Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. On 25 September 1942, Frankl and his wife were deported to the Nazi Theresienstadt Ghetto in Bohemia. His father, mother, and brother were also arrested. His father died of starvation. His mother and brother were later killed at Auschwitz in 1944. His wife died at Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Only Frankl and his sister Stella survived, his sister having escaped to Australia before the Nazis began the implementation of their plans for the genocide of the Jews.
Frankl endured unimaginable suffering and extreme losses in his life, and yet, he was still able to transform his traumas and soul distress by his ability to find meaning in the experience. In his internationally famous book, Man's Search for Meaning, his personal account of being a concentration camp inmate, Frankl clearly articulates that even in the midst of extreme suffering, in the most absurd, painful, and dehumanizing situations, there still exists a potential to find meaning in the experience. One particular episode changed him completely. His epiphany came to him while under the most grueling and harsh working conditions of the Nazi concentration camps. The inmates were stumbling in the darkness. The guards were shouting and driving them like cattle, treating them like inhuman slaves, relentless and unmercifully cruel with the butts of their rifles. People were leaning on each other for support. The wind was blowing icy cold against their lean, sallow faces, and hardly a word was spoken. There was a man standing next to Viktor covering his mouth behind his upturned collar. He whispered to Viktor saying, "If our wives could just see us now. I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us."
Frankl thought about his wife. And though he was miles away, slipping on the ice, and not knowing what was going to happen to him on that day, he clung to his wife's image, seeing every detail - her smile, her laughter, the way she answered him, her supportive and encouraging look - and this image was more brilliant to him than the sun that was beginning to rise. In that moment, Frankl learned this profound truth:
The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. (1963, p. 59)Frankl recognized that there was one key difference to those who would survive and those who wouldn't. A vision for the future - be it significant or personal. Those that had a vision for the future - whether it was contemplating their beloved, their life's work, or things they still desired to do or experience - if given a chance to survive, they survived. But those who collapsed into the suffering, who had no meaning, who had no purpose to live, died. So he learned through his suffering that their was meaning to be gained from it. That it doesn't matter what's happened to you, it's how you respond to it. You're attitude is everything. In Man's Search for Meaning Frankl says this:
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. (1963, p. 104)This falls very much in line with what the philosopher Nietzsche said about a man's will. Nietzsche believed that if a man has the 'Why' for his existence, he can endure just about anything. When you focus your attention on a vision for the future, and connect to what brings value and meaning in your life, you give yourself the primary motivational force to overcome and transcend your suffering.
Frankl could very easily have used his experiences to remain in perpetual and constant suffering. He could have blamed his oppressors, the Nazis, attacked them, shamed them for murdering his family, and lived in anger and hatred for the rest of his life. But Frankl chose not to. Instead, he found meaning and purpose in his suffering, he personalized it, which neutralized the suffering, and allowed him the space to transcend his pain and weave it into his life's work. Thus, ironically, his traumas became the essential ingredients that helped him to shape and develop his system called Logotherapy.
Logotherapy. The word Logos is a Greek word that has multiple meanings. It means Word, Spirit, Meaning, God. Frankl differed from Freud and Adler in that Freud thought pleasure and satisfaction were the driving forces behind man while Adler thought it was power. Frankl saw the driving force of our existence as a will to meaning. That we must give meaning to our lives in order to imbue them with purpose, fulfillment, and hope.
In order for us to transcend our traumas, and emerge greater than we were before, we must find the meaningfulness it has for our lives. We give meaning to everything. Nothing is meaningful or everything is meaningful. In those moments Frankl could have been like others and been looking at the wrongs that were being done to him. Instead he utilized what was available to give his life meaning. Utilizing what's available in your trauma holds the opportunity to make the biggest transformation. In what way can you look at your trauma to see things differently? As human beings, we are responsible, we are existentially responsible for the meaning of our own existence.
You are responsible for the meaning you give to everything in your life. Those living without meaning, living in hopelessness and despair, must conjure up the courage to dig deep and make contact with the light within them. What is this mysterious 'light within' that everyone talks about? Is it an invisible light, a flame that burns in the darkness, or is it an idea or feeling one has for one's own right to exist in love and freedom? Only you can answer that question for yourself. You don't need to know anything beyond what lights you up. Viktor Frankl had the image of his wife to light him up. I had my love for my own life and my love for humanity to light me up. You've got something in there that may or may not be connected to the moment you are in that lights you up. Traumas can show us where we need to look. It's not outside, but inside where we will find the treasure.
Thank you for reading this for it gives meaning to all that I went through. You're contributing to my meaning. Whether you know it or not, your reading it, it being available, has given meaning to my life.
In the next part, we'll dig even deeper.
Frankl, V. E. (1963). (I. Lasch, Trans.) Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. New York: Washington Square Press. (Earlier title, 1959: From Death-Camp to Existentialism. Originally published in 1946 as Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager)
Charlie Pacello is a PTSD and Healing Trauma Recovery Expert and Life Coach, a former US Air Force Lieutenant, and creator of the program, 'Lt. Pacello's Life Training Program.' He can be reached by visiting his website at www.charliepacello.com