I already have that vivid memory of what happened to them in concentration camps after seeing Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” and most especially, the most unforgettable one, Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (which, I must admit, is one of those type of movies, like “The Exorcist,” that I’d like to see only once, or if ever I’m ready to watch it again, would involve gap years between the first time and the second time because of too much evilness and horror it contains), this time, I wanted to hear the story straight from the man who was there, a person who became a mere number in the eyes of the enemies, and made it his decision to stay alive to tell us his story.

“I had intended to write this book anonymously, using my prison number only. But when the the manuscript was completed, I saw that as an anonymous publication it would lose half of its value, and that I must have the courage to state my convictions openly. I therefore refrained from deleting any of the passages, in spite of an intense dislike of exhibitionism.

“As this story is about my experiences as an ordinary prisoner, it is important that I mention, not without pride, that I was not employed as a psychiatrist in camp, or even as a doctor, except for the last few weeks. A few of my colleagues were lucky enough to be employed in poorly heated first-aid posts applying bandages made of scraps of waste paper. But I was Number 119,104, and most of the time I was digging and laying tracks for railway lines. At one time, my job was to dig a tunnel, without help, for a water main under a road.”

I thought I am fully aware already of the episodes that happened in the concentration camps – thanks to the movies I have mentioned – where crimes were committed with impunity but there was a single detail that I did not know about, particularly about the people who executed the inhuman acts. It was this thing about the Capos, or “prisoners who acted as trustees, having special privileges,” who were assigned to torture and exterminate their fellow prisoners.

Frankl shared:

“While these ordinary prisoners had little or nothing to eat, the Capos were never hungry; in fact many of the Capos fared better in the camp than they had in their entire lives. Often they were harder on the prisoners than were the guards, and beat them more cruelly than the SS men did. These Capos, of course, were chosen only from those prisoners whose characters promised to make them suitable for such procedures, and if they did not comply with what was expected of them, they were immediately demoted.

“The process of selecting Capos was a negative one; only the most brutal of the prisoners were chosen for this job (although there were some happy exceptions). But apart from the selection of Capos which was undertaken by the SS, there was a sort of self-selecting process going on the whole time among all the prisoners. On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves.”

Further on, he said: “If someone now asked of us the truth of Dostoevski’s statement that flatly defines man as a being who can get used to anything, we would reply, ‘Yes, a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.”

Instead of giving me a blow by blow account of the horror he and his inmates experienced during Adolf Hitler’s autocratic rule in Germany, Frankl wrote it in two perspectives: as a former prisoner and as a psychiatrist. So there were times that I would listen to his stories like an eager child wanting to learn from an old man who went through hell and back, who was now peacefully sharing his unforgettable experiences as a prisoner in the concentration camp because of the war…

“I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I become intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.”

… and there were also times when I would find myself reading his “detached” observations as a psychiatrist, sharing to me the three stages of psychological reactions that he and his inmates went through from the time they were admitted to the camps until they were released…

“Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care anymore, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings. By means of this insensibility the prisoner soon surrounded himself with a very necessary protective shell.”

… and how the way of life of the prisoners revealed some frightening information about human nature, what man is capable of, that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) would find hard to believe.

Frankl shared:

“Sigmund Freud once asserted, ‘Let one attempt to expose a number of the most diverse people uniformly to hunger. With the increase of the imperative urge of hunger all individual differences will blur, and in their stead will appear the uniform expression of the one unstilled urge.’ Thank heaven, Sigmund Freud was spared knowing the concentration camps from the inside. His subjects lay on a couch designed in the plush style of Victorian culture, not in the filth of Auschwitz. There, the ‘individual differences’ did not ‘blur’ but, on the contrary, people became more different; people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints. And today you need no longer hesitate to use the word ‘saints’: think of Father Maximilian Kolbe who was starved and finally murdered by an injection of carbolic acid at Auschwitz and who in 1983 was canonized.”

It has often been said that goodness is innate in a man. But what happened in the concentration camps showed a different story. Many men in power, or in whatever little power they had, became Mephistophelean beings thirsty for blood and pain of other people which leads me now to ask: for three years, how could they remain so stoic, merciless and stonehearted?!

Frankl answered: “First, among the guards there were some sadists, sadists in the purest clinical sense… Fourth, it must be stated that even among the guards there were some who took pity on us… From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race’ — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.”

May I also ask, how did the prisoners, like Frankl himself, were able to find the courage to stay alive amid the malnourishment and diseases that afflicted them, the degradation and humiliation they were put on? With such unspeakable cruelty, why did they not commit suicide like what others did?

Frankl said: “There is nothing in the world , I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ I can see in these words a motto which holds true for any psychotherapy. In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill (‘in one life there is love for one’s children to tie to; in another life, a talent to be used; in a third, perhaps only lingering memories worth preserving’) were most apt to survive. The same conclusion has since been reached by other authors of books on concentration camps, and also by psychiatric investigations into Japanese, North Korean and North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps.”

From his personal experiences that I was able to highlight here, it led Frankl to formulate a new way of thinking in psychotherapy. He called it logotherapy. So how is this different from other schools of thought in psychotherapy? This time I will quote George W. Allport, formerly a professor of psychology at Harvard University, who was responsible in introducing this revolutionary theory in the U.S. He said:

“One cannot help but compare Viktor Frankl’s approach to theory and therapy with the work of his predecessor, Sigmund Freud. Both physicians concern themselves primarily with the nature and cure of neuroses. Freud finds the root of these distressing disorders in the anxiety caused by conflicting and unconscious motives. Frankl distinguishes several forms of neurosis, and traces some of them (the noogenic neuroses) to the failure of the sufferer to find meaning and a sense of responsibility in his existence. Freud stresses frustration in the sexual life; Frankl, frustration in the ‘will-to-meaning.’ In Europe today there is a marked turning away from Freud and a widespread embracing of existential analysis, which takes several related forms – the school of logotherapy being one. It is characteristic of Frankl’s tolerant outlook that he does not repudiate Freud, but builds gladly on his contributions; nor does he quarrel with other forms of existential therapy, but welcomes kinship with them.”

This bestselling book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997) was first published in Austria in 1946. I am holding its 1984 edition.

30 Nov 2011

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