Part I: Experiences in a Concentration Camp
In Part I, Victor Frankl recounts his experiences in concentration camps. There were mass killings. Prisoners were given bars of soap and sent to gas chambers to take a “bath”. Everyone considered suicide. Prisoners grew detached and disgusted with life. They were constantly beaten. Sometimes the mental agony of unreasonableness was worse than the physical pain. They felt like animals and were always hungry. Frankl constantly thought about his wife. The memories of his wife and his desire to publish a manuscript of his life’s work kept him going.
Prisoners spent a lot of time thinking of the past. Memories could move people to tears. The prisoners learned to appreciate art and nature. After release, some prisoners became bitter and disillusioned. When prisoners returning home were met with a shrug, they asked themselves why they had gone through it all. Others thought they had reached the absolute limit of suffering and found they could suffer more. Prisoners were not prepared for unhappiness. For others, they realized that after all they had suffered, there was nothing left to fear.
Part II: Logotherapy in a Nutshell
Logotherapy’s goal is re-orientating the patient towards the meaning of his life. This can help him overcome neuroses (mental illness not caused by organic disease involving symptoms of stress). It is future-focused and less introspective and retrospective. Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life. It is unique and must be fulfilled by him alone. Men die for their values and ideals.
Man can become frustrated by 1) existence itself, 2) the meaning of existence, and 3) the striving to find concrete meaning in personal existence. Existential frustration can lead to neuroses but is different from psychological neuroses in that it is knowledge-based. Knowledge-based neuroses are not caused by disease nor any conflicts between different drives. In these instances, Logotherapy is the appropriate treatment over psychotherapy or drugs.
Man’s search for meaning results in inner tension but this is important for mental health. Nothing helps man survive more than meaning. There is tension between what man has already achieved and what man still needs to achieve. This tension is inherent and motivates him to fulfill his meaning. Man does not need a state of equilibrium, but one of striving and struggling for a worthy goal that was freely chosen.
While a meaning orientation has significant benefits, many patients complain about a lack of meaning. Part of this is due to the loss of animal instincts and the waning of traditions. Without instincts nor traditions telling man what to do, he does not know himself. He will conform to others or do as he is told. Existential vacuum manifests itself in a state of boredom. Sometimes the will to power, money, or pleasure tries to compensate for the lack of meaning.
Meaning of Life
A doctor cannot give you an answer since it differs from person to person and from day to day. It would be like asking a chess master about the best move. It depends on the context. Don’t look for abstract meanings. Everyone has his or her own specific vocation or mission to carry out a concrete assignment.
“Man should not ask what the meaning of life is, but rather he must recognized that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible”
The Essence of Existence
The unconditional moral obligation in logotherapy is to “live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.” This stimulates a sense of responsibility and lets man think the present is the past and that the past can be changed. Logotherapy should strive to let patients become aware of their responsibilities and not impose any value judgments. These are for the patients to decide.
The meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than from within man or his own psyche like a closed system. Being human always points outward. The more one forgets himself and gives to a cause or others, the more he will be able to reach self-actualization.
There are three ways to arrive at meaning: 1) create a work or do a deed, 2) experience something or encounter someone, 3) controlling the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering.
- The first is obvious.
- The second is about goodness, truth, beauty, nature, and culture. The only way to grasp the innermost core of someone else is by loving them. This allows you to see and actualize the potential in others.
- The third way is about finding meaning even if confronted with a hopeless situation. Turn tragedy into triumph and the predicament into human achievement. Suffer bravely. Life has meaning to the last moment. Suffering is not necessary, but while there may be times you can’t do work or enjoy life, suffering is likely unavoidable.
We must learn to be comfortable with the fact that there is an ultimate meaning even if we don’t understand it. A logotherapist is concerned about the potential meaning inherent in specific situations. Life can be like a movie consisting of many pictures and sequences. You may not be able to understand the whole film without having seen all the components. In the end, the final meaning depends on having actualized the meaning of each situation. What is important is becoming aware of possibilities against the background of reality and thinking about what can be done in a given situation.
In the past nothing is lost. The transience of life doe not make it meaningless. Actions become immortal footprints in the sands of time. Our actions represent the monument of our existence. Logotherapy encourages an active approach in this regard. The old man who has lived a rich life does not need to envy the young. Instead of possibilities he has realities.
Nilhism and Determinism
The idea that life is meaningless pervades society and psychotherapy. The field will not be able to cope if it does not free itself of this philosophy. There is also danger in teaching that man is only a product of his environment because it denies free will. Man is self-determining, but freedom is only part of the story.
“Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness”
At the innermost core is a unique person. An incurably psychotic individual may lose usefulness, but they do not lose the dignity of a human being. People are more than parts. If the patient were nothing more than a damaged brain machine, wouldn’t euthanasia be justified?
Sigmund Freud once said “Let one attempt to expose a number of the most diverse people uniformly to hunger” with the implication that the urge to hunger would cause individual difference to blur. He did not experience the concentration camps and individual differences did not blur. People became more different. People unmasked themselves as swine or saints. Within the limits of endowment and environment, man chooses how he acts.
Postscript 1984: The Case for Tragic Optimism
Remain optimistic in spite of pain, guilt, and death. Life is meaningful even in the most miserable conditions. Optimism, like laughter or happiness, cannot be forced. Finding meaning makes one happy and gives him the ability to cope with suffering. In the camps, it was clear which prisoners had lost their will to live and they typically died within two days.
Existential frustration is rampant in the young and in industrial societies. People have the means but not meaning. While existential frustration is not a disease, it can cause diseases. Depression, aggression, and addiction have been linked to existential vacuums.
- Unemployed young people suffer from depression originating from two false assumptions: 1) being jobless is equivalent to being useless. 2) being useless results in a meaningless life. When convinced to engage in meaningful volunteer activities depression disappears.
- In an experiment, aggression subsided when there was a common goal or collective purpose
- Many alcoholics suffer from meaninglessness
Two approaches to find meaning include a biographical and a biological approach.
- Biographical – “Study the lives of people who seem to have found their answers to the questions of what ultimately human life is about as against those who have not”
- Biological – The conscious helps direct our lives. It must evaluate situations using a hierarchy of values as a measuring stick. These values cannot be adopted and are rooted in our biological past.
The three ways to arrive at meaning are to 1) create a work or do a deed, 2) experience something or encounter someone, or 3) take a courageous attitude in the face of suffering.
In regards to guilt, everything cannot be explained away by biological, psychological or social factors. Humans are not machines. People have a choice. They choose to commit crimes, but they can also choose to overcome their guilt and rise above it.
In regards to death, accept the permanence and transience of life. Make the best use of life and “live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” You actions are forever sketched into the past and no one can ever take that way from you.
Life’s meaning is unconditional and a man’s value is unconditional. The value of each person is not contingent on the usefulness they retain in the presence. There is a difference between the value in the sense of dignity and value in the sense of usefulness.
Contemporary nihilism is pervasive on many academic campuses and psychological fields. One must not inoculate others with this cynicism. Logotherapists may need to conform to some of the requirements necessary for the field, but be a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Stay true to the basic concepts of man and the principles of logotherapy.
The world is in a bad state. Good people are in the minority. Everything will become worse unless each of us does the best.
“Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake”