July 29

A Response to Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning”

Posted by William Berry | Filed under Reviews | 10 Comments

Photo by Alexi Berry    Model Ian Berry

Photo by Alexi Berry******** Model: Ian Berry

This is both a review of Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning” and a response to some of its ideas. First, the book is definitely worth reading. For those unfamiliar with Viktor Frankl, he was an Eastern European Jewish psychiatrist who was placed in a concentration camp during World War II. He suffered all the indignities of anyone in a concentration camp, short of being killed. And he used the experience to provide evidence for his method of therapy, “Logotherapy,” a form of existential therapy. Many of you may already be familiar with this book, as it is often required reading in high school and for many other classes. I did not read this work until recently.

I was first introduced to the ideas of Viktor Frankl when I took a course in an undergrad course called “Theories of Counseling.” It was a broad overview of many of the biggest theories of therapy. Frankl was mentioned as one of the major contributors to Existential Therapy. At the time I was not really impressed with the ideas of existential theory, and considered myself more of a cognitive behavioral counselor. But despite being cognitive in my approach, I gleaned from Frankl’s story (presented briefly in the text we used) that some of his thinking was in line with cognitive behavioral theory.

Frankl believed that although the Nazi’s could impose much suffering on him, could take away his family, and could imprison him, they could not decide how he would be. He had control over the way he would act, react, and behave. No matter what they did, he would decide his behavior and be responsible for it.

This is a cornerstone tenet of existential therapy (as well as cognitive therapy). Existential theory proposes the individual is empowered, and is responsible for how they behave. One of the goals of existential therapy is for the client to gain insight into themselves and what unconscious motives contribute to decisions (especially those that are ultimately detrimental) so that the individual can make educated decisions about how to be.

There is an excellent story Frankl tells in the book that emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility for actions. The story occurs when he and a peer are free from the concentration camp and are making their way toward the allied forces. The peer was dragging Frankl through a field when the came upon new crops. Frankl stopped, not wanting to trample the new crops. When he mentioned something about this to his peer, he retorted “You don’t say! And hasn’t enough been taken from us? My wife and child have been gassed-  not to mention everything else…” What I believe Frankl to be saying here is even though grave injustice has been done to you, it is not an excuse to act in kind. Beyond that, should you decide to behave in an ill fashion, you are responsible for those actions.

Frankl’s focus here is not to judge others misdeeds, but instead to discuss how you can behave differently than you may have the impulse to. His focus was also on helping those who have experienced the horrors of a concentration camp (or any similar horror) to overcome the feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness, and disillusionment.

My intention is neither to abbreviate the book for you, nor to explain the concepts of existential therapy, so I will move here to my review and response to Frankl’s book. First, I want to reiterate that this book is an excellent read. For anyone unfamiliar with the atrocities of a concentration camp, the story of human triumph in the face of such atrocities alone is worth the read. It also provides a guideline to empower individuals to take responsibility for their life, and to create meaning in it. It provides a model of living above the influence of circumstance.

There is so much good in this book, it is hard to be the least bit critical. In fact, I’m not sure that I am critical in my response as much as I offer an alternative view or solution. Frankl spends a large part of the second half of the book looking at suffering and its possible meaning. He also goes beyond what we may understand as its meaning, to the meaning we may never know (but a higher being might). He also makes it clear that “to suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.” (p.113). His point throughout the book is that suffering need not be in vain, there is always meaning in it, one must just assign meaning (considering of course you are not suffering unnecessarily).

There is much in this book that relates to my philosophy of life. I plan on adding a new site soon (I will keep my readers posted and announce its launch in a blog) dedicated to short tidbits (rather than long blogs or articles) which hopefully bring about thought and discussion. And I have already tagged this book for several of those posts. But suffering is a topic I have mixed thoughts about.

As I stated above, Frankl spends a great deal of the second part of the book devoted to this topic. And he provides wonderful arguments regarding this culture’s turning of suffering into pathology. I agree that those that have legitimate reasons for their suffering should not be regarded as having pathology. I also agree that happiness is sold, portrayed as normal, and likely over represented in the media. I also agree that possibly those who are legitimately suffering may have reason to feel like outcasts when they are not happy as a result of these aforementioned representations.

Perhaps it is my affinity for the Buddhist doctrine that suffering can be overcome that results in my disagreement with some of Frankl’s thoughts on suffering. Perhaps it is my desire for everyone to find happiness in their lives which results in my difficulty. Or perhaps Frankl and I aren’t as far apart on this as I have been thinking.

In his book Frankl provides plenty of examples of legitimate suffering: both unimaginable (the concentration camp, a Rabbi who lost his first wife and six children) and more common (a mother raising a disabled son, a husband losing his wife of many years, and others). I would never deny people their need to suffer for legitimate reasons. These are certainly terrible events that result in grief, require mourning, and should be given their adequate emotional due.

There are two things that concern me. The first is that many suffer unnecessarily. It seems to me that many believe that martyrdom is a way of life. I have witnessed far too many people who relish in being martyrs, although they’d never admit it. These people believe they must sacrifice for some reason. In short, they suffer needlessly (or for the payoff).

The second concern is that those who are suffering would benefit from acknowledging that to some extent they are choosing to suffer. I am not saying their circumstances weren’t thrust upon them (although a favorite quote of mine from Eckert Tolle is “Acceptance of what is… as if you have chosen it to be exactly as it is.”). I am saying that to some extent they are choosing this response. This is not necessarily unhealthy, in fact, often it is the healthiest choice. But my point is that it is a choice.

When I say that perhaps Frankl and I aren’t as far apart as I may think, I am referring to two things. The first is his acknowledgement that to suffer unnecessarily is not heroic. Perhaps my first concern is addressed in this acknowledgement. Frankl was obviously influenced by a time of immense suffering. He, and many others (in fact many of those he was addressing in his work) endured horrible suffering. It is true many endure horrible suffering today. And I would not want to minimize anyone’s true suffering. But I still believe much of today’s suffering is unnecessary, and would be better addressed through acceptance.

The second reason Frankl and I may not be as far apart as I might think is his existential view that everyone is responsible for their responses and behavior. Frankl made it clear throughout this book that individuals are responsible for their behavior, no matter what has been thrust upon them. If suffering is considered a response or behavior, than the person is choosing, to some extent, to suffer. And that would reconcile my second concern.

I want to end this review with another quote by Eckert Tolle regarding suffering. I must admit I am making these quotes second hand, as I have not read his work beyond a few passages. The quote is as follows:
“Is suffering really necessary? Yes and No.
If you had not suffered as you have, there would be no depth to you as a human being, no humility, no compassion. You would not be reading this now. Suffering cracks open the shell of ego, and then comes a point where it has served his purpose.
Suffering is necessary until you realize it is unnecessary.”

Bottom line, read the book.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 29th, 2009 at 11:17 PM and is filed under Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

10 Responses to “A Response to Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning””

  1. Twitted by wilberry on July 29th, 2009 at 11:44 PM

    [...] This post was Twitted by wilberry [...]

  2. Onidia on July 30th, 2009 at 9:21 AM

    I like this article, but I love something else from this article. I think that is very professional and beautiful to see your children and you working together. You are the writer and they support you with excellent quality pictures for your work. Nice family!!!

  3. William Berry on July 30th, 2009 at 11:00 AM

    Thank you.
    They are very supportive. And talented, I believe in my totally unbiased opinion.

  4. July, Thoughts for… - Blog - William Berry, MS, CAP on July 13th, 2010 at 7:33 AM

    [...] This is probably my favorite Nietzsche quote. I’ve considered getting it as a tattoo. I put it here because it is a great existential quote, and I’m using it to close out this focus on existentialism. Tomorrow I’ll return to more random quotes. In closing, I certainly hope my readers are not enduring any how, but are much happier in their lives than that. But if you have a why to live, you can make it through the toughest of times. That is the essence of this quote, which I first saw in Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning“. [...]

  5. Christia Sittre on April 1st, 2011 at 3:59 PM

    It is palpable happiness to read you blog!

  6. Anna Redsand on December 19th, 2011 at 10:18 AM

    I appreciated your thoughtful review and shared it on my Facebook page Viktor Frankl: A Life Worth Living, which happens to be the title of my Young Adult biography of Frankl (Clarion, 2006). I am also a counselor (retired now and writing books) and used logotherapy in my work with teens.

  7. William Berry on December 19th, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    Wow, excellent. And nice to meet you.

  8. P.J.Andros on May 3rd, 2014 at 7:54 PM

    Two early college psychology courses and that was enough for me. Yikes! What philosophy as an academic pursuit has to do with psychological issues escapes me. Philosophy hasn’t solved a problem in 2,000 years! Philosophy is, how shall I say, nonsense; and, honestly, therapeutic psychology while useful in a limited conversational sense, seriously misses being scientific and reliably quantitative asking and answering questions from an armchair.

  9. William Berry on May 3rd, 2014 at 11:05 PM

    Of course I disagree completely. But thank you for your comment.
    You might want to check out, “Plato, Not Prozac” written by a psychiatrist I believe, which makes the argument philosophy has had solutions all along. However, since you seem to discount a great work such as Viktor Frankl’s, I doubt it’ll change your thinking.
    Thanks again.

  10. Ariful Hussain on July 31st, 2014 at 11:11 PM

    I did not really understand Frankl’s point at all. He tells the story about how he was being trudged along a path with one of his fellow Jews by Nazi prison guards.

    After conversing with his pal, they both realise each is thinking of their own wives. He realises that even on such a harsh journey, immense beauty [and ultimately comfort] can come from picturing loved ones and holding them close to your heart.

    Okay ? but how the f••k is any of that creating meaning? At best that is simply a form of self-delusion, surely momentary [before the prison guards begin whipping you again], allowing you to focus on something other than your current suffering. It’s a powerful technique. I appreciate that. I would have appreciated if this is how it was represented, rather than some quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo about finding meaning in your life. It’s not. It’s a way of relieving yourself of immense present pain and using the energy elsewhere.

    Surely the point to note about the above story is that he had a loving wife in the first place whom to picture. What if he didn’t? What about all those guys who don’t have particularly meaningful social connections with others? What do they do?

    Sure, they can try and find meaning [i.e. beauty] in other places. But if you don’t bother diagnosing what is wrong in the first place ["I'm in a f•••••g concentration camp!"] and acknowledging that it is the REAL source of your pain, you end up feeding your delusion.

    Which is okay, if that is what you set out to do. But there’s no point in writing a 400-page book about how the delusion carries actual meaning, when it’s clear that it is rather a technique that helps you to survive. Sort of like selective brainwashing.

    That’s also why I’m kind of irritated with the whole “personal responsibility” thing. Life is simply not a clear cut distinction of “you” [internal] and “the rest” [external]. Fact is, “you” merges into a unified whole of “the rest”. Therefore “you” partly control the situation surrounding “you”. But “the rest” also plays it’s part. The reality is, you only have physical control over a specific part of this unified whole ["you"]. A lot of external factors can intersect with “you” in ways that give rise to unintended consequences. That’s not “bad”, it’s simply “life”.

    I suppose I dislike the notion of “personal” responsibility in this context, because a lot of what can happen to you isn’t due to personal choices at all. Now Frankl may be saying that it’s not the actions, but your reactions to such events, that is where the responsibility lies.

    But if I get angry about the crazy driver cutting me off at high speed and almost killing me and my family, is it unreasonable to feel such a way? That becomes the implication of Frankl’s ideas. Which I think is daft. It may not be a useful [at the moment] emotion to have. But surely it is logical [or in the very least, not illogical] that I will be irritated by someone who performs such an action. Any dampening effect that I artificially induce on my mood at that point is surely a technique, not a recommendation of how to think about life.