Logotherapy and the Holocaust: Uniting Human Experience in Extremity and Normality
Practical Application of Logotherapy
Whether or not a psychoanalytical method born from a Holocaust survivor can be practically applied to people living in normality is another question for logotherapy. Though Dr. Frankl affirmed his theories based on the mental reaction of camp inmates to extremity, his purpose was not so specific. Dr. Frankl’s philosophy on the meaning of life is as applicable to those living in normality as it is to those living in extremity; the theory, while subjectively adaptable, is universally applicable.
To assess logotherapy’s application in normality, one must examine the truth in its principle assertion, that man’s primary source of motivation is a perpetual search for meaning. Aristotle believed that happiness is a rational activity of the soul in conformity with virtue or excellence. The search for such an activity can be likened to Dr. Frankl’s search for meaning. It is in the meaning in one’s life, in performing one’s proper rational function, that one can find happiness.
Like Dr. Frankl, Aristotle believed that this happiness, this meaning, is subjective and individual to each person at each moment. In the concentration camps, the search for meaning was fraught with suffering, and one’s success in finding meaning was severely limited by one’s circumstances and opportunities. Dr. Frankl prescribes three earlier mentioned methods for finding this meaning: creativity and good deeds, human interaction or love, and suffering. In the concentration camps, all three were possible, but not nearly as easily achieved as in normality. Scenarios of human experience affirm the applicability of these three methods for finding meaning in normality.
Though a departure from Holocaust application, a college graduate unsure of his purpose in life also faces a search for meaning. Through creative work, he can define and develop his talents; through human interactions he can form the relationships necessary to succeed in the professional and social world; and by his attitude towards suffering, this graduate can make himself a stronger individual, more prepared for life’s challenges.
Through these three methods, the college graduate will eventually find life’s purpose; this may be a high-paying job in business or a life of creative fulfillment as an artist. Each purpose is suited to the circumstances of the individual searching for it. It is clear that the primary motivation of a recently graduated college student is a search for meaning, and equally so that the methods prescribed by logotherapy are applicable to such a situation.
Man’s search for meaning does not end when one has found one’s career or passion. Life extends far beyond one’s youth and adult life, as do the success, failure, suffering, and happiness that accompany living. Consider an old man or woman whose life is coming to an end. Despite the realization life’s meaning during one’s younger years, life in death retains purpose. This purpose may be more subdued on one’s death bed, as the opportunities once had are now restricted by one’s physical condition.
However, one retains the ability to love, to continue helping others to realize their hidden potentials and by using one’s own life as a model for man’s search for meaning. Dr. Frankl also observed that there is value in facing death and suffering with dignity and poise. Even in death, one can find meaning.
Logotherapy is not limited to situations of extremity. In everyday experience, one can see logotherapy in action; billions of people around the world are living their lives, all searching for the same relative end: meaning in life.
The Consequences of Logotherapy
While interned at Auschwitz, Dr. Frankl observed that his fellow prisoners believed that giving meaning to their suffering was contingent upon their survival; they reasoned that their suffering would have meaning only if they survived. However, Dr. Frankl found solace in the opposing belief that meaning came before survival:
“If [all this suffering, this dying around us has no meaning], then ultimately there is no meaning in survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance – as whether one escapes or not – ultimately would not be worth living at all” (Frankl 138).
This bold claim is not of negative consequence for the survivors of the Holocaust, but rather corroborates their perseverance.
Dr. Frankl’s intention was not to suggest that survival is unimportant. However, he believed that one’s life always has some meaning that is not contingent upon survival. In the concentration camps, seemingly menial acts of resistance demonstrate this fact. With the limited opportunity had by prisoners, life’s meaning was obscure, but present. In stories of resistance, the prisoners leave evidence that life retained meaning.
Though most choices did not guarantee one’s survival, a noble cause made life worth living. In the face of brutal dehumanization, a multitude of prisoners refused to be stripped of their identity. Through mental fortitude and small, such as the pilfering of food or the singing of songs, prisoners retained their personalities. The retention of personality, in and of itself, gives life meaning, regardless of survival.
One can also examine the lives of survivors following their liberation to affirm Dr. Frankl’s positions. Survivors’ lives demonstrate that survival is only useful insofar as it allows for new purpose and meaning. Those who survived faced the struggle to transition back into normality. The suffering in the camps could be used to strengthen one’s character. Dr. Bernice Lerner observes of survivors she has interviewed,
“Though I know not how long each was plagued by the aftereffects of depravity, psychosomatic repercussions, if they did or still exist, have not stopped these individuals from living extraordinarily productive lives” (Lerner 4).
Survival’s importance lies in the “extraordinarily productive lives” they led. Additionally, many survivors went to tell the world of the atrocities to ensure that they are not repeated. In The Survivor, Terrence Des Pres concludes that, “the stories survivors tell are limited […] but they possess the kind of certainty, wholly human and involved, that moral resistance needs. And in these ways survivors do have influence” (Des Pres 49).
At the heart of survival is not a simple desire to continue living. Living for the sake of living is a fruitless endeavor. Holocaust survivors survived not to idly await death, but to actively pursue the meaning in their life that was so nearly robbed of them. Survival for the sake of finding and retaining meaning in life is the story of Holocaust survival.
Those who have lived their entire lives in normality have a curious desire to relate to victims of the Holocaust. This desire always leads one to a fundamental gap in human experience which can’t easily be bridged by psychoanalysis. However, as one who has lived life both in and out of extremity with a unique wisdom, Dr. Viktor Frankl was able to unite these two camps of humanity under one common principle motivation: a search for meaning in life. Through logotherapy, Dr. Frankl presents humanity with a uniting factor which transcends differences in experience.
Des Pres, Terence. The Survivor: Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Frankl, Dr. Viktor E. Man's Search for Meaning. New York: Pocket Books, 1984.
Lerner, Bernice. The Triumph of Wounded Souls: Seven Holocaust Survivors' Lives. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004.