Man's Search for Meaning Study Guide

Man's Search for Meaning By Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, and he recorded his observations on the psychological and physiological effects of both imprisonment and the subsequent liberation on the prisoners. He identifies three stages of reaction that all inmates experience: shock (when first imprisoned), apathy (after adapting to the conditions), and a mélange of depersonalization, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment (after being freed).

Frankl realizes that life never ceases to have meaning, even in the cruelest of conditions. During a group therapy session, as the prisoners were starved for their protection of an anonymous inmate who had broken a rule, Frankl offered up the notion of 'someone looking on', be it a friend, family member, or God, who would not expect to be disappointed by one's moral character.

According to Frankl, men can be divided into 'decent' and 'indecent' regardless of their race, politics, or other allegiances: there are 'decent' Nazis just as there are 'indecent' inmates in the concentration camps.

The most complex psychological reactions are those that occur after being released from the concentration camps. First, the prisoner cannot understand what it means to be free, and cannot feel pleasure. The body breaks out of this limbo first, engaging in voracious eating, fevered sexual congress, and long bouts of sleep. The mind soon follows.

In the second stage of re-assimilation, as the pressure of constant obedience and fear of death is removed, the mind can be unbalanced, much like a deep-sea diver returning too quickly to the surface suffers the bends. Some people may become obsessed with visiting the same brutality on their former captors that they had inflicted upon them.

Finally, upon returning home, bitterness and disillusionment were the final stages of adaptation: bitterness at the outside world's lack of response to their plight, and disillusionment upon the realization that the vision of freedom and glory that sustained them throughout their years in the camp was a false one; the world outside is still the same world that held them before.

The most profound positive impact, Frankl states, is his deep understanding that he had literally nothing to fear from this world any longer.

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