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With 10 million copies sold, Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is one of the most popular books of our times. He wrote it in only nine days, but it is full of thought provoking questions and wisdom. His thoughts on this timeless question – ‘what is the meaning of life?’ – are easy to understand, and written with bosom knowledge. People enslaved during the days of Hitler must have struggled with this question a lot. I only wish that I could have read it in the original German version, with all nuances retained.
I am sure that there are many great reviews of this book out there already. But the angle that I’d like to take here is from the perspective of a person with chronic illness. I would exclaim ever so often while reading, “yes! This is exactly what it feels like to be sick, too!” Even the psychological methods that the prisoners used to cope are similar to how we manage our illnesses. After all, to be ill is to be a prisoner within your own body.
1. The Importance of Self-Respect
Through Viktor Frankl’s observation, the men who possessed a rich inner life often outlasted those who were tough in physical capacity only. The last of one’s liberties is your choice of attitude towards the situations life presents to you.
Living with chronic illnesses over the years has made me realise how important self-respect is. I believe that dignity, more so than love, is the virtue that keeps you alive. When you’ve hit rock bottom, the number of people who love you, or how much they love you, no longer matters. You think to yourself, “they’ll be better off without me”, or “why should they have to suffer for my problems?”. But if you can maintain a thread of dignity, you will have the strength to carry on.
To remain dignified is to remain responsible. Not only towards others, but also yourself. To choose to carry on living, is to choose the right answer. You begin to die when you lose faith in the future. Many of the men who passed away in the camps did so of ‘health reasons’. Yet it was clear to those around them that these men had given up on hope just before their passing. This leads me to wonder, do many of those who die from chronic illnesses actually die from despair above all?
2. The Most Depressing Influence: The Unknown
The most depressing influence in the concentration camps was not knowing how long they’d have to suffer for. As a person with chronic illness, we do have an answer to that – we will have to live with this until the day we die.
But the pain levels and severity of side effects do fluctuate on a daily basis, and can be hard to predict. Kidney stones and giving birth are some of the most painful experiences in life, I hear. Yet the knowledge that this will pass might grant you some strength and comfort to pull through.
When pain is of a chaotic nature, there is no such thing as ‘it will get better with time’. You simply put up with it. This is exhausting; there is no real victory in overcoming a flare up, only a moment of temporary relief. You live to fight more meaningless battles another day.
3. Looking at Others, from the Inside Out
The men who laboured within the camps were able to look at life on the outside through the fences, yet this meant nothing to them. It was akin to a dead man peering into a foreign world, and I have often felt this way myself.
I feel trapped in my own body at times, that I’m just ‘looking outside’ of myself wherever I go. An observer of life, rarely a participator. The freedom others have is exclusive to them. They can come and go as they please, fuelled by an unbelievable amount of energy. This vitality is magical to me, something I can only admire but never grasp. The danger with this division lies in the opportunities that we miss, Frankl warns. There is always the possibility of creating something positive out of the terrible, but we must look for it.
4. Looking at Yourself, from the Outside In
Then there is looking at yourself from the outside in, instead. Frankl would sometimes transport himself into the future via imagination. He would picture himself giving lectures on the current torments he was experiencing. Thus, everything became experimental and scientific to him, interesting even.
Sometimes I also picture myself ‘outside’ of my body, where I separate pain from thought. Not in a transcendental attempt, but more from an analytical, third person point of view.
Even doctors often have no explanation for what’s happening to me, or what to do about it. Our bodies are such fascinating things, including the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of pain. The pain doesn’t disappear when I look at myself as a third party. It is more of putting it under a microscope, which gives me something to observe, study and think about. I am no longer the subject or victim, but the scientist running the investigation. Pain becomes a little more bearable this way. Pain then, has some sort of purpose. Perhaps even more so, because I am experiencing it first hand, ‘for real’.
5. It Doesn’t Really Matter What We Expect From Life
This was the best lesson I learned from the book, which helped me through some depressive moments as well. Frankl taught the men who were despairing, to change their attitudes towards life. To ask, ‘what does life expect from me?’, instead of, ‘what do I want out of life?’. To look at ourselves as being the question of life, instead of asking what the meaning of it is.
I also came to understand that the meaning of life is simply, ‘to be’. To hold constant communion with life and ask her, ‘what is it that you expect from me, in this very moment?’. And then to get up and go fulfil that duty to the best of my ability. If life requires that I suffer in the present moment, then I will need to accept this job with grace. To ask myself, then, ‘what is it that only *I* can do in such a situation?’ This makes my task unique, and gives it purpose. Should you lose all hope in this life, then your one task is to continue hoping, despite.
I don’t find this emotionless or stoical at all. In fact, I find it to be a peaceful thought. In the words of a popular quote out there, ‘you have been assigned this mountain, to show others that it can be moved.’
6. Self Defense Mechanisms We Employ
Some of the men in the camps had built up apathy as a form of psychological self defense. If they braced themselves for the ultimate end, then what was the worst that could happen next? Dealing with chronic illnesses year after year can build up this very same nonchalance within us. It is a neutral state, devoid of too much pain, or too much joy.
Humour is another means to self preservation, perhaps the best form. It takes the edge off situations, and casts it in an amusing light. There is victory in that, as you have managed to enjoy a little something from within the agony. There are only two or three people who get my morbid sense of humour, but making light of situations helps me to cope. It gives me courage by diminishing the severity of the problem, thus taking away some of its power.
Frankl gave an interesting anecdote. The men were walking through a beautiful field one day, yet none of them could feel happy about it as it was foreign from their reality. They had depersonalised themselves from feeling any pleasure. This is interesting to me, because it is something I do to myself as well. Like the men, I hope and dream of ‘getting out’ one day (in chronic illness terms, that would mean a remission). Yet if and when that does happen, I have a feeling that I might panic and not accept it to be true. Who knows when danger would strike again, is it safe to let my guard down? I know that this is a thought I need to work on, otherwise, how am I ever going to get better to begin with?
7. Be Careful of Becoming the Monster You Hate
How does a person begin to look like what he hates? By focussing the entirety of his or her thoughts on the subject, until they begin thinking in its likeness. As Nietzsche said, “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
Frankl shows that this can happen when presented with sudden freedom. Many of the men became the oppressors towards their former oppressors upon release. And unless you’re able to accord responsibility towards your life, there is the danger of degenerating into arbitrariness.
To live with pain and judgment from society as a chronic illness person can build up such negative effects. We may start to wallow in our misery, and become bitter about it. We dismiss anyone else who is suffering, because their pain can’t be as bad as ours. We become arrogant in our knowledge and reject any new suggestions (there’s a lot of harmful advice out there, but there’s still one or two gems). But if we want a real cure someday and want others to accept us, then we need to set the first example. To be open-minded and understanding towards the general populace.
8. The Disillusionment of ‘Happiness’ as the End Goal
When you are suffering and focussed on happiness as the end goal, you forget that unhappiness still exists when you do get there. I think that this is what happens to some of us who do manage to go into remission. Life doesn’t consist of happy moments only. Pain and grief still exists despite being healthier, and this induces disappointment.
Life doesn’t consist of a constant state of being. Being aware of and accepting its colourful spectrum is necessary for a healthy perspective. It is also essential for appreciating a moment, empathising with others, and understanding ourselves.
9. There is No Limit to Suffering
When the men in the camps thought that they had reached the limits of human suffering, they learnt that pain really has no ceiling. It’s always possible to suffer some more. This is a concept that I can grasp with clarity, and which has crushed my soul the most. You think to yourself when you’ve hit rock bottom, “really, how much worse can it get?”. Only to find out that there is no such thing as a bottom to begin with. This leads me to the next important point…
10. Opening Our Minds to New Ways of Thinking
As human beings, it is normal to feel depressed from time to time. We all go through it. Existential distress doesn’t always equate to a mental illness, however. Sometimes all you need to do is open your mind to new ways of thinking.
Living with chronic illnesses trains you to monitor the slightest change in your body. Any new pain or ache arouses our suspicion and we start analysing it. We have learned that it’s always better to nip a problem early in the bud. ‘Wait and see what happens’ has often escalated to regrettable levels of pain and distress. This habit has helped me more often than not, but I now find things that aren’t there to begin with either.
I need to retrain my brain to be open to the possibility of decent outcomes too, as it can be quick to hit the panic button. I need to start from the bottom up and not top down. What this means is that I need to focus on my core concerns so that I can rebuild a stronger foundation. Patching surface problems all the time isn’t effective for the long term. I can try to approach this by asking myself, “what would benefit my over all well being the most right now?”. And then work outwards from there.
11. A Tenseless State vs Struggling For a Worthwhile Goal
The existential vacuum is a first world, modern day problem. Boredom has become a bigger problem than distress. Frankl mentions that what we need in life is not a tenseless state, one free of any worry or problem. Instead, what we need is a worthwhile goal to strive for, and the suffering that comes with it.
I like his illustration using the architecture of arches in buildings. To strengthen an arch, you do not lessen the pressure upon it. Instead, you must increase the pressure so as to make it more compact. It isn’t about decreasing tension in our lives, but increasing the tension for meaning.
Many of us consumed with pain might actually view a tenseless state as preferable. I’d give anything to escape from intense pain. It terrifies me. I’d rather live in a meaningless vacuum than to suffer day and night. This is something that the average person might not understand. In that sense, those of us who are stuck in this no man’s land have a bigger challenge to deal with, as meaning can become meaningless.
We need to convince ourselves that whatever we’re aiming for is worth the hellfire it comes with. Those of us who have no family or kids might find this an even harder problem, as you are your sole source of strength. But all we can do is try. Not because of anything, but that we are human.
12. The Meaning of Life in Each Moment
As you might recognise, this is one of his famous quotes, “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
Everyone’s life is unique and bears purpose. There is only you standing in this very spot right now in the whole universe. Mind blowing, if you think about it that way. Logotherapy – his form of therapy, and amongst the three important pillars in psychology – sees in essence human existence as ‘responsibility’. What is it that only you can do, right here, right now, for the better?
He uses movies as a metaphor; every scene that you watch has meaning from moment to moment, yet you only know what the whole point to it is at the end. Life is just like that; we all need to play our part and play it well until the end. So for those who are suffering in one way or another – hang in there. Who knows what will happen next? And even if the ‘movie’ doesn’t have a happy ending, it usually has a fantastic storyline or profound insight to it.
13. Our Current Mental (Un)hygiene
One interesting point he makes, is the modern idea that people ought to be happy, and that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. We end up being twice as unhappy, because we are unhappy that we are unhappy! Society sees it as a sign of failure.
We are also a realistic generation, because we know the full extent of humankind’s potential for empathy, and also cruelty. The symbol of this era is achievement. It adores the young, the successful, and worships happiness. It ignores everything else because it sees no value in them. We blur the decisive difference between being valuable in our sense of dignity, and in our sense of usefulness.
Those of us who are chronically ill often feel like we are in our twilight years, old and creaky. Many of us have no jobs in a modern societal sense, and struggle through each day. We don’t achieve much by all outward appearances. While we may not be unhappy, nothing about our situation is pleasant or conjures envy. In short, we are the epitome of everything modern society does not adore. We are often seen as the dregs of society – what do we have to offer? Are we burdens on the system? Often it conjures some empathy only because others realise that we are all human. And this can happen to them, too.
But putting general perceptions of society aside, I do find myself struggling to cope with my self worth. Before I fell ill, I was able to achieve many things. This was only because I could put in the extra effort, to push my body harder than everyone else. Now that that is no longer realistic or even possible, I have no achievement badges to hang upon my name. What am I now, then? In some sense, I am glad life gave me this opportunity to change my ideas about true achievement.
14. Why Are Decent Men Called Saints?
Frankl mentioned that him being nice or kind to some of the men in the camps, didn’t particularly make him a good person. Shouldn’t these actions be what decent people did? It reflects much upon our current culture, where decent acts become ‘amazing’, and terrible actions are the norm. Nothing to bat an eyelid over – ‘welcome to the real world’. Easy access to a wealth of information has made us both jaded and opinionated.
What has happened to us as human beings?
15. Potential vs Actualisations, the Young vs the Old
Frankl brings up an interesting point – that the old are more enviable that the young. (What blasphemy as mentioned above! To be feeble, infirm, and slow? There must be a way to prolong youth…)
The young are full of potential and possibilities, but these have yet to crystallise into realities. Old folks have concrete actualisations. They own actual assets within their memories, and are rich with experiences. By spending your life, you are buying it. Health, finances, and responsibilities can limit physical quality. But you can choose psychological quality. At the end of our lives, the quality of our memories comes from the meaning we have created out of all the moments in our lives, wherever we may be.
To have experienced all these chronic illness ‘bonuses’, does expand our concept of life. Like how becoming a parent ‘unlocks a new door’ and provides more insight into life, so does illness. While these actualisations may not be desirable, they are still rare treasures. Don’t let them rust at the bottom of a closed box. Polish and display them, if not for appreciation, then for knowledge. If not for art and humanity, then for science and truth.
16. The Formation of Stigma Through Collective Guilt
Due to the action of one person, as humans we tend to put everyone else into that same box with him or her. We refer a single trait or object from a vile person, then associate that trait or object with vileness. It is lazy logic. “Jack the murderer always has an apple in his hand. Therefore association with apples is evil.” (You can swap this with a hijab if you want.)
It is not only superstitious, but stigmatising. Stigma requires a collectiveness to it, and grows or diminishes in strength based on the number of persons in this group. A strength that can be damaging. If only one person believes that mental illness is fake, there is not much to fear. But if a million people believe this to be true, that fear intensifies and spills over into society.
A prominent example would be Hollywood films, where the mentally ill are portrayed as cold-blooded murderers. In reality, many of these patients do more harm to themselves than anyone else. Now, I’m not saying that Hollywood should stop making such movies. I can see why they’re so captivating, and I do think that it helps to raise some awareness. Even if it’s just bringing something like the name ‘dissociative identity disorder’ into common speak. If concepts of it are already wrong to begin with, we might as well start with getting its name known.
Another example in modern society where this happens a lot, and which I detest, are in the papers. ‘Woman murders kitten by smashing its eyeballs with high heels.” Oh…a psychologist verified that she has depression or schizophrenia. Then the public gets on their high horse and crucifies the murderer. A ‘pathetic excuse’, a ‘stupid reason’, ‘we should rip the woman’s eyeballs out, pour burning coals on them and torture her to death’. How humane of them. No, I don’t believe that mental illnesses are an excuse to escape the law, otherwise, what use is the law for? But think about it – the very same public crucified this woman before she was even diagnosed. “Mental illness is a pathetic excuse to escape daily responsibilities. It is a stupid reason to miss work for.” Have these people ever considered that they are part of the problem? She didn’t get the help she needed before going over the edge, because of the stigma and ignorance surrounding it.
Concluding Thoughts & Further Applications
This is a book that I will definitely need to read again several times. I am sure that there’s much more to learn, especially over the different phases of life.
I plan to use my life experiences to open cans of worms that the average person cannot, because they don’t know how, or have no right to. This first hand experience grants us permission and credibility to speak about them. We can delve deep into sensitive topics and raise questions that others want to ask, but daren’t. They might be thinking, ‘am I being insensitive? Is this okay to ask? Will people judge me as a fool or monster?’. Anyone can participate in the discussion of a subject, but those who have experience add insight from actualisations. Having suffered something is to earn the right to speak about it without fear. And this power to speak up is a big deal.
You can buy the book here.
For More Insight:
- Viktor Frankl: Why believe in others (video on TED): https://goo.gl/hXjWXr