by Victor Frankl
I’ve always thought that as a writer, my first duty is to be curious about people. Not a little curious, but doggedly quizzical until I get as close as possible to understanding how people think and why they act as they do, including myself. But the observation and research skills I’ve built over the years are nothing compared to those of Viktor E. Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning.
Even 23 years after his death, through his work, the Holocaust survivor continues to be one of the best examples of a human wholly devoted to studying the inner workings of humankind. Not because he wanted to write a bestseller, but instead because he believed helping people find their meaning in life allowed them to find happiness, which in turn leads to a better world.
This book is fantastic — and still relevant — on so many levels, determining which to list first is a challenge. And while the book could be simply described as a man telling how he survived three years in not one, but four WW II Nazi Germany concentration camps, including Auschwitz, that would be to excise the many surprising twists and turns.
The first is that Frankl was liberated in 1945 when the war ended. After several months spent recuperating, he sat down and wrote the book in nine day in his native German. The English translation of the title was From Death-Camp to Existentialism. New editions, along with the revised title, came out in 1959, 1962, 1984, 1992, and 2006. I read the last version, which was published nine years after Frankl died in Vienna.
Frankl didn’t leave Germany as so many Holocaust survivors did. Instead, he resettled in his hometown of Vienna where he spent the rest of his life until his death in 1997, by which time his book had sold 10 million copies and been translated into 24 languages.
Consider reading the 2006 edition, which contains extra material, and in particular, these three key sections: Frankl’s preface to the 1992 edition, Experiences in a Concentration Camp, and Logotherapy in a Nutshell.
When Frankl was arrested, he was already a doctor of medicine who’d chosen to specialize in psychiatry and was working on his doctorate in philosophy. The first day he entered a concentration camp, he did so with a fully-researched academic paper in his pocket.
Though immediately stripped of the document, along with every piece of clothing, he found scraps of paper on which to jot notes and so set about rewriting the paper in his head. The credited the task with giving him a sense of purpose so deep as to give him the strength to endure his hardship.
He even determined to build on his paper by including his observations of camp life. The result is that even as he gives very intimate details of his first-hand experience, he also includes a distant, clinical viewpoint, a combination that proves riveting.
“When one examines the vast amount of material which has been amassed as the result of many prisoners’ observations and experiences, three phases of the inmate’s mental reactions to camp life become apparent: the period following his admission; the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; and the period following his release and liberation.”
As a writer, I appreciated his unsentimental observations of prisoners who fell into two groups: those who found a meaning that helped them survive, and those who lacked meaning and perished.
Again as a writer, I found myself making parallels to creating characters, whether fictional or not. Specifically, it’s a writer’s job to find a meaning worthy enough to propel a character forward with enough strength to surmount one obstacle after another.
I had assumed Frankl’s account of his time in the camp would be the main takeaway. When I began the section Logotherapy in a Nutshell, I did so half-heartedly. In dry, clinical writing, Frankl explains the following is an attempt to answer readers’ questions about logotherapy, a technique that helps people find their meaning in life.
Within two pages I found myself highlighting section after section as either aligning with what I’ve discovered in life, or providing new insights I’d never made before.
Again reading through the dual prism of a human being and a writer, I’ve gleaned ideas for being a better person and a better writer:
What a person finds meaningful in life can change over time according to her/his circumstances.
The struggles people endure should not be a source of embarrassment, but instead a badge of courage and source of pride at persevering even in dire circumstances.
It’s during those rugged periods that people are afforded the opportunity to realize their potential by making a conscious decision about how to act. Will they be terrible to others, or helpful and kind?
Lastly, the goal in life should not be to attain notoriety through awards, but instead, those are simply the outcome of passionately pursuing what one feels is important.
I’ll be chewing on his lessons of positivity and purposeful living for a long time to come. If you read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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