The Meaning of Life From a Holocaust Survivor

April 20th, 2009

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor FranklMany of us fail to find meaning in the day to day activities of our lives and are easily frustrated, overwhelmed and even depressed by the slightest misfortune. Some of us are forced to endure much greater misfortunes that make life seem unbearable. Even in the worst circumstances imaginable, recognizing a meaning to your life and value in your suffering will give you the strength to persist and pursue a much more satisfying state of being.

Viktor Frankl, a neurologist and psychiatrist, believed that living with meaning is essential to mental and physical well being. As a survivor of the Holocaust and four different Nazi concentration camps, Frankl had a profound opportunity to test his beliefs and was able to persevere through some of the worst circumstances imaginable. Because of his perseverance, we are blessed with the opportunity to learn from his triumph and realize that there’s always meaning and value to life regardless of how bad it may seem.

Life in a Nazi Concentration Camp

According to the statistics, there was about a 3% chance of surviving in a Nazi concentration camp. Those who weren’t killed in the gas chambers often committed suicide or died from starvation and illness. The prisoners were starved, beaten, overworked, exposed to frigid conditions for long periods of time without proper clothing, forced to live in cramped quarters that were polluted with excrement, and were faced with the threat of death each and every day. Despite all of this, the prisoners needed to appear lively and capable of working to avoid being selected for the gas chamber.

Why Your Life Needs Meaning

According to Frankl, only the prisoners who recognized a meaning to their lives and looked forward to fulfilling it were able to sustain the abuse, demoralization and unhealthy conditions of the concentration camps. These people had a reason to live and a reason to overcome the ruthless abuse and horrendous living conditions.

Even in the most unfortunate circumstances, very few of us ever have to face the level of adversity and misfortune that occurred in the Nazi concentration camps. Based on the prisoners who were able to survive such awful conditions by having a purpose to fulfill that kept them mentally strong, any of the problems we commonly encounter today should certainly be possible to overcome.

Frankl refers to life without meaning as an existential vacuum in which life becomes boring and is often dictated by the desires or demands of others. Depression is likely to set in and aggressive or addictive behavior is likely to ensue. People who are stuck in this vaccum tend to fill the void by seeking power, money or pleasure, and will eventually come to the inevitable conclusion that these temporary forms of superficial satisfaction will never provide the deep fulfillment that results from living a meaningful life.

What Exactly is a Meaningful Life?

The process of striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal is what keeps us hungry for life and is what provides us with fulfillment once the goal is accomplished. This fulfillment creates precious memories of the past that can never be revoked or stolen, and in turn, these memories, eliminate regret and foster the courage to not have an excessive and unhealthy fear of death.

Frankl attributes true meaning to three sources.

  • Accomplishments and creative activities such as solving a problem or creating an invention
  • Experiencing something or someone inspiring such as the beauty of nature, the love for a spouse or family member, or the value of a close friend
  • Identifying value in unavoidable suffering

Many of us struggle with the tasks of finding meaning or fulfilling the meaning that we’ve already identified. The gap between who we are and what we want to become and the gap between what we’ve accomplished and what we hope to accomplish create a beneficial form of tension. Although this tension is a form of stress that can be unhealthy when experienced in excess, it’s also what keeps us inspired and is essential to mental well being.

Seeing the Value in Suffering

To experience the happiness that results from fulfillment, suffering must be avoided whenever possible. However, when the suffering is unavoidable, it’s necessary to realize that it’s always possible to find benefit and value in it and to continue living with meaning. Frankl did exactly this by valuing his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps as an opportunity to live by his beliefs about meaning and fulfillment rather than just writing about them.

In agreement with Frankl’s beliefs, a study done by Yale University showed that many prisoners of war from the Vietnam war considered the torturous conditions they endured to be a beneficial experience that inspired personal growth.

If prisoners of war and prisoners of Nazi concentration camps were able to find value in the face of torture, starvation, sickness and death, then you can certainly find it in the unavoidable problems that are dragging you down.

The Value I Found in Poor Health

I struggled for many years with what would eventually be diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome. I often questioned why life seemed so difficult and I would periodically become depressed as a result. As one of the methods that Frankl suggests is commonly used to fill the void left from a lack of meaning, I frequently sought simple pleasures such as food and material items to distract me from my problems.

I eventually recognized my compromised health as an opportunity to learn and to improve my quality of life through better health. This significantly changed my outlook, provided me with inspiration, and reduced my need for simple pleasures. In addition, I now have a strong sense of fulfillment for the significant health improvements that I’ve accomplished. Without hesitation, I can say that finding value in my struggle with poor health has significantly improved my life.

The Meaning of Life Varies by Person and by Time

Many people reflect on the meaning of life as if it were the same for everyone. If it were, it would suggest that we have little control of our destiny and individuality, and in a sense, would contradict the purpose of living with meaning. It would be quite difficult to find fulfillment from living for the same predetermined purpose as everyone else. The fact that we can each choose unique values and ideals to live by is one of the most profound and inspirational aspects of life. Because fulfillment often originates from these values and ideals, we each interpret the meaning of our lives in a unique way.

It’s also possible to identify multiple meanings for life, and these meanings can change over time. As Frankl suggests, much of the meaning that inspires us to live is based on the striving and struggling involved with achieving a goal. Once the goal is achieved, a new one is needed to keep the process alive. While some people will identify a new goal that is simply an extension of the previous one, others may shift directions completely. For this reason, it can sometimes be counterproductive to search for meaning that will define your life as a whole and last until death.

The Meaning of Life and Your Health

While it may not be widely accepted, there’s plenty of scientific evidence indicating that emotions have a direct impact on physical health. A simple example of this is the cortisol release triggered by stressful emotions such as anxiety, anger or fear. Excessive cortisol production from repetitive stress can literally break the body down and severely compromise health. Likewise, positive emotions are also related to the circulation of physical substances within the body and are believed to promote healing and good health.

As Frankl suggests, living life without meaning promotes apathy and depression. Not only can these emotions negatively affect your health directly, but they can also effect it indirectly by influencing the lifestyle decisions you make. Someone who is apathetic or depressed is far less likely to make the effort required to live a healthy lifestyle.

While imprisoned, Frankl and his fellow prisoners consistently noticed that once a prisoner gave up hope and felt as if they had no reason to live, they quickly became sick and died shortly after. In contrast, those who held on strongly to their purpose for living often survived serious illness. In fact, Frankl himself was able to survive a severe case of typhus which was a very common cause of death in the Nazi concentration camps.

Closing Inspiration

After his liberation, Frankl returned to his life as a neurologist and psychiatrist. By helping people find meaning in their lives, he guided thousands of people out of the apathy and depression that would have otherwise been diagnosed as a mental disorder. In fact, many of the people that he helped find meaning in life were patients who had previously attempted suicide.

We all have the freedom to change and also the freedom to choose our response to any situation. This freedom can never be taken away, but it’s benefit is dependent on our responsibility to use it wisely. No matter how bad life may seem, there’s always value to be taken from it, and there is always the possibility that the future will be better than ever imagined.

For additional information on Frankl’s experiences in the Nazi concentration camps, his theories on the importance of living with meaning, and inspirational stories about people who live inspired lives despite unfortunate circumstances, read his book Man’s Search for Meaning.

In closing, here are a few quotes from Frankl.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

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