When I read Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I wrestle with the idea that an individual is solely responsible for his or her life, a sort of radical individualism: “You are the only one responsible for the success or failure in your life” (Cohen, 2017, April 8), which seems to neglect the influence of positive relationships and of chance.
For those unaware of the book, Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. In 1946, he gained international acclaim for Man’s Search for Meaning, an autobiographical fragment of his concentration camp experience. In the book’s opening pages, Frankl arrives at Auschwitz, having already been separated from his newlywed bride, parents, and siblings, never to see them again. An SS officer wades through the crowd huddled at the train station platform. With a point of his finger, nine out of 10 prisoners would be sent to the gas chambers that night. Although Frankl escaped this fate, he would be stripped to a naked existence. Nazi guards would confiscate everything he had with him, including a prized manuscript he was hiding in his coat. For the rest of his days, the number 119104 stamped into his forearm would serve as a reminder of his dehumanizing concentration camp experience.
According to Frankl (1984), “Everything can be taken from a man [sic] but one thing: The last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances” (p. 65). Nazi guards snatched away the goals of their previous lives and controlled every aspect of their existence in prison. But there was one freedom the guards could not take away from the prisoners—the freedom to choose how to respond, to live with humanity and dignity when confronted by inhumanity and cruelty.
Frankl understood that we have a natural urge to find meaning in suffering. He was fond of quoting Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how” (p. 106). Prisoners experienced an “intensification of inner life” (p. 38) to help them escape their empty existence. Nature and art would take on new significance. Frankl recounts summers when prisoners, tired and hungry, would somehow muster the strength to leave their bunks and watch the sun setting over the Bavarian mountains. On Jewish holidays, prisoners would be given a brief reprieve from their camp duties. A song or a poem would bring the most stoic of men to great sadness and tears. Those who chose to ignore the challenge “of finding victory in these experiences” did not live long (p. 72).
Frankl’s description emphasizes the individual’s resilience in the face of horrifying circumstances. But I’ve wondered if this emphasis on the individual’s competence and autonomy is sufficient to live a meaningful life. It seems to neglect the role of chance and relationships.
AishVideo [Yaakov Cohen]. (2017, April 8). Viktor Frankl, Passover, and the meaning of freedom [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/ELtvwa5h66c
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s Search for Meaning. New York, NY: Vintage.