William Reville: Powerful lessons on life from the Holocaust

Viktor Frankl studied people in concentration camps who found ways to keep going despite their dire situation

Children in Auschwitz concentration camp just before liberatoin

Children in Auschwitz concentration camp just before liberatoin

 

I first read Viktor Frankl’s book The Meaning of Life about a year ago and I was very impressed. Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School who founded the third school of Viennese psychotherapy (after Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology), called logotherapy, a type of existential analysis. Frankl survived three years in Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and his father, mother, brother and pregnant wife died in the camps. His life’s work is one of the most powerful testaments to human dignity.

In his book, Frankl describes life in the camps from an unusual angle. Many inmates quickly lost the will to live. Some died by suicide, often by running on to the electrified fence around the camp. But what particularly interested Frankl were the inmates who lived lives with dignity despite the conditions, some of whom (about one in 30) survived.

Frankl concluded that the principal motivation for those who coped with their awful circumstances with dignity was that they were conscious of a reason for their existence, for example a loved one waiting for them, unfinished work, and so on. He was fond of quoting Nietzsche – “A man who knows the ‘why’ of his existence will be able to bear almost any ‘how’ ”, and “That which does not kill me makes me stronger”.

Logotherapy corner

stones Three principal tenets of logotherapy are: (1)

Our main motivation for living is the will to find meaning in life. The role of a logotherapist is to help the patient find a purpose in life. (2) Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most awful ones. (3) We have the freedom to find meaning in what we do. Even when faced with unchangeable suffering, we are free to choose our attitude. Frankl said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

I know of only one exception to this third principle – the show trials conducted in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Here the unfortunate accused were psychologically and physically tortured and brainwashed, their families outside prison threatened, until they didn’t know whether they were coming or going and they became so mentally confused that they lost their “last human freedom” and willingly confessed to “crimes” against the state they never committed.

Frankl believed life constantly confronts us with questions and that our answer must consist of right action and conduct. Life ultimately means finding the right answers to its problems and fulfilling the tasks it constantly sets for us. Such a life is challenging but never boring.

Like all psychotherapies, logotherapy makes philosophical assumptions that cannot be proved, such as that the human being consists of body, mind and spirit; life has meaning under all circumstances; and humans have a will to meaning.

The human spirit referred to in logotherapy means that which is uniquely human. The term is not used in a religious sense but it is not opposed to religion (Frankl was a devout Jew). Although logotherapy is not rigorously scientifically based, it is based on acute and extensive observation and philosophical analysis. Studies have shown logotherapy can reduce feelings of hopelessness and relieve depression.

Many people in our modern world feel their lives are meaningless, and some compensate by overworking, others through authoritarian religion and others by using drugs. Suicide is rampant among young men, and euthanasia is increasingly promoted as a solution to intense suffering. People now dread “meaningless suffering”. But suffering in life is inevitable and trying to avoid suffering is futile.

Frankl’s attitude is that we should be worthy of our suffering and we should make meaning of it rather than surrendering to nihilism, bitterness and despair. With meaning in our lives, we can endure anything; without meaning, even the smallest obstacle can become a huge burden. Viktor Frankl shows us that no suffering is devoid of meaning or dignity.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC; understandingscience.ucc.ie

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