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.