Man’s Search for Meaning by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl tells of the horrors of the Holocaust and by doing so, reflects on the importance of maintaining a degree of hope in the face of adversity.
As Covid-19 deprived people of any control of their lives, many of us sought to regain at least some of it in the form of a daily routine, like Patrick Bateman’s beauty ritual in American Psycho. I also developed a morning routine, although not as extreme, to start my day on a positive note: with a cup of black coffee in one hand and a light-hearted book in another, to counteract the bitter taste of both Nescafe and reality. However, recently my mornings have been slightly different. With no more deadlines looming, I found myself deprived of any reason to wake up and get out of my bed – a feeling that has been clinging to me like a limpet even with a crazy amount of coursework. Consequently, the choice fell on Man’s Search for Meaning, a 1946 book written by a psychiatrist Viktor Frankl that chronicles his experience in Nazi concentration camps. Little did I know how relevant to the current situation I would find it.
Now, let me get this straight first: in no way am I suggesting that our struggles are comparable or, perish the thought, identical to these narrated in the memoir – the horrors that Holocaust victims had to go through can hardly equate to anything we’ve experienced. Yet, as the author himself suggested, he aimed to describe “the multitude of small torments” instead of the great ones discussed often enough already (“though less often believed”), as well as the small pleasures, like humour, nature, cabaret performances and friendships that the prisoners could not be robbed of. No matter the context, Man’s Search for Meaning is, then, a tale of hope. And as the battle against hopelessness has gotten harder with the pandemic, it is a tale that can radically change our attitude towards our experience of it.
With over 4 million printed copies sold worldwide in the English language alone, Man’s Search for Meaning consists of two parts: Experiences in a Concentration Camp and Logotherapy in a Nutshell, both of which speak for themselves. In the first part, it’s hard to avoid dreadful topics such as cannibalism, illness, apathy, extreme hunger, depersonalisation and depression, as well as working in cold temperatures and enduring all the more chilling cruelty of those who were at the core of all the suffering. And suffering, as a phenomenon, is central to the book’s main idea. Not only is it vividly discussed as a personal and, occasionally, intimate experience (Frankl claims that his initial plan was to publish it anonymously for this very reason), but also in reference to such philosophers and poets as Schopenhauer, Spinoza, Rilke, and, naturally, Nietzsche, whose veracious words “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker,” (That which does not kill me, makes me stronger) are no longer taken seriously thanks to Kelly Clarkson.
Even more fundamental is the message about “the will to meaning”. According to Frankl and his theory of logotherapy that is explored in the second part, it acts as the main incentive to keep going in the face of adversity, whatever shape it takes, and can be found in any circumstances (in Nietzsche’s terms, it is the why to your how). When bringing up his memories, Frankl writes that “the most depressing influence of all was that a prisoner could not know how long his term of imprisonment would be,” that “in time, it was the limitlessness of the term of imprisonment which was most acutely felt; in space, the narrow limits of the prison,” and that “everything in a way became pointless,” an obvious analogy can be drawn to the latest lockdown rules (the how that is getting tougher). Furthermore, when to his own question, “what did the prisoner dream about most frequently?” he answers, “of bread, cake, cigarettes, and nice warm baths,” I can’t help but think of how my most frequent dreams recently have been about hanging out with friends I haven’t seen in ages, going to the movies or a gig, and carelessly dancing all night long (the why that still persists). Frankl’s later words that “one could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners,” remind me of the “vegging out” that I have been observing in myself and others lately. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being a “couch potato” and doing nothing. That is, if we do it consciously and have a positive outlook on it; if the potato that we are is still fresh. Before I even get to formulate an opinion, I find myself agreeing that “what was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life.” At this moment in time, it is needed all the more. Making plans is not an option, but picturing a positive future is. And it is achievable as long as there is the why – a small win – which can be as simple as waking up in the mornings to read a book and have a delicious cup of coffee (even while staying in bed).