Happy in a Concentration Camp?
It's possible, says Viktor E. Frankl
9 minutes read - 1784 words
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who, because of his Jewish descent, spent the last six months of World War II in a German concentration camp, which he barely survived. His family was killed, and he thought he would be too, but in the end he wasn’t. Instead, he died more than fifty years later, at the age of 92, after enjoying a distinguished international career.
In 1946, Frankl published, in German, an account of his time in the camp and how to find meaning in life even amid the most adverse circumstances. It was translated into English in 1959 under the title From Death-Camp to Existentialism, but is best known under its later title Man’s Search for Meaning.
In Frankl’s own estimation, his account had one primary purpose: “To convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.” Among the things that made the miserable conditions of the concentration camps bearable were love (even to people who are no longer alive), which Frankl describes as “the highest goal to which man can aspire”, beauty, or the ongoing possibility thereof, and humour, all of which are ways in which human life and human dignity can be reaffirmed even in situations that are destined to undermine and ultimately destroy both.
Whatever happens to us, Frankl insists, we always have a choice. We may not be able to choose what happens to us, but even then we are able to choose how we deal with and respond to what happens to us: “Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
We may not be able to avoid suffering, but we can relate to it and bear it in different ways, and it is this choice and the inner, spiritual freedom that makes this choice possible and that cannot be taken away from us, that “makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
According to Frankl, a life can be meaningful (or be experienced as such) in three different ways.
It can, first, be meaningful if it provides sufficient passive enjoyment through, for instance, the experience of “beauty, art, or nature” or the experience of “another human being in his very uniqueness – by loving him”. It can also be meaningful by being creative, giving us the opportunity to realize values. And finally, there is the meaning that results from the attitude we have to our existence, and that meaning can be had and preserved even if the other two sources of meaning are blocked and no or little enjoyment is available and no or little creative work is possible.
Meaning, therefore, is unconditional in the sense that it does not depend on favourable external conditions.
Meaning, therefore, is unconditional in the sense that it does not depend on favourable external conditions. Existence, for Frankl and in this context, means primarily suffering, which he insists is “an ineradicable part of life”, from which it follows that life can only be meaningful if suffering is meaningful. Suffering is meaningful if we don’t let our suffering destroy our humanity and reduce us to what we are as mere animals where nothing matters anymore except perhaps survival. It is meaningful if it is taken as an opportunity to uphold certain human values.
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.” (Frankl)
What we need to learn is how to “suffer proudly – not miserably” and to know how to die.
Suffering can be used to test one’s inner strength. It undermines meaning only if we fail to hold our own in the face of it.
What is more difficult to bear than suffering is the existential uncertainty that comes with the imposition of a “provisional existence” on us, like the one we are forced into in, say, a prolonged state of unemployment, or indeed a concentration camp where we never know how long it will last, whether we will die or not, and if so when. It is thus “impossible to foresee whether or when, if at all, this form of existence would end”, and consequently we cannot “aim at an ultimate goal of life” and “live for the future”.
What we need to learn is how to “suffer proudly – not miserably.”
Without a future – a realistic prospect that times will change and life will get better and open up new opportunities that are blocked now – life is meaningless.
“It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future – sub specie aeternitatis.” If there is a why, the how of one’s present existence loses its significance. Find an aim, a purpose, and life becomes worth living again. And if we feel that life has nothing to give us anymore, we need to change the way we understand our place in life by focusing less on what we can get out of it that on what we can give to it.
“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. (…) Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
And there are always such tasks to fulfil. Yet because those tasks differ from individual to individual, there is no general answer to the question of the meaning of life. Asking what the meaning of life is, makes as much sense as asking what the best move in chess is. Every situation is unique, and every individual has their own specific task, their own destiny. And suffering and death is always part of it: “For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and dying.”
Because every individual is unique, what they can do with their life and what they can give to life is unique, too, which makes the individual irreplaceable. There are things that only I can do, and people who love me and not someone else. The meaning of a person’s life is tied to this irreplaceability because through our being irreplaceable in those respects we incur a certain responsibility for our continued existence. Losing hope and giving up, then, is not an option, especially since “no man knew what the future would bring, much less the next hour.”
Curiously, however, even though Frankl says earlier in the book that it is living in the past that makes life appear meaningless, he goes on to emphasize that the past can also be a source of meaning if properly understood. The past properly understood is not really past, but some kind of eternal present. Frankl insists that what is past is not lost, precisely because it has happened and what is done can never be undone: “Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.”
I suppose that Frankl makes this rather unusual claim because he recognizes that when we die everything becomes past for us and that we commonly see the transitoriness of our existence as a threat to meaning. To counter this, he insists that only potentialities are transitory, while actualities never are. Only what has been actualized can become past, or rather its becoming past is its actualization. As soon as potentialities are actualized, “they are rendered realities at that very moment; they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved from transitoriness. For, in the past, nothing is irretrievably lost but everything irrevocably stored.” This is in fact precisely why it is so important to make the right choices in life, why whether we do this rather than that actually means something. Every decision we make is like a “footprint in the sands of time”: “Nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with. I should say having been is the surest kind of being.”
Having been is the surest kind of being.
In any case, our attitude towards life should generally be that of a “tragic optimism”, which means that we should remain optimistic in spite of pain, guilt, and death (the “tragic triad”), that we should say yes to life no matter what the circumstances are we find ourselves in, that we should “make the best of any given situation”. Optimism is justified because every suffering can be turned into a human achievement, every instance of guilt into an opportunity to change oneself, and life’s transitoriness into “an incentive to take responsible action”. Suffering, then, is nothing to be unhappy about because it reminds and challenges us “to make the best possible use of each moment of our lives”.
More than for happiness, we long for a reason to be happy, and such reasons, Frankl suggests, can always be found.
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Michael Hauskeller is Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Philosophy Department at the University of Liverpool, UK. He specializes in moral and existential philosophy, but has also done work in various other areas, most notably phenomenology (the theory of atmospheres), the philosophy of art and beauty, and the philosophy of human enhancement.