In today’s pages (p74-78), Viktor Frankl sets out the first principles of his theory of logotherapy: addressing directly the question of man’s search for meaning.
Following his description of the psychological trials of the camp inmate, Frankl asks whether or not the ‘human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings’.
Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? … [D]o the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings?
Frankl’s answer is categorical: ‘man does have a choice of action’. His proof is the spiritual independence and heroism of those who gave away their last piece of bread to comfort other prisoners.
They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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, to choose one’s own way.
This idea is familiar to us in the ancient schools of Stoicism or Buddhism, but strikes us afresh from the modern context of the Holocaust.
It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
Frankl outlines three ways in which a human being can find meaning in life. The first two are obvious to most people: the active life of creative work and the passive enjoyment of beauty, art and nature. But the third is less clear: we can find meaning through the way we bear our suffering.
If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. … The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails … gives him ample opportunity … to add a deeper meaning to his life.
[He] 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.
Even in our dying moments, we can rise above our suffering and reach some kind of inner peace and happiness. A young woman prisoner, who knew she would soon die, said to Frankl: “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard … In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishment seriously.”
She found solace in talking to the tree outside her hut, and was cheerful, despite her suffering.