Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is a book about pain, anguish, suffering, but that's not all that it is about; it is also about dealing with these problems as it talks about how the writer was able to survive the holocaust. The first part of the book describes the many problems that the prisoners had to face at the hands of the Germans, and how they had to avoid death, from being sent instantly to the gas chambers to succumbing to the extreme cold weather. This part describes 'what' happened to the prisoners. The second part of the book focuses on 'how' the prisoners were able to survive. This is the inspirational part of the book that shows that if someone facing such precarious conditions as being in a Nazi concentration camp can survive, then people who have much minor problems to deal with should not have to try so hard.
It is no secret that the German concentration camps were a place of great torture and misgivings. Many people were killed and others tortured both mentally as well as physically. Only a handful of people (1 in 28, according to Frankl) were able to survive. The author describes three things that were the most important factors that contributed to the survivors' survival: love, work, and suffering (Frankl, 2006). It was because of these things that the people were able to survive. The love of their loved ones and the hope of meeting them someday was one of the foremost reasons that they had the will to live. Prisoners, when immersed in work, also had little time to think about something else, and that is why they were able to put their pain aside and continue surviving. The third and most interesting thins is the suffering. One might wonder how this could be a source of sustenance for the prisoners. It would be useful to consider the philosophy of Kierkegaard (1936) in order to understand how this suffering and despair helped the prisoners.
The feeling despair refers to the feeling of a loss of significance. Frankl uses this as the basis of social reflection to devise his concept of despair. This feeling can be related to the subject feeling the full impact of what has been passed upon him or her. Thus the person feels the full weight of the situation and this feeling is the basis for Kierkegaard's concept of despair. In lieu with this, this feeling is mostly associated with negative feelings. Frankl thus regard despair as a negative feeling that happens when one finds that he has actually lost something of significance due to an act that could or could not have been avoided. Thus a death of a loved one, the loss of a lover, destruction of wealth, and dismissal by the parents or children all would contribute to the person's state of despair. According to this, what the person is feeling inside is fundamentally different from what is going on in the society.
This is why Frankl's ideas are so relatable to his readers. He talks about all the hardships that he and his fellow prisoners had to go through in the tough times of being in Nazi concentration camps. Yet, these people extricated all their strength and their hopes from pain, suffering, and despair. This is what makes Frankl's account truly astounding. People reading his book absorb the atrocities that the prisoners had to go through and they compare it to the comparatively trivial problems that plague them in their common lives. These problems seem to be extremely minute compared to what the prisoners had to go through. And when people read about how the survivors were able to gain their strength from their trials, it gives the readers the proper motivation and the nudge in the direction of finding their own peace with their problems. Frankl's account is a remarkable tale that has worked to inspire and help many people who have read the book.
Frankl, Viktor E. (2006). Man's Search for Meaning. Beacon Press.
Kierkegaard, Soren. (1936). Philosophical Fragments. Princeton: Princeton University Press.