Dr Viktor Frankl in his book ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, talks about ‘hygiene’ emotionally and psychologically, a hygiene necessary to maintain a healthy mind and heart.
Upon release from internment in concentration camps, release from the extremes of deprivation and human suffering, Frankl observed that humans encountering their new freedoms had to be cautious of their emotional health in the following ways.
First, they had to be cautious to not react with vengeance and hatred towards the world, careless of the hurts or disadvantages towards others that their behaviour could cause, all the while justifying their actions by their own needless sufferings.
Second, they had to be wary not to succumb to bitterness when encountering those who would trivialise their prisoner experience with hollow platitudes devoid of any true empathy.
Third, they had to be on guard not to give in to disillusionment when returning home, upon learning that the objects of their love and hope for the future, their family, beloved, friends, were now gone.
In this way Frankl teaches us all, very few of whom have suffered the indignities of a concentration camp, to care for our own hearts and minds as though for our bodies and homes. We must daily clean the toxic emotional build up and thought patterns of life as we would ritually wash our hands before eating, our bodies before resting, our wounds before going out into the air. We must throw away rotting thoughts and attitudes before they infect our lives and vigilantly clean up our living space of soiled attitudes or ideas past their due date.
In Victor Frankl’s work ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, he explores the question of what is the ‘meaning’ of life. Frankl explains, that life, like the game of chess, has no perfect move, only the perfect move for a specific player in a specific situation. Life has no ‘meaning‘ other than meaning derived from responding to one’s life in any given circumstances.
He correlates then, ‘responsibility‘ with the essence of human existence. To live meaningfully, one is to imagine one is living for a second time and that the first time we lived, we made every mistake possible. This imagining, confronts us with all of life’s limitations and the finality of what we make of our life and of ourselves, pushing us to be responsible.
He continues. The question of ‘responsibility‘ calls into question whether we are truly free or not. If we are indeed victims of life, we have no responsibility for the consequences of our existence. However as victims, we are not truly free. If we are however, to claim to be truly free beings and to have agency over our existence, we cannot then fall back upon the comfort of claiming ‘victimhood’. We must face the reality that our life, and the consequences or our existence, and indeed our total responsibility.
Frankl, as a psychiatrist, saw his role in therapy much the way an eye-surgeon would when dealing with a patient. He worked on the faculty of sight to restore a patient’s ability to see the whole spectrum of his or her potential and the meaning of their life. By helping a patient to become ‘responsible’, he would help them become empowered to actualise the potential meaning of their existence.
And in doing so, no matter the circumstance of his or her life, to become truly free.
In Victor Frankl’s treatise ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, he compares suffering to a gas. It will fill any space it’s given.
The 1946 book, first published under the title ‘From Death-camp to Existentialism‘ chronicled Frankl’s experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In it he examines the effects of extreme suffering on the human psyche and outlines the early formation of his life’s work as a psychiatry, namely his method of ‘logotherapy‘ a process by which a patient identifies a purpose in life. At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.
Frankl identified that inside the concentration camp, almost any circumstance, great or small, suffering or joy could fill it. For example, a starving, half frozen prisoner of war, deprived of all freedoms, dignity and comforts and driven to work in degrading conditions, can pause and note a beautiful sunset, feeling a moment of joy.
Conversely, a man, well fed, free, warm, wealthy and honoured could feel intense existential suffering for want of any sense of life meaning.
So is the human condition, both fragile and curious.