Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl – Book Summary

Mans Search For Meaning is written as the memoirs of Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist, from his perspective as a prisoner of war. The main purpose of this book is to provide us with an outlook and technique to find meaning in our lives.

The author is the only identified character throughout the book. Mans Search for Meaning was first published in 1946 and Frankl always intended it to be published anonymously to depict the horrors that many endured in the recently ended war.

He uses descriptive language and many detailed examples about his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp.

He explains that facts are presented, because they are part of man’s experience, which offers the basis for perceiving the psychology of individuals who face intense suffering.

The author tells the story of his and others’ suffering so that he can explain the thoughts and behaviors of a person when confronted with such misery.

Supported by his Psychiatric training and his imprisonment, the author recognizes three important periods for a prisoner:

upon admission into the camp;
when his camp routine is well established;
and after release and liberation.

The three phases of psychological reactions, which he describes are shock, apathy and adjusting again to freedom.

Experiences in a Concentration Camp

The book begins with the author relating his personal experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and moves from describing general circumstances to his individual experiences and feelings when first arrived as a prisoner at Auschwitz.

He provides actual examples to show the horrors of the concentration camp and how the actions of being dehumanized, as they are taken into this new environment with a reputation for constant pain and death, have an effect on the prisoners’ state of mind.

Here the author portrays the journey to this concentration camp and states that shock is the first of three phases of psychological reactions common to all prisoners.

These camps totally disregard human comfort. One thousand five hundred prisoners are held in a shed designed to hold no more than two hundred. There is no heating and the weather is severe.

One five-ounce piece of bread is a persons rations for four days.

Throughout this time of uncertainty, nearly everyone believed theye would somehow be reprieved from the certain horror that confronted him.

The author writes that this emotional state is a direct result of the psychological phase of shock. He relates that the prisoners were taken aback that all of their belongings were taken from them, including their watches and wedding rings.

The author mentions his most treasured possession; a manuscript that had taken years to write and was an important work, which he hoped to have published, was taken from him and destroyed.

Taking this manuscript was an act to show that no part of personal life or human worth would be allowed for the prisoners and that all he had done in his former life was now considered futile.

He, like the other prisoners finds it difficult to comprehend the idea that personality, accomplishments, and all parts of their life are no longer recognized.

This violates the basic perception of human existence. No longer an individual, just one of a group of anonymous prisoners.

Work

The author tells how men and women prisoners were asked their occupations, but were never employed in these ways as prisoners.

He himself was sent to work laying railway lines, a far call from that of a doctor as he had told them. He never admitted what type of doctor he was, just doctor.

He vividly describes the physically agonizing nature of the work, as well as the cruel conduct of his captors. Not only were they brutally treated by the captors but also the Capos.

These were the prisoners who the captors entrusted to keep order and compliance within the camp. It is said that the Capos are the worst characters met during imprisonment. They were brutal to their fellow prisoners, in order to be treated preferentially themselves.

When they arrived at Auschwitz, each prisoner had an individual assessment by a member of the SS. The SS officer would scrutinize the prisoner and then point to the left or right.

Left, this meant you were considered too sick for work, and were placed in a group that was sent to the gas chambers. This was a building marked “bath” in several languages. This was the fate of Ninety percent of all prisoners.

They were stripped of all their possessions and clothing and possessions, including wedding rings, leaving them with what the author refers to as a literal naked existence.

The author discusses how this is an incomprehensible experience for the prisoners, who could not understand why they could not keep even the scanty clothes they wore on their bodies.

After being undressed of their clothes, a prisoner’s whole body was shaved by their guard. Many prisoners in a deep state of shock continued to suffer from the delusion that they may be reprieved, an illogical belief that they would someway be spared from the horrors they faced.

Apathy

They developed a curiosity, which allowed them to look at apparently unbearable things in the camp as though these horrors were not really happening to them.

Again and again, they learned to endure things that they would have previously imagined impossible. However, over time, the trauma of the situation caused the body’s responses to weaken.

Reality became more evident and the brief relief of humor and curiosity gave way to feelings of despair.

Many contemplated suicide and the prisoners coined the phrase “run into the wire” to express the most usual form of suicide, touching the electrically fence that surrounded the camp.

Defeated, traumatized and full of hopelessness, the prisoner of Auschwitz did not fear death. This was a way to end his suffering without taking his own life.

As this distress continued, the first psychological response of shock is exchanged for apathy.

This is a typical reaction felt by all prisoners as an essential coping mechanism for the cruelty and death they came across on a daily basis.

Once they knew there would be no reprieve and death was perceived as only a matter of time, the prisoners felt a general indifference toward it and toward the abuse of others.

In this phase, the prisoners no longer looked away as their comrades were savagely beaten, because constant exposure to such atrocious acts had numbed their feelings.

The author explains this as a means of developing a very important defensive shell.

This enabled the prisoners to retain their sanity amid such atrocities. As they witnessed the suicide, starvation and death, there were no feelings of disgust, horror or pity. They just didn’t feel anything.

Capos

The Capos are described as supporting the cruelty of the concentration camps and performing abusive acts as a means of improving their own fate.

The author describes this behavior as despicable, not only because of the suffering caused, but because it represents a failing of the mind and of the human character, as the Capo’s embraced abuse for special treatment.

The author calls attention to the fact that meaning comes from within oneself, despite the negativity of the immediate misery. Taking responsibility is a way for a person to find meaning by not surrendering to the negative mindset of others, but by being true to oneself.

The Capos clearly were incapable of attaining this higher plane of human existence.

The author gives many examples of abuse and brutality to illustrate how no value was given to the lives of the prisoners.

He portrays vivid images or beatings for no reason at all, being sent to work in the cold, scantily clothed and constantly being humiliated by the SS and Capos, including constant emotional, physical and verbal abuse.

If you treat anyone as worthless for a period of time, it soon becomes detrimental to his or her mental health. As the prisoners accepted this reality it would have affected the way they perceived the meaning of their existence.

The author makes it clear that it is very difficult not to be overcome by negativity when being treated in this way.

However, he lays the foundation that we all can choose our thoughts and reactions.

He tells how he smiled when a long-term prisoner told a group that the author was the only person who needed to worry about being selected for the gas chamber.

This illusion of reprieve is shown as a powerful example of the psychological phase of shock.

The prisoners were finding it hard to understand how their lives had all of a sudden been subjected to this new truth.

The human spirit is strong

The author reveals how strong the human spirit can be. He details the dreadful conditions that existed, like nine men sleeping on bunk beds, less than eight feet wide and sharing only two blankets.

They were fed a minimal amount of food with no nutritious value at a time when they received constant beatings.

Many prisoners survived by overcoming this horrible reality.

The author says the prisoners would have the same opinion as Dostoevski’s and his idea that man can get used to anything, although he did note they were unable to explain how they did this.

This shows that it is necessary for us to remain hopeful and find meaning in suffering.

The prisoners developed apathy not only because of what they saw but also because of the constant dehumanizing treatment.

They began to believe that they had lost their value in the world and became submissive and accepted this new view of themselves and they no longer had any emotions.

The prisoners were awakened at dawn by the shrill sound of a whistle to start another day of hard work. Survival was difficult due to malnutrition.

Meals for the day were often only bread and a watery soup, which caused many prisoners to die from starvation.

Bad nutrition also resulted in illnesses, the consequence of which was being sent to the gas chamber.

Hunger was a constant part of their reality and when there were no guards around it was food that they talked about.

Religion grew on a deep individual level and they improvised prayer services, which allowed them to escape from the harsh reality around them to the temporary relief of spiritual freedom.

The author tells how this enabled the prisoners to develop an inner strength so powerful that the physically weak were able to survive starvation and abuse better than those with more strength.

Salvation through love

Likewise, the author tells how his salvation was reflecting on his love for his wife and how he was able to visualize such a strong image of her that he believed he could hear her answering his questions.

These moments provided him with strength, perspective and wisdom, which led him to conclude that love is the highest goal you can seek.

This knowledge helped him endure the suffering and provided a mental escape.

No matter what was happening now, he was able to recall his many cherished memories.

This was one thing no one could take away from him and was ever present.

Although physically separated from his wife he discovered the power of love and its meaning in his life and even though he didn’t even know if his wife was still alive he learned love that love goes beyond the physical existence.

We are told that as the prisoners inner lives developed they gained an intense appreciation for beauty and art.

They were able to appreciate the mountains of Salzburg; even the sun setting allowed them to experience a sense of happiness. They recited poems told jokes and sung songs in their huts as a form of entertainment.

The author writes that this pleasure was strong enough to motivate the prisoners even at the end of a tiring day. They would stop and value the beauty of nature, even as they worked cold and hungry. Many would miss their daily portion of food to experience the part of their world, which was still beautiful. Spiritual life intensified despite the concentration camp.

The prisoners developed a sense of humor, yet another way to cope with the suffering of the camp. The author writes that humor, more than any other human potential, can supply an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.

Because of this, the author tells how he was keen to train a friend to develop a sense of humor so that he would survive the camp.

He made an agreement with his friend that they would each promise to think up one funny story each day about something that would happen once the war was over and they were released.

Humor served as a powerful weapon in the fight for survival.

Finding joy even in the worse situation

He talks about seeing a group of convicts pass the work site and feeling envious, thinking that they probably had baths, toothbrushes and letters from their relatives.

The prisoners of the concentration camps didn’t receive any of these privileges.

The prisoners had the ability to find joy in even the worse situation, like standing outside wet and frozen in a camp that had no gas chambers. The type of work they were assigned could also bring joy, such as the chance to work in the factory rather than outside.

They were grateful for the opportunity to have a shower before they went to bed, despite having to stand naked in an unheated hut with icicles hanging from the ceiling.

The author contrasts the management of the prisoners to a flock of sheep, herded without consideration for their wishes while a dangerous pack watched their behavior.

During these times, he describes how the prisoner tried to position himself in the middle of the pack and try to go unnoticed, in a hope that he would avoid random beatings and abuse.

As he describes the lack of nutrition and the resulting starvation, the author is not just talking about the physical suffering but discusses these examples to highlight their effect on the psychology of the prisoner.

Beyond the intense hunger and weakness, prisoners were forced to watch powerlessly as their bodies become no more than skeletons.

They also had to watch as their fellow prisoners wasted away to the point where they could predict who would be the next to die of starvation or be taken away to the gas chambers, when no longer able to do any physical work.

The author found that even being near the corpses crawling with lice did not bother him. This state of apathy not only results in a lack of reaction to personal loss and the pain of others, but also in the nonexistence of sexual desire.

The author believes this is due to both undernourishment and shock. He observed how different this was from an army barracks, where they think and talk of sex most of the time.

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Nothing can take away the memories

No matter what brutality and abuse the prisoners had to endure or whatever their fate in the concentration camp, no one could ever take away their thoughts, memories and accomplishments in life.

They would choose to look at the past and use this as a way to temporary escape from camp life.

As we continue through the book, the author starts to move beyond describing the suffering the prisoners encountered and starts to illistrate the main theme, that fulfilment and meaning can be found in any circumstances.

The concept that joy and suffering are relative is important, and lays the basis for the theory presented in the book. The fact that people always have personal choice in the way they think and how they feel about life.

Although the author puts this idea forward he does not pretend that this is an easy or automatic decision. Individual differences will be a factor in psychological reactions and decide behavioral and mental choices.

The author notes that not all individuals are able to perceive joy in difficult circumstances and for many, small sorrows may totally overwhelm them and lead them to be preoccupied with the negativity of these difficulties. Without a sense of meaning, hope is lost and individuals give up all sense of personal worth.

Under these conditions, people usually choose animalistic behaviors in an attempt to carry on.

When the author arrived at Auschwitz he vowed to let fate take its course. At one time he and another prisoner worked out a plan of escape but he changed his mind because he did not want to leave the sick patients he was caring for in the camp.

Making this choice gave him an inner peace that he had never felt before in his life.

Escape plan

Not long after this there was a rumour that the camp was to be evacuated and burned. Death appeared to be on the cards and the author made a second plan to escape with his friend.

Before they had time to put this plan of action in to practice, the International Red Cross in Geneva arrived and the members of the camp were placed under its protection, meaning escape was unnecessary.

Some of the prisoners were taken to supposedly safe places, while the author had to wait for the next truck. This was another coincidence that saved his life. The men who had left were taken to a hut and burned to death, as apposed to finding safety.

The next truck never came, but the battlefront reached the camp, and the military gave the author and the other men their freedom.

The author explains that the prisoners’ response to the concentration camp prove that man can prevail over his surroundings. He highlights that if there is a meaning in life, there must be a meaning in suffering.

The way man deals with his torment, in terms of his actions, deeds emotions, and the way he thinks, provides him with the opening to add deeper meaning to his life. Instead of relying on hopes and expectations, the detention in the concentration camps required prisoners to look at what life expected from them.

This he says, from the perspective of a prisoner, meant thoughts like this kept him from desolation, even when death seemed imminent.

When talking of an experience long after his release, the author writes of being shown a picture of prisoners lying crammed in a bunk. The person showing him the photograph is shocked by the image, and says how dreadful it must have been.

The author sees it from a different perspective, as he recalls his own experience in the camp full of suffering and death,

He knows how grateful he was. These were times when he could lay down, had shelter from beatings and the weather. He decides the people in the photograph may not have been so unhappy after all.

Losing faith

All prisoners feared losing faith in the future, not so much for themselves but for their friends because they had seen this many times. Typically it started with the prisoner refusing to get dressed, despite the threats and beatings or threats.

He gives an example when his senior block warden told him of a dream he had in which he was told that the war would be over on March 30. As this date approached, all of a sudden the man developed a high fever, became feverish and lost consciousness on March 30, and he died on March 31.

It was the loss of hope, which literally killed him.

This is also demonstrate by the highest death rate in the camp between Christmas and New Year’s, as the prisoners lost hope in their earlier belief that they would be free by this time.

The prisoners who retained hope formed solidarity, for example, upon the discovery that one man had stolen several pounds of potatoes, the camp authorities said if he were not turned in, none of the prisoners would have any food for a day.

2500 men choose to fast that day rather than reveal the man’s identity, which would have meant certain death for him.

Although many died in the prisoner of war camp, some coped by keeping faith and survived the abuse and starvation. For these lucky men, freedom did come finally.

The author tells how this led to the third psychological phase familiar to all prisoners at this point, the stress that went along with being liberated. Liberation from such intense suffering could be a dangerous to their mental health.

Freedom

The prisoners found the concept of freedom very hard to grasp. Some who were unable to stop constantly thinking about the ruthlessness they had faced and were so badly affected that they had no consideration for others.

They became the oppressors instead of the oppressed, and justified the suffering in the past by treating others badly.

The author says it took them a long time for the transition into a world where no one has the right to do wrong, even if they have been badly treated. Generally he describes this as a mental illness

He notes there were two other basic experiences that came about by the sudden release of mental pressure: resentment and disenchantment.

In order survive the abuse of the concentration camps; the prisoners had put a great deal of importance on what they would do when they were freed.

However, when they returned home, many didn’t find what they expected and they were now faced with the awareness that despite all the suffering as prisoners, there was more suffering.

They found this difficult to accept and understand.

The author relates how it was many days after his liberation before he realized he was free. He was walking alone through some meadows when he was so overwhelmed by the beauty of nature that he experienced a sense of freedom.

He fell to his knees and called out to the heavens and became conscious that this was the beginning of his new life. He was on his way toward becoming a human being again.

The author emphasizes his overall philosophy by talking of many instances where his fellow prisoner tolerated a great deal of pain and humiliation and eventually death, yet they did not lose of their inner self by holding true their sense of personal thought and freedom.

He says that this is the spiritual freedom, which makes life meaningful and purposeful. He stresses that the mental reactions of prisoners are more than just an example of sociological and physical conditions.

The kind of person a prisoner became was more than a direct result of his inner self rather than a reaction to negative stimuli. The author writes that it is up to the individual to decide what will become of him under an environment of misery and torment. He gives examples that show a strong sense of spiritual freedom among men who would not give up their beliefs or compromise their behavior even when faced with constant pain and loss. In this way, they found great meaning in their life and showed they were worthy of their suffering.

Most of prisoners suffered from an inferiority complex. This was brought about since most had once had status and now they were treated like complete nonentities.

However, some prisoners were able to overcome the dreadful conditions and keep their inner values, keeping positive thoughts on every occasion they could.

Capos, storekeepers, cooks, and camp policemen, felt no inferiority. They had been promoted to important positions, leading them to think they were more important than what they actually were.

Good and evil

The senior block warden and commander of the camp exist as a contrast to the Capos and show that good and evil exist in people from all different backgrounds.

The commander of the camp is depicted as a person who was far different from most of the tyrannical captors; he paid for medical supplies for the prisoners from his own pocket and never showed any aggression toward the prisoners.

When the prisoners were released, they insisted this commander be spared from any harm by the American troops.

Even in the cruel background, humanity was sometimes shown by the oppressors, like when the author was given a small piece of bread, an act that he found very moving.

This is a vast contrast to the Capos, who welcomed the brutal treatment of their fellow prisoners, which is a prime example of their lack of values.

Many of the camp guards also loved their role and many were sadists who enjoyed taking comforts and giving pain, their feelings had been dulled by years of repeated exposure.

They were both ethically and mentally hardened. Also those who were not involved in this cruelty did nothing to stop them from doing so.

Psychology is shown to play a major role in the physical survival of the prisoners. People have a basic need to understand their environment and to have a certain amount of control over their destiny.

This is not restricted to the concentration camps and can applied to any instances where person has their individual will and personal values challenged, as in a terminal illness.

The author notes that it is only a few are capable of reaching such enlightenment.

Perception of time is talked of as something that was confusing to the prisoners. A small unit of time seemed endless but longer periods pasted quickly.

Logotherapy

In the second part of the book the author says he is a psychotherapist rather than a psychoanalyst and that his particular psychology is logotherapy. He describes this as less retrospective and introspective than psychoanalysis.

It is defined as a meaning-centered psychotherapy, which centers on the patient needs to be happy in the future. The patient deals with the meaning of his life, so he understands what will allow him to overcome weaknesses.

Logotherapy is derived from the Greek word Logos (meaning), The author believes that striving to find meaning is our main driving force.

Man’s search for meaning can lead to what is known in logotherapy as existential frustration. A frustration that can come about when we don’t know the purpose of our life and this can lead to neuroses.

The author concludes logotherapy is the good therapy to tackle these psychological conflicts as it helps the patient find meaning in his or her life.

Logotherapy resembles psychoanalysis in the way that it is an analytical process. It differs though, as it considers that our main aim is to be fulfilled rather than just satisfying basic drives and instincts.

Our mental health is based on a balance of tension. It is not determined by a stress free state but our need to find a worthwhile goal. Without finding the meaning in life we are bored and frustrated.

To demonstrate a person’s active search for meaning, the author talks further of Auschwitz and how statistics showed that survival was no more than a one in twenty-eight.

With this reality, it looked like his life would end. At this point he had to ask himself if his life had any meaning.

With this he decided that life for him was not just about survival, but in the way he faced these bleak circumstances. He started to rewrite the manuscript, which was taken from him upon his imprisonment.

This passion and the meaning it had for him, helped him survive the suffering.

Logotherapy regards that a person needs to determine his or her own meaning of life by finding out what he wants and needs from life.

It believes you should live your life as if it was the second time around and you have been given the chance to put it right now. It calls upon the patient to decide what is right and the therapist does not judge the choices made.

By achieving something worthwhile, a person can discover meaning and develop a sense of purpose through this.

The second way to discover meaning in life is love. Through love, we are able to know the qualities and gifts of our loved one, and also to see their likely ability. This allows the loved one to actualize his or her potential.

The third way of discovering meaning in life is with related to suffering. The author emphasizes that this is an intense way of finding meaning.

When faced with an impossible situation you realize that, the only way to turn disaster into success is to change your self.

The moment you find a meaning the suffering ends. Therefore, the main way to discover meaning through suffering is to understand its purpose and to think of something pleasant in your life.

The author is careful to point out that you should not look for suffering in order to find meaning in your life, as no meaning can be found in this self-destructive behavior.

Examples of Logotherapy in action

An example of this therapy is given with an example a suicidal mother. One young son has died and the other son is paralyzed.

When asked to see herself as an eighty years woman on her deathbed, she is able to see meaning in her life, despite all the suffering.

Furthermore, she also is able to see that even the short lifespan of her deceased son, is more meaningful than a long life without knowing your purpose.

Logotherapy frames the ups and downs of life in an optimistic way that embraces success and suffering alike.

The author tells of a man who suffered a great deal of anxiety and was very self-conscious because he perspired excessively. As a cure the author used the concept of paradoxical intention.

He told this man that whenever he was in the company of others to focus on sweating as much as he could. Within a week this mans problem was much better. This concept is also implemented for obsessive-compulsive disorders.

This is often put forward as a short-term solution, yet cases are cited, which go back more than twenty years, proving that there can be long lasting and even permanent cures with this method.

The author believes that whatever a person’s psychological disorder, he or she can remain dignified. He dismisses the popular belief that people only respond to a stimulus, but believes that they can decide their own life.

He talks of how in the concentration camps he watched some of the fellow prisoners act like pigs, while others acted like saints. Man can be either; which one he manifests, depends on how he chooses to act, not on conditions.

The author admits that searching for meaning may cause disappointment and stress. However, he believes it is worth it because it can lead to eventual fulfillment.

He also believes it is a better than not seeking meaning, because boredom can cause aggression, depression, and addiction. From this viewpoint, the author again draws a stark contrast between psychoanalysis and logotherapy.

Logotherapy sees people as curious individuals who are basically searching for meaning in their lives; psychoanalysis sees them as reacting to unconscious psychological forces.

Three ways of finding meaning

The author tells of three ways of finding meaning. The first way is creativity or through doing a deed. He comments that this method is a basic idea and does not need much explanation. We can accomplish many things that will lead to a personal discovery of meaning.

This can be through art or any type of creativity. It is the individual accomplishment that the person feels when doing this, not how others view it, which matters.

The next way to find meaning is when a person comes into contact with something or someone and feels connected. This is what we call love and the author believes, and I quote here, “love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his or her personality.”

The third method of finding meaning is by finding the value of suffering. The author says is the most powerful route because it takes a great deal of personal strength and strength of mind to find the meaning in suffering.

His own experiences give an actual account of how fulfilling this can be.

The Case for a Tragic Optimism

The final chapter is written as an addition to the author’s original manuscript. In it he builds upon the conclusion of part two of the book, and concentrates on the way of finding meaning through suffering.

Tragic optimism is the idea that a person is truly optimistic even in the face of negative circumstances.

In logotherapy, this is signified with the tragic triad, which consists of guilt, pain and death. Each element provides a stimulus that can create immense grief.

The author writes that we must have a reason to be happy, but once we find this reason, happiness will occur routinely. When we are happy, we will have developed the means to deal with difficulties and suffering.

On the other hand, those who don’t find meaning in their lives can suffer depression. The author again uses examples from the concentration camps to describe how men, who gave up hope, lost the will to live and soon gave up and died.

He draws a parallel to those who use drugs and proposes that depression, violence, and addiction are due to the existential vacuum previously talked about in the book.

The author talks about how to use logotherapy to help suicidal people find a sense of purpose. He remember his time spent in Austria’s state hospital where he worked with more than twelve thousand severely depressed people, most of whom had attempted suicide.

Most of these people had told the author that they were relieved that the suicide attempt had failed and that since then, they had found a deep meaning in their lives.

Meaning of life and the resultant happiness is not something that can be made to happen. It can only be reached when the reason for one’s existence or suffering is really embraced through an optimistic sense of searching and purpose.

In general, this addition to the original writing is an inspiring way to close the book, adding a great deal of insight on finding meaning through suffering, supplementing the spirit and content of the original writing.

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