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“’I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and he answered me in the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my ‘new life; started. Step by step I progressed, until I became a human again.”
These are the words of Viktor Frankl upon his release after three years of living in Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, during World War II. Over the next three days, I’m going to revisit the most powerful lessons from Frankl’s classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he describes his journey from psychologist… to inmate… to one of the world’s most beloved teachers on what makes life worth living.
I wanted to write about Man’s Search for Meaning not only because this month marks the 19th anniversary of Frankl’s death at the age of 92, but also because it seems fitting that – despite all the promises of “never again” – we are again being reminded of what fear and hate can do.
As such, it’s a timely message of hope that we can overcome what divides us – in Frankl’s words – by knowing love as the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. In Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl writes, “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
What did Frankl define as worth loving – and how did he reach this conclusion in a concentration camp? These are the questions we’ll be exploring this week, but first let’s begin at the beginning…
Man’s Search for Meaning was originally published in 1946, just one year after the US military liberated the Dachau camp where Frankl was being held along with thousands of other Nazi prisoners. To date, the book has sold more than 12 million copies and – since Frankl lived until 1997 – he was around to see how popular his writing had become.
In the preface to an edition of the book he wrote just a few years before he died, Frankl noted that he was constantly asked how he felt about his success, and his response was that if so many people were buying a book that promised meaning in their lives, then it was less of an achievement than an expression of a deep need for what he called “the healing of the soul.”
This is what I believe makes Man’s Search for Meaning such a profoundly spiritual book.
While Frankl didn’t speak much about religion, he did like to say that the aim of psychiatry is to mend the soul, leaving religion to the salvation of the soul. As you go deeper, however, what you come to realize is that salvation and healing feel like blurry images of the same thing.
That said, what comes through very clearly in Frankl’s writing is that, whether you call it “healing” or “salvation”, the experience of both is dependent upon the health of the mind. This is why Frankl notes that the purpose of Man’s Search for Meaning isn’t to detail the horrors of daily life in the camp –though they come through regardless – rather, Frankl said his goal was to answer the question of how living under the most brutal conditions imaginable affected the mind of the everyday prisoner.
His greatest discovery was that those with a rich inner life – what he called “spiritual freedom” – were the ones who were better able to survive the conditions of the camp, even though they weren’t always the most physically strong.
Frankl’s work is proof that regardless of what’s happening externally – and it doesn’t get worse than Auschwitz – we all have the capacity to survive through our own mental strength (which, again, he doesn’t define as willpower but as love) if – and it’s a big if – we know how to tap into it.
Frankl believed that love is what ultimately gives our lives meaning, but despite using the words “spiritual freedom”, this is not about loving a deity.
What kind of love can pull us through no matter what?
Stay tuned for the first one tomorrow.