Victor Frankl Man's Search for Meaning

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 192 minute read

Today’s excerpt is a little shorter (p96-100), as we reach the end of Part 1 of Man’s Search for Meaning. These are the final pages of Frankl’s description of the psychology of the concentration camp inmate.

Even after liberation, the former-prisoner is not out of psychological danger. For Frankl, progress from inmate to human being seems to have been slow and steady.

But for others, liberation was not so easy. Frankl describes the sudden release of mental pressure that occurred at the end of their imprisonment as similar to the bends.

Just as the physical health of the caisson worker would be endangered if he left his diver’s chamber suddenly […], so the man who has suddenly been liberated from mental pressure can suffer damage to his moral and spiritual health.

One class of former prisoner was susceptible to the influence of the camp’s brutality: ‘they thought they could use their freedom licentiously and ruthlessly’. Frankl describes one ex-inmate who wantonly destroyed crops, and another who threatened violent revenge.

Only slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.

But aside from this ‘moral deformity’, Frankl identifies two all too common negative psychological responses of a return to free life: bitterness and disillusionment.

Bitterness grew when the former prisoner encountered the ‘superficiality and lack of feeling’ in friends and acquaintances who had not experienced imprisonment. It leaves the sufferer wondering ‘why he had gone through all he had’.

Disillusionment was different: caused not by the apathy of one’s fellow man, but by the feeling that fate itself was too cruel.

Looking forward to something in the future was crucial for sustaining hope during the war, but what happened when that long-dreamed-of future was dashed?

A man who for years had thought he had reached the absolute limit of all possible suffering now found that suffering has no limits, and that he could suffer still more, and still more intensely.

Disillusionment was the result of one’s cherished dreams meeting the cold, hard facts of reality. Men whose wives and families were already dead suffered badly. As Frankl writes, ‘We were not hoping for happiness … And yet we were not prepared for unhappiness.’

Frankl ends Part 1 somewhat more optimistically: for every one of the liberated prisoners, the passage of time eventually covers over the horrifying reality of the camp.

As the day of his liberation eventually came, when everything seemed to him like a dream, so also the day comes when all his camp experiences seem to him nothing but a nightmare. … [A]fter all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more – except his God.

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