This is a profound and straightforward read that sheds light on life’s most essential questions. It is like a psychological and philosophical handbook that both religious and atheists can use, and a terminally ill person can be inspired by. It is a breath of fresh air at modern times when years of Freudian psychology and pleasure oriented pop culture has shaped our identities, failing to prepare us to deal with inevitable tragedies of life.
The first half of the book is Dr Frankl’s personal account of his years in WWII concentration camps. This part is like no other holocaust story, as the author puts it:” this isn’t the story of big horrors of those camps, but the smaller horrors told over and over again”. It is basically an account of how the prisoners reacted and dealt with those atrocities on a day to day basis, hence a psychological study of the camp. The prisoner goes through different phases. In the beginning it is shock, as they are stripped of all their belonging, reduced to a shaved naked existence and a prison number. This shock is accompanied by a certain curiosity of wanting to know how much worse it can get.
The second phase of the prisoners reactions start once they are well integrated with the camp life, which is only achieved after months of physical and verbal abuse and malnutrition. At this phase, the inmate has acquired enough apathy to keep eating his bowl of watery soup while watching a friend’s frostbitten toes being clipped by the camp doctor. This defense mechanism was necessary for survival, so that the inmates remaining energy was fully focused on saving his life and others close to him, forcing their inner world to a more primitive state. However, Frankl observes that the more spiritual and sensitive the inmates, the better they coped with this stage. They were able to draw back from the harsh external realities and find a safe place within themselves for refuge. It could be religious faith or love for another human being, in Frankl’s case. At the end Frankl makes the crucial clarification:” I may give the impression that the human being completely influenced by his surroundings. But what about human liberty? Isn’t there any spiritual freedom in regard to behavior to any given surroundings? The experience of camp life, shows that man does have a choice of action. He remembers men giving away their last pieces of bread. They may be few, but still 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. And there were always choices to make. Choices which determined whether or not you would submit to those powers threatening to rub you from your very self and inner freedom.” To be worthy of their suffering. This is the essence of this book and the idea that Frankl’s Logotherapy theory stems from.
In the second half of the book, “Logo-therapy” is explained more theoretically, but with frequent references to the first half. The author argues that mental health is based on a tension between the meaning one has realized and the meaning he still needs to fulfill, as opposed to a tension-less state which is the goal in some other schools. The meaning is unique per person and shouldn’t be generalized as “the meaning of life”. Each person is responsible to find and fulfill the meaning life asks of him. Frankl talks about three main areas in which one can find their meaning:
1-Achievement, as a professional success or a meaningful service
2-Experience, as the experience of love for another person
3-Suffering. He insists that “suffering is NOT necessary to find meaning, but meaning is possible even in spite of suffering, provided that suffering is unavoidable. If the suffering is avoidable, the meaning could be found in the struggle to remove the cause of suffering.”
He also challenges the United states culture of “Pursuit of happiness”, arguing that similar to orgasm, the stronger one’s intention for happiness, the harder it is to experience it. Forceful pursuit of happiness in another words, is a fun-spoiler. Happiness would ensues a person’s realization of meaning of their life.
I recommend this book for anyone who is weary of Freudian psychology or is interested in a person’s responsibility to the world and their own life.