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Here's a Holocaust survivor's book that challenges — and connects

Although he wrote and published 39 books, the Viennese psychiatrist, neurologist and author Viktor Frankl is known around the world for just one. He wrote that one fast, in the first months after he was liberated from three years in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps during World War II. The Holocaust had taken his wife — who died in Bergen-Belsen, as did Anne Frank — along with his father, his mother, and his brother. In its original German, the book Frankl first published in 1946 is called Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Life in Spite of Everything. Its English title is Man’s Search for Meaning.

Fifteen years after Frankl’s death in 1997, Man’s Search for Meaning is ranked 193 on Amazon.com, where it has 900 customer reviews.Nine hundred. And although it's short, just 168 pages, Frankl’s book isn’t easy reading. The first two-thirds are a ghastly trudge through his nightmarish time in the camps, while the last part is a dense, if brief, explication of the new approach to psychotherapy that he developed, called logotherapy. None of it can be called reader-friendly, really. More like reader-challenging.

And yet. Nine hundred reader reviews. What's in this book that keeps on making so durable, powerful and continually renewing a connection with readers all over the world?

I read about Frankl’s book in a recent issue of The Week magazine, then borrowed it from my local library. In a foreword that he added after the book had become famous, Frankl — who put Man’s Search for Meaning together to express what he’d been through, and what he felt it had taught him — says he never expected this earnest little volume to become widely known. He doesn’t begin it with any sort of appealing summary, or an invitation to the reader, or really any glimpse of the book’s insights at all. You have to work your way through the unspeakable cruelty and degradation of concentration-camp life, wondering how anyone could survive this, before you begin to discover how Frankl did.

And that’s where Man’s Search for Meaning gets interesting.

Frankl says he discovered that even in the most dehumanizing conditions — he was in the Theresienstadt ghetto, in Auschwitz, and in two satellite camps of Dachau — there are just two kinds of people in the world: those who are decent and those who are not. And he learned, he writes, “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.

“ ... I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

Our attention these days has been degraded by the exploitive crassness of popular culture, and especially lately by the inch-deep, miles-wide world of social media and the Internet. Yet Frankl’s book, which you have to work to get through, is number 193 on Amazon today, among all the millions of available books. So what sort of meaning does he get to?

Well, he challenges our widely shared assumption that meaning is to be found within, that the search for meaning is inward-looking, and that its imagined goal — our notion of spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being — is an inner peace. Of some sort. Frankl declares instead that our ideal state is tension: a dynamic tension, in which we push beyond ourselves and seek meaning not in who we are, nor in what we feel or understand, but in what we do.

“Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become,” Frankl writes. “... What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

In the camps, he found that those who could keep alive a sense of purpose in the outside world were by far the most likely to survive. The purpose we can find, he observes, may change as we live. Sometimes it’s to create or accomplish something; often it is the challenge of loving someone else; and at times it is just to bear our suffering with dignity and generosity. Those who have no sense of purpose at all, he observes, fall into “the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives ... the widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century.”

But we can’t be given this meaning; we have to go find it. That’s the point.

“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life,” Frankl writes, “I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as if it were a closed system. ... The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”

Viktor Frankl lived to be 92. He published many books, won many awards, had a second postwar family and created logotherapy, which centers on helping patients recover mental health by discovering the meaningful challenge of their lives. And the one short book that he wrote in the anguished aftermath of the Holocaust continues to challenge readers to work their way through to its meaning. And many, many do.

It’s kind of amazing, really.

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Tuesday, 20 October 2020

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