As this book was suggested in many of the podcasts, and personal development being one of my areas of interest made me to take up this book. Though this book was released more than 70 years ago, the concepts without doubt should hold relevant to any generation. This might be the reason for the success of the book world over. The concepts on overcoming suffering can be explained no better than a person who was a psychiatrist, neurologist and a Nazi concentration camp survivor ,i.e, the author, Viktor E Frankl. He went through and survived the unbearable experiences in the concentration camps during the world war II for several years. On his release from concentration camp he wrote several books but this one was the most famous of his works.
In this book, the author writes about his experiences in four of the concentrations camps that he was in before being released. Later he details on what it really takes a man to overcome situations that challenge him to the maximum. In the concentration camps, the inmates were beaten up by the guards even with the slightest provocation and sometimes for no reason at all. There was a hard fight for existence that raged among the inmates as well. The sick and feeble inmates who were incapable of work were sent to the gas chambers. The quality of hygiene in the camps also lead to the outbreak of many illness other than the starvation sickness. The following are a few of the opinions of the author based on his perspective as a psychiatrist, on what it really takes to overcome situations such as the concentration camp or any general life situations.
- Inspite of the physical and mental torture that the inmates were subjected to, sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life suffered much pain due to their delicate constitution. But the damage to their inner selves was less as they were able to retreat to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. However, the robust natured inmates were unable to survive the camp life. It is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp though the suffering is omnipresent. Here the author gives an analogy of gas pumped into an empty chamber that spreads evenly and completely independent of its size. Similarly, human suffering fills the human soul and conscious mind completely, no matter the suffering is huge or insignificant.
- The consciousness of inner values is anchored in higher, more spiritual things and cannot be shaken by camp life. But not many inmates possessed those values, as was evident from their behavior who felt degraded. From being somebody prior to the camp life to being a non-entity at camp they felt irritated that resulted in fights between the common inmates and the prominent inmates who held higher positions.
- An active life gives man the opportunity of realizing values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him with the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art or nature. There is also a purpose in life that is barren without any purpose of creation or enjoyment ,i.e, the camp life that restricted both. The way in which a man accepts such a difficult situation adds a deeper meaning to his life. In case of some, their inner strength can raise them above the outward fate whereas in others, in their quest for survival may forget the moral values and dignity that such a situation can afford.
- An exceptionally difficult external situation gives man a chance to grow spiritually beyond himself. Life became meaningless for the inmates who lived their lives thinking about the past. Only a few were capable of reaching great spiritual heights by turning the experiences into a victory through a life of inner triumph.
- Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic, some amount of conflict is normal and healthy. In a similar sense, suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon but can be a human achievement if it is a result of existential frustration. A man’s concern over the worthwhileness of life is by itself an existential distress but by no means a mental illness. The author quotes the saying of Nietzsche, “He who has a why to life for can bear almost any how”. In accordance with this, in the camps those inmates who knew that they had tasks waiting for them to be fulfilled were most apt to survive.
- The meaning of life according to the author differs from man to man, from day to day and hour to hour. Therefore, what matters is not the meaning of life in general but rather a specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. Here the author provides the analogy of a chess game, where there is no best move in general but depends solely on the game situation and the opponent.
- It is important to mention the term, logo-therapy, a concept started by the author that makes a person fully aware of his responsibility. It plays the role of an eye specialist rather than a painter. The eye specialist tries to show the patient the world as it is, whereas the painter tries to show the picture of the world the way he sees it. Hence a logo-therapist’s role would be to widen and broaden the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible.
- According to logo-therapy, one can discover the meaning in life by creating a work or doing a deed, by experiencing something or by encountering someone and the attitude one takes towards unavoidable suffering. As a technique, logo-therapy tells that excessive intention, for example pleasure should remain a side effect or a byproduct and is destroyed to the degree it is made the goal in itself. Similarly, excessive attention may also lead to sickness.
- Man is self determining ,i.e, what one becomes is ultimately is a result of what one has made out of oneself. In the concentration camps, some behaved like swines while others behaved like saints. Man has both the potentialities within himself, but which one is actualized depends on decisions and not on external conditions.
- Once an individual’s search for meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering. However, if a man’s search for meaning is in vain, might result in a fatal condition. According to logo-therapy, depression, aggression and addiction are due to the existential vacuum or a feeling of meaninglessness. Although every case of the three side effects cannot be traced back to meaninglessness. To go about finding a meaning in life the author quotes the saying of Charlotte Buhler, “Study the lives of people who seem to have found their answers to the question of what ultimately human life is about as against those who have not”.