Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning will continue to be a key text on human psychology due to its concerns with universal themes. The most focused of those themes in the book is that of suffering and human choice. Frankl suggests that even in the most hopeless and helpless of situations, where one is under the total control of an external force, there is scope for independence of thought. He not only proved the possibility of this proposition during his own time in Nazi concentration camps, but has attested it with the exemplary cases of his fellow inmates and ‘decent’ German officers.
One of the fundamental questions asked by Frankl in his book is “Do one’s reactions to the singular world of the concentration camps (or the challenging worlds in which most of us live) prove that a human being cannot escape the influence of his/her surroundings? … Do we humans have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?” (Lowen, 2000, p. 55) And Frankl answers these questions with conviction born out of his own experience in the camps as well as the principles of human will he developed in his academic work prior. Frankl categorically claims that humans do have a ‘choice of action’. He cites various examples,
“often of a heroic nature, that prove that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. There were lessons to be learned from this living laboratory: that even under such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress, a human being can preserve a vestige of freedom, of independence of mind. There were the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number but they offer sufficient proof…that 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.” (Lowen, 2000, p. 55)
The difference between Frankl’s conception of choice and that of responsibleness is articulated thus:
“Most of us place special value on people who, when faced with circumstances that cannot change, rise above and grow beyond themselves, and, by so doing, change. And the rest of us, bearing witness to such growth experience, may for a moment take stock of our own lives. That life is expecting something from each of us, no matter what our present circumstances, no matter what our chronological age, whatever we have set up as our own unique goals to fulfil, is an affirmation of our “responsibleness.” (Lowen, 2000, p. 55)
In circumstances such as those witnessed during the Nazi roundup of Jews, Frankl states that those cornered would have had to find ‘more substantive’ or ‘higher values’ to live by. This is not an attempt to assume an attitude of superiority, but a compelling survival strategy. But the real blessing in adopting such a strategy is that it outlives its urgent and immediate utility and comes to the individual’s aid for the rest of his/her life. Moreover, as Frankl rightly points out, the yearning for ‘higher values’ is not a phenomenon found only in distressing situations. Indeed, all major religions of our time are based on this fundamental principle. (Huso, 2011) This way, humans can connect with the divine by eschewing religious dogma. In this sense, one can claim that Frankl’s view of ‘faith in the future’ is one of faith in human potentiality – the ability to surpass one’s predisposed characteristics. Frankl’s ‘faith in the future’ is dependent on the heroic man, who “entered those chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” (Huso, 2011) Simply put, Frankl was the psychiatrist who rediscovered the human soul.