By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Viktor E. Frankl
Narration by: Simon Vance
Viktor Frankl is a well-known name in the field of psychiatry; though his name may be obscure to the general public. Frankl is a survivor of four concentration camps in WWII.
Before Frankl and his wife are arrested and transported to Auschwitz, Frankl is a practicing Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist. His particular academic interest before the war is about depression and suicide. At the time of his arrest by the Nazis, Frankl’s psychiatric studies led to a theory of life’s meaning and a new psychotherapeutic treatment for mental dysfunction. Frankl explains that he wrote the beginnings of his theory and took it with him when transported to his first concentration camp. The written copy of his life’s work is taken from him by the Nazis but its nascent meaning blossoms in the degradation of slave labor, torture, and imprisonment.
The first chapters of “Man’s Search for Meaning” explain what it is like to lose one’s physical freedom. Frankl notes Freud’s belief that, when a group of people are denied food, they will create a similar psychological profile. However, Frankl’s experience shows that denial of a basic necessity of life creates differentiation; not continuity. Humans revert to personal and individuated instincts. Within an enslaved and imprisoned group, the mean become meaner; the placid become more placid; often exhibiting extreme behaviors. Some fellow prisoners become guards while others withdraw into their own minds; many only doing whatever is necessary to survive but others becoming homicidal or suicidal. Loss of physical freedom makes prisoners more rather than less psychologically differentiated; which is the opposite of what Freud suggests.
Frankl is separated from his wife after they are imprisoned at Auschwitz. She is moved to another concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, where she dies. Throughout Frankl’s captivity in four different camps, he realizes part of the reason he survives is because of the love he feels for his wife. He does not know whether she is alive or dead but suggests love of another is a psychotherapeutic value that sustains life. This is one of several reasoned beliefs that reinforce Frankl’s psychotherapeutic theory.
Frankl explains that fellow sufferers who have a belief about something greater than themselves have a better chance of survival. In Frankl’s case it was the love of his wife and a written psychotherapeutic theory he had carried with him, before being arrested. In his captivity, Frankl believes he has something to offer society, to offer humanity; something greater than his current state of being. For Frankl, and some Holocaust’ survivors, belief in a Supreme Being also gave meaning to their hardships. Frankl notes that belief in a religion is another form of meaning for something beyond oneself.
With love, belief in one’s personal societal contribution, and/or religion, survivors compartmentalized the immediacy of their terror and degradation. Some victims viewed their enslavement as a bad dream or a singular disastrous experience in their journey through life. They presume an eventual end to their suffering and adopt a view of life Frankl characterizes as a “will to meaning”.
Frankl suggests Freud’s underlying belief is that humankind is compelled by a will to pleasure. Freud views human life as a battle between id, ego, and superego in a competition for pleasure. Adler, a third renown psychiatrist, believes life is directed by a will to power. To Freud and Adler—money, power, and prestige make the world turn. Frankl infers that money, power, and prestige are empty buckets that have to be filled with meaning to give life value; to offer substantive psychological health.
All of these observations reinforce Frankl’s psychotherapeutic belief in what he calls logotherapy. This is a treatment discipline that focuses on the importance of meaning of life for patients who are psychiatrically impaired or disabled. Frankl treats patients by helping them fill their empty bucket by finding life’s meaning.
Frankl survives many of the worst conditions of life and uses that experience to formulate a psychiatric therapy that explores life’s meaning. Frankl infers every life has meaning and those who are challenged by life can be made psychologically whole by understanding what their meaning is in life. Frankl argues that alcoholism, drug addiction, and other obsessive/compulsive behaviors, can be successfully treated by finding one’s meaning in life. Once that meaning is understood, Frankl believes patients will modify destructive behavior, and begin feeling better about their self and their role in life.
Frankl suggests “belief in something greater than one self” is more than a good beginning for life’s journey. He infers it is the essential ingredient of psychological health. A psychotherapy that begins with the idea of life’s meaning seems eminently practical; particularly in light of Viktor Frankl’s storied life.