Wow. I’d previously only read the “Blinkist” version of this book, but it loses so much when stripped of context (which I think is true for nearly every book worth reading, really–that’s why I got rid of that app.)
Had this just been memoirs from Auschwitz, I don’t think I’d have read it, as I tend to avoid media that is unnecessarily grim. But the memoirs were crucial for the message–which I might have a hard time summing up. Frankl described the horrors of the concentration camp, but from the perspective of a psychologist who marveled at the coping mechanisms and resilience of the mind. He contrasts those who survived from those who didn’t by one key difference: whether or not that person had a purpose to live for. Those who saw no greater purpose lived only for what little pleasure could be had in the moment, and he knew that that prisoner would soon waste away and die. But those who lived for something greater than themselves–whatever that something might be–endured. “Those who know the ‘why’ of their existence can bear almost any ‘how,'” he wrote, though he attributed this quote to Nietzche.
But the form that “why” takes is different for each person, and must be freely chosen. It might be a future goal he wants to accomplish, or a person he wants to live for, or people he wants to encourage around him. Frankl developed the psychotherapeutic technique called Logotherapy, in which meaning is found through the choices one makes and his responsibility for those choices. The second half of the book is all about the technique, and not about his concentration camp experiences — those were more an illustration. The therapy also employs “paradoxical intention,” which to me sounds essentially like the psychological version of homeopathy. It’s facing your fear, focusing on the very thing you’re trying to shove out of your mind, and thus, de-fanging it. The example he gave that I think would resonate with most is the insomniac who gets anxious as bedtime approaches, fearful that he won’t fall asleep… and then of course he doesn’t, because the neurotransmitters involved in anxiety are incompatible with sleep. Another is the intrusive thoughts one tries not to entertain, which only loom larger from the effort. “Don’t think of a pink elephant,” in other words. The concept behind homeopathy, and hydrotherapy too really, is to push the body in the direction it’s already going so that it will self-correct in the opposite direction.
After hearing this segment of the book, I might have liked to have heard him cycle back to the camp experiences and draw clearer parallels. But in retrospect, he did discuss how one surefire way to lose heart would be to anticipate release by a particular date. When that date approached and then passed, the prisoner would lose hope and die of a broken heart. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12). In the same way, the direct focus upon pleasure for pleasure’s sake was empty. One cannot aim for happiness itself; happiness is a byproduct of purpose. Chase it outright, and it will forever elude you. But, “seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
My rating: *****
Sexual content: none
Violence: plenty but not gratuitous
Political content: none
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