[Warning: If you are interested in a calm, comfortable life, this blog will be counterproductive for you.]

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Insights From A Nazi Concentration Camp - Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Last year I read Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It’s short, but truly profound.

Viktor Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist in Germany in the 1930’s. He was also a Jew, so at 37 he was taken to a concentration camp. His sister escaped capture, fled the country and lived. But every other member of his family, his parents and siblings, even his wife, died in those camps. He fought to survive for years, narrowly escaping death several times. Those stories alone make this a gripping book. Mixed in between the stories, he shares what those experiences taught him about humanity.

You might want to put on a snorkel—this is deep stuff.

Our environment puts real pressure on us to act a certain way. But ultimately, nothing can force us to choose our attitude or approach to life.

Scraps of food while on harsh work assignments made staying alive a competition between the captives. Generosity could get a prisoner killed. But some chose to be generous. In conditions that pushed men to act like animals, that even one could choose nobility and service proved environment doesn't rule us. He humbly admitted that he wasn’t always one of those who gave generously. But saw many other men live that way every day. 

No group of people is all evil or all good.

There were Jewish prisoners who became junior wardens--many of these were more brutal than the worst German guards. And there were a few of the guards who snuck extra food to prisoners and helped save their lives. 

The key to surviving is living with purpose.

He said that the difference between those who endured and lived and those who gave up and died came down to one thing: whether or not they felt there was any meaning or value in their future. Did they have some to live for after camp life? Those whose purpose was short-term died once it passed. The most common example: I will hold on until Christmas, when we’ll be rescued. The survivors had something bigger to sustain them, like returning to family or serving God.

Suffering can be noble and purposeful. 

The American value to "always be happy" can make those who suffer from things like disease or tragic accidents feel ashamed to feel bad. (Frankl settled in America after the war and had concerns about this aspect of American cultural.) But there can be great meaning in suffering nobly. We don't enjoy the suffering--by definition that's not possible. But rising above your pain to choose generosity and wisdom while suffering can be a life to be proud of.

It's about having purpose and meaning to your life, not merely pleasure.

What purpose are you chasing? What matters so much to you that you would endure suffering to achieve it?

I’ll finish with some quotes to give you a taste of how rich the rest of the book is:

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” 

“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.” 

“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” 

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” 

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” 

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”   


  1. Good stuff, Scott. This book was a real game-changer for me. Love that last quote.

    1. Thanks, Nathan. It was a game-changer for me, too.