In today’s pages (p84-88), Frankl addresses head on the question of the meaning of life. The search for this meaning is in itself a matter of life and death – for the deterioration of a man’s courage and hope bears a direct correlation to the deterioration of his physical strength.
Quite simply, those prisoners who hoped the war would end by Christmas were very likely to die by New Year.
The only cure for this malaise was to follow Nietzsche’s advice: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’
To start reconstructing their ‘whys’, Frankl and his fellow prisoners needed to make a ‘fundamental change’ in their attitude to life:
[I]t did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.
Because ‘life’ itself is unique for each individual, the ‘meaning of life’ can never be summed up in a single sweeping statement.
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.
One of the tasks that life set for Frankl and the other prisoners was how to bear the suffering of a concentration camp. Frankl repeatedly refers to this suffering as a ‘unique opportunity’:
Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimise or alleviate the camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harbouring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs. We had realised its hidden opportunities for achievement.
This is a remarkable statement, bordering on incredible. It is no surprise that many people craved suicide. Although it was against camp rules to save a man attempting suicide, Frankl and others were able to persuade potential suicides from getting that far.
They did this by ‘getting them to realise that life was still expecting something from them’. This is unique to the individual: some future that could not come to pass without their continued existence. Perhaps a child waits for their release, or they have scientific research still unfinished.
Frankl ends these pages with an absolutely humdinger of a paragraph, which is worth reproducing in full:
When the impossibility of replacing a person is realised, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.