There is a famous story of a Jewish psychiatrist who survived four concentration camps during the Holocaust. A feat believed impossible by most, this man was amazingly able to find humor and vitality during his time in those camps. This is a story worth telling over and over again because it is a reminder of how we can and should live.
Viktor Frankl’s poignant words are unfolded in the international-best selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Here, Frankl walks us step by step through his time in each concentration camp while transcribing his self-talk and mental imagery onto paper—the exact thoughts that carried him through the intolerable moments. With every detail, we learn just what resistance truly is. Frankl permeates with one certain truth: the human mind is the most powerful force one possesses and with the right attitude, one can defeat any difficult situation.
Once the war ended, Frankl—left alone with his books and genius as the only salvation to the detrimental fact that all of his family had perished— built a psychological empire based on his post- Holocaust theories. These theories stand today and are referred to as logotherapy (with logos as the Greek word for “meaning”). Frankl stated that individuals are driven with a will to meaning rather than a will for power or for pleasure (as analysts before him had argued).
He believed that we go through life searching for a purpose for without it, we are left dissatisfied and in midst of existential crises. He also believed that as humans we choose how to live and must realize that the only way to prevail is to react positively to what life hands us. In other words, we may not be able to control the situations that face us, but we can control our reactions and consequent actions. Frankl was living proof of this. Once in the barracks, he knew he had two choices: give up and surrender or try endlessly to find meaning to the experience, learn from it, and search for the best possible way to survive all of it.
This tragic optimism (which he is now known for) lead him to make peace with Capos and SS Guards (in order to secure future longevity at any cost), helped him to believe that the ultimate purpose of this time as a prisoner was to one day write and lecture across the world about the ‘false science’ that was taught in books regarding the resistance of the human body and mind, and turned him into the psychological ‘doctor’ among prisoners and guards alike. By choosing to survive, Frankl was able to pull through against exhaustion, starvation, and sickness.
We should feel compelled by his words and struck by the opposite way in which we live—deepening our frustrations and negations towards life and ourselves. But are we truly? No.
Instead, we live obsessed with what comes next and constantly dwell on our mistakes and misfortunes. We forget that there is no possible way to escape life’s melancholies and man’s inherent vulnerabilities. We lay awake restlessly and attempt to decipher the correct way to live: more money? grander success? Moreover, as a collective people, we ignore wise faces, erase wrinkles that give way to our stories, speak through technological devices, and laugh far less than generations before us. We eat on the go, overwork, overstress, and ironically always feel that we underachieve. Unfortunately, we are lost and in need of prioritizing.
For some of us, this is life’s fulfillment—robotic routines and timely expectations. For the rest of us, this is simply fear: fear of being different, reluctance to pursue what internally drives us, and ultimately, fear of failure. We perceive failure as the epitome of losing control and falling to a bottomless place. We rationalize that society remains our harshest critic –second to our egos. To prevent this, we walk steadily and tread lightly. However, what we don’t realize is that this is in fact failure by default. By procrastinating our lives and our goals, we are choosing what we deem to be the path unscathed, when in reality, we are preventing self-actualization and potential triumph.
So what is the correct way to live? How do we reach authentic happiness? If we were to be asking Frankl, he would most likely say the following: choose a better outlook on life, reap what is obtainable to you (and loosen the reins of what is beyond your control), look inside yourselves and chase after your philosophies, and most importantly, once you find that meaning we spend our lives searching for, hold on to it firmly and with full intent of never letting go.
By Stephanie Dargoltz, M.S.Ed.