Viktor Frankl’s views on meaning and suffering are remarkable. I don’t believe you can draw the conclusions he does without having experienced something akin to hell. Dr. Frankl portrays his time at the Polish death camp Auschwitz in vivid detail. This portrayal supports his conclusions on man being able to find meaning in suffering.
All quotes are from Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Dr. Frankl states that you can find meaning through achievement, experience, or suffering. An achievement would be something you do, an experience is something you witness or perceive, while suffering is the source of meaning when all else is gone. You can find meaning in something as simple as how you behave in the face of true horror.
Meaning is the thing that brings together someone as a person. Without meaning, there is nothing to look forward to. Dr. Frankl recounts stories of those in the Polish death camp of Auschwitz (and other death camps) where people would lose all meaning. They would stop doing anything. Dr. Frankl stated you could tell when someone was broken in this way.
Without meaning, life is hollow. There is no point in experiencing pleasure or avoiding suffering if there is no purpose. It results in nihilism.
No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.
Another key point of Man’s Search for Meaning is the idea that you should not judge others unless you can truly say you would not do the same in their situation. It is simple to say that someone is doing something that you are not doing. It is a more complicated thing to learn what could make you behave in the same way as they are.
There are definite differences in people. Some people will be cruel while others will always be good. Dr. Frankl recounts prisoners who were extremely cruel to other prisoners. He also tells the story of a man who ran a camp who was very kind, as far as he could be. People will preserve their sense of self and do what is best for them. They have their own story and their own meaning.
Until you have been tempted or tested, it is very hard to know what you are capable of. Even if you are not currently capable of something, is there a past version of yourself that may be tempted or fail a test of your virtues? What would need to be different in your life to get you to that different place?
The Future and Meaning
A man who does not see a future for himself will have no meaning. If you look back on the past and lose sight of what matters it will make your present much tougher. If you have no future, the present isn’t worth living. You need both in order to be a complete person.
As you get older, you will know that youth is not wasted on the young. The young lack experiences and the value of being young is replaced by the value of having a past that was worth living. Instead of potential, you have memories. Finding meaning at the point where you have those memories is much easier.
In the end, it can also be as simple as suffering whatever may come with dignity. Being a person who is not afraid of the future and knowing who you are and what you have done is extremely powerful.
The World and Individuals
No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.
People will react differently to positive and horrible things. This is also true of mundane things. So much depends on the individual. You cannot look at a group of people and know anything about an individual within it. There is no way to know their motivations or their thoughts. You cannot know what brought them there.
Dr. Frankl relates stories of prisoners who wanted to take revenge on the world due to the wrongs that were committed upon them. This is obviously not something that can be taken forward, as the world would be a much worse place if everyone needed revenge. It is an even worse place if that revenge is indiscriminate and becomes the way of living.
The person doing the horrible things may be someone who had horrible things done to them.
You cannot easily know someone in the present. This requires understanding who they were in the past. You cannot know how they will react to something with certainty. You cannot know if a simple explanation will make them stop feeling or acting a certain way.
This gets even more complicated if you look at someone as a member of a group. There are times where the information on what group a person is a part of can tell you a lot about them. It also may tell you nothing.
A Life of Meaning
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
Dr. Frankl relates the idea of a chess champion being asked what the best possible move is. Obviously, the question is absurd. There is far too much context that is required to discern the answer to that question.
This requirement for context relates to everything. You cannot sit still and expect to perfect yourself. People require a goal. They require a point to be moving towards. If they are lacking all tension, they will lack all meaning.
It is more and more common for people today to not be able to find meaning. Dr. Frankl relates his experience in this regard, and believes that people will search out a psychotherapist when they may have sought after a pastor in the past. What gives people meaning has changed over the years.
If you don’t have to put effort in for anything, what is the point of being a capable person?
Change and Meaning
Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.
It should be noted that man is always capable of becoming stronger or weaker. Someone who fails or succeeds at one point in time can do the opposite at another.
Being tested will allow someone to become a better version of themselves. Even if they fail, they will succeed later. Even if they succeed, they need to find new challenges.
You must take on responsibility, otherwise you will not find meaning. It is a quick road to unhappiness.
All people have a basic dignity of being a person. No matter what you have done or who you are, that is still present. If you are aware of that, you can find meaning in any situation.