On Thursday 27th January Iron Mill College was invited to reflect on Holocaust Memorial Day. I purposefully took time to reflect on the striking poignant images, words, and texts of its theme this year, ‘One Day’ (https://www.hmd.org.uk/what-is-holocaust-memorial-day/this-years-theme/) and, as I did this, into my mind came Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. I had read it years ago and so at the weekend I found it again on my bookshelves.
First, I was struck that I had brought it in 2004. Its messages had such a profound impact that they felt like that they must have been with me for much longer.
Secondly, I noticed, unusually for me, that I had not written all over it! Not one mark. I buy books, keep books, write notes all over them. I underline elements that stand out to me, note when I bought it, sometimes why. I also write notes that do not have much to do with the actual text perhaps linked to what I am reading but sometimes because it’s the closest piece of paper to hand at the time.
I wonder, therefore, why all this was missing. My daughter was three years old, so on a practical level perhaps simply there wasn’t time to do any of this other than read! But the spine is hardly creased, and it is apparent that I only held my place once by turning down a corner. So, I read it quickly. It is such a slim book in comparison to some I read, but actually I remember gulping it down because I was transfixed, appalled, and totally moved. Indeed, I felt that I could only be different by the end of it. I wish I could see my first reading annotations; I wonder what different elements stand out for me now as I read it again. I can’t even remember why I brought it in 2004. I wonder how I had come to it. I know that I have recommended it to a number of students that I have taught along the way as they have tussled with life.
So, I open it up once more, and even as I recall its effect when I read it the first time, I come to it freshly again.
It is a remarkable text. Simple, shocking, deeply moving. At the age of 37, having developed counselling centres for young people in Vienna to successfully effect rates of depression and suicide in the city, gained a doctorate, headed up a women’s suicide prevention programme in a psychiatric hospital, and, as Director of the Neurological Department of another hospital, sabotaged Nazi processes through false diagnoses to prevent the murder of its mentally unwell Jewish patients, he and his family were taken to Theresienstadt concentration camp. None of his family survived, some dying there and others, like him, being moved to other camps and there they were murdered. He was “liberated” from Tuerkheim in 1944. I write that in inverted commas because surviving being freed from concentration camp is the third of three phases of “mental reaction” (p.22) that Viktor Frankl writes about in his book. In other words, liberation does not only concern the event of physical exit.
I hesitate here to write more, to, as it were, add my voice over Viktor Frankl, to appropriate his experiences and messages with my own interpretation, from my privileged life. If nothing else my deepest hope from writing this paper is that you might be moved to find his book and read it for yourself.
But, if I may, Viktor Frankl’s explicit invitation is that we must “stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life – daily and hourly” [emphasis added] (p.85). So I continue to write, not in or as authority but as how this book enables me to ‘think about how I am being questioned by life’ because, in doing so I am invited to: enter into the experience of ‘one day’ every day; to always remember the Holocaust; and, never forget “those who were murdered for who they were, and [to] stand against prejudice and hatred today” (https://www.hmd.org.uk/what-is-holocaust-memorial-day/this-years-theme/). In fully acknowledging Viktor Frankl in those terms I therefore elect not to use typical academic convention of only referring to him by surname and I always show through page reference where my reflections are triggered by his words. It is Viktor Frankl and Viktor Frankl’s writing that takes pre-eminence.
Viktor Frankl explains that we ‘stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life’ (p.85) through “right action and right conduct” (p.85), and not, for example, “in talk and meditation” (p.85). In this, he means that we are each ‘responsible to find the right answer’ to what is right in ‘life’s problems and fulfil its tasks that it sets for us’ (p.85). And even when the context is a concentration camp.
I was – and still am now – struck by that statement, and his subsequent clarification of what it means.
First, it is not easy: there are no heroic or romanticised tropes in Viktor Frankl’s account of his time in concentration camps; it is simply a rich “study of living culture” (Gruyer, 2007:217). And neither does he “complain or curse anyone in-spite of the misery he had to go through” (Tiwari, 2015:138). Viktor Frankl simply describes how his own and others’ behaviours were an “abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation” and therefore “normal” (p.32). He writes, for example, of when volunteering as a doctor in the typhus block to help his sick compatriot prisoners, and if he reported smartly, whipping my prison cap from my shorn head and clicking my heels, ‘Hut number VI/9: 52 patients, two nursing orderlies, and one doctor’, they [the ‘camp authority’] were satisfied” (p.73).
However, waiting anxiously for their arrival, which could be all day (if at all), he was forced to keep straightening blankets, picking up bits of straw which fell from the bunks, and shouting at the poor devils who tossed in their beds and threatened to upset all my efforts at tidiness and cleanliness” (p.73-4).
In the same open and clean terms he challenges a reductionist impression that “a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner” [sic] (p.93). He writes of how Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp's influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible (p.95).
Even as I include that in this paper it brings a lump to my throat. His generosity in spirit is, to me (and my privileged life) remarkable. But, again as he articulates how right action and right conduct are complicated, he contrasts how “prisoners found the lack of character” in their compatriots “upsetting” and yet were “profoundly moved by the smallest kindness received from any of the guards” (p.95). We can perhaps understand this through the (contested) terms of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. Logan (2018:67) describes how this type of bonding can take place in concentration camps and kidnap experiences where the intense fear and will to survive can cause a bond with the enemy. This bonding is perpetuated by the imbalance of power and the manipulative nature of intermittent cycling of abuse with acts of kindness.
So, having understood that right action and right conduct are not easy, we can then identify what will help us to ‘find the right answer in life and its tasks’.
Viktor Frankl graphically recalls, and still in the same open and clean terms, instances that ‘surprised’ him about just “how much we can endure” (p.30). Even in this horror, right action and right conduct are supported through: noticing the experiencing of moments of humour (e.g. p.29, p.54, p.55); delight in the smallest things (e.g. p.56, p.57, p.92); and art -of a tree or sunset (p.51, p.78), or “songs, poems, jokes, some with underlying satire regarding the camp” (p.52). Even whilst entirely restricted in appalling ways to engage in “an active life” and the “opportunity to realize values in creative work”, it was still possible and important, although clearly Viktor Frankl is also describing how “a passive life of enjoyment affords […] the opportunity to obtain fulfilment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature” (p.51). Moreover and critically, there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man's attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces (p.56).
We recognise creativity now as being threaded through UNESCO’s ‘four pillars’ of learning (Delors, 1996) in its “process of developing original ideas that have value” through ‘imagination’ and ‘innovation’ (Robinson, 2011:2-3). More recently we are seeing how appreciating the neuroscience of trauma and creativity (Perry & Szalavitz, 2017; Onarheim & Friis-Olivarius 2013) can transform lives. In an established and emerging literature base, Viktor Frankl’s observations of the significance of creativity in right action and right conduct are reinforced.
Having understood the significance of humour, delight, art and creativity in right action and right conduct, thirdly, Viktor Frankl tells us tha not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete (p.76).
He does not refer to this heroically, or that one must experience abuse to be whole. Indeed his graphic visceral descriptions of suffering leave no doubt about the inhumane injustice of abuse and violence and its power differentials. What he is observing is the significance of “inner hold on [our] moral and spiritual selves” (p.78), which requires: "time-experience" (p.79) (i.e. knowing that suffering will end); a clear “future goal” (in contrast to “lifelessness”) (p.78); and, at the same time, deep recognition that the “provisional existence” (p.79) of suffering is real. In this way suffering is “an opportunity and challenge” (p.78) to “fight [its] psychopathological influences” by the “psychotherapeutic or psycho-hygienic methods” (p.81) of right action and right conduct. He provides a powerful anecdote from his concentration camp experience to show how “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it” (p.82).
Together, Viktor Frankl refers to this the “art of living” (p.55). That is, how there is always a “choice” and “decision” of right action and right conduct - or not (p.75), even in the most heinous of situations and even when agency is so terribly restricted in inhumane circumstances. In any moment, situation, and circumstance, the choice and decision for right action and right conduct is present, albeit not easy, and with the knowledge that humour, delight, art and creativity are supportive, facilitative experiences and instruments.
More broadly, right action and right conduct concerns “inner freedom” and “inner achievement” (p.75), that is, an “attitude” (p.76), “dignity” (p.76), and “inner liberty” (p.76) or “inner hold” (p.78). Whilst recognising that “No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response” (p.85), as well that no person is the same and we each are ‘irreplaceable’ (p.87), Viktor Frankl concludes that when this “is realised, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude [sic] (p.87). We may ‘miss opportunities’ (p.91) for right action and right conduct, and tears come to my eyes when I read Viktor Frankl explicating this through a personal example, this in his dire circumstances, and I am moved that I too might be as forgiving of myself and others as he is when we fail. However, in every moment, situation and circumstance, right action and right conduct are always available to us. As he concludes, “human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning” (p.90). Viktor Frankl then articulates his philosophy through ‘logotherapy’, a therapeutic praxis that he had begun to conceptualise before his internment, but subsequently given vivid life through his concentration camp experiences.
Man’s Search For Meaning, a book I had been reminded of on Holocaust Memorial Day and returned to when reflecting on the 2022 theme of ‘One Day: Lighting the Darkness’, has a profound impact. Right action and right conduct in an ‘art of living’ is an invitation to us all in everyday life and is illuminated in the key tenets of logotherapy in its focus on healing through finding meaning
Delors J. (1966) Learning: the treasure within. Report to UNESCO of the international commission on education for the 21st century. France: UNESCO Publishing
Frankl V. (2004) Man’s search for meaning (5th edition). London: Random House
Guyer S.E. (2007) Romanticism after Auschwitz. Stanford University Press
Logan M. (2018) Stockholm Syndrome: held hostage by the one you love. Violence and Gender, Vol.5, No, 2, pp.67-69
Onarheim B. & Friis-Olivarius M (2013) Applying the neuroscience of creativity to creativity training. Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, 16 October [online]. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00656/full
Perry B.D. & Szalavitz M. (2017) The boy who was raised as a dog and other stories from a Child Psychiatrist's notebook. What traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing (3rd Edition). New York: Basic Books
Robinson K. 2011 Out of our minds: learning to be creative. New Delhi: Wiley
Tiwari H (2015) Man's search for meaning: a commentary. Indian Journal of Positive Psychology 6(1), pp.136-139
 Biography taken from Viktor Frankl Institute: https://www.univie.ac.at/logotherapy/biography.html