The Desire Hidden in Despair

“We are stronger than we think. We have emotional, spiritual and even physical resources at our disposal. We may get knocked down, but we don’t have to stay down.” Steve Goodier’s famous statement may sound like a line straight out of a self-help book. But is this statement merely another self-help truism attempted to motivate someone in times of desperation? Or is there a more powerful truth to it? So powerful in fact, that it can help save and even shape your entire life.

And if this is such a powerful truth, why do we still see individuals driven by desperation to make poor choices, like robbing, cheating, or worse? And why do we see individuals constantly admit that they are trapped in jobs or roles that they don’t find fulfilling or meaningful? A deeper understanding of this matter can be gained from a book published over 70 years ago.

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl, which has sold over 12 million copies across the world, remains one of the best Mans search for meaning - Coverbooks that I’ve come across. At the same time, it is one of the very few books that has what it takes to change your perception about everything around you, and everything about yourself. It helps you understand what drives your actions. It can help you realise why two individuals from the same background and with the same resources can lead two completely contrasting lives. And why someone who lacks resources can build something that the world marvels at, while others with abundant resources at their disposal cannot. Although the specifics of the actions in each case are different, they are all guided by the same underlying psychological principle: Reason. A reason that lies at the heart of every action, however small or big.

Anyone with even a basic knowledge of world history would know that the Second World War was an agonisingly painful time for a large part of the world. The Jews especially, were at the receiving end of what was to be the defining act of Nazi cruelty and perversity during the war. It’s not enough to say that this Jewish population had their goods, their homes and everything that held any value taken from them. They in fact, had their entire existence ripped from them. Women, children, and anyone deemed ‘unfit to serve’ were immediately killed. Those who weren’t killed were shipped to various concentration camps across Europe, of which Auschwitz was one of the most horrifying. So harrowing was the Nazi treatment of the Jews, it warranted a whole new term to describe it, The Holocaust, a word that even today evokes large degrees of horror across the world.

Among this group of prisoners was Viktor E. Frankl, a neurologiViktor_Franklst and psychiatrist from Vienna, Austria, before he was deported to the Nazi Theresienstadt ghetto in 1942. Here he worked as a general practitioner and was later assigned to the psychiatric ward. Eventually, in 1944, Frankl was moved to Auschwitz and processed to Kaufering in Dachau, where he worked as a slave labourer. Man’s Search for Meaning is Frankl’s own record of his days in a concentration camp, his experiences with fellow prisoners and the ordeals he faced with them in a prison where life seemed to have absolutely no meaning. It’s ironic that the foundation for this powerful book was built during his time as a prisoner in one of the most inhumane prisons in the world. A time when he was separated from his wife and had all his research prior to imprisonment taken from him. These were the conditions that gave birth to powerful philosophy, today known as ‘Logotherapy’.

‘Logotherapy’ (coined from the Greek word ‘logos’, meaning reason) explains how the biggest motivation to what you do in your life, comes from an inner search for the meaning of your life. It’s a guide that helps you understand the reason at the root of every action, big or small, professional or personal. It leads you to ask yourself one question, ‘What is the meaning of my life?’ And as you go deeper, you realise how every act of yours is driven by one fundamental question, ‘Why?’.

Divided into two halves, Frankl’s book first takes us through his days of imprisonment and the horrors he faced every day. Horrors that were not limited to physical torture and abuse by the prison guards, but also the kapo – a prisoner in the concentration camp assigned by the SS guards to supervise forced labour – who would torture his fellow prisoners for his personal gain. It gives you a glimpse of just how gruesome it was to be a prisoner in a concentration camp. And through all his experiences, he explains why and how he and many of his fellow prisoners survived even the most traumatic days in this camp, where many others gave up. Over a period of time, his observations from a psychological point of view allowed him to gain certain insights into the mental states of others around him, and how it affected the behavioural patterns of these individuals. For instance, why would someone intentionally disobey or instigate a ruthless prison guard, fully aware of its severe consequences. Or why would someone willingly give up his priceless cigarettes to a fellow prisoner. Frankl says how these, among other actions that didn’t make any sense to most people, were signs of an individual who had given up on life under the brutal conditions of the camp. In other words, they no longer saw any meaning in their lives, and therefore lost their will to live.

Survival in the harsh conditions of a concentration camp was not merely about physical strength. Rather, it was about an individual’s inner mental strength. Frankl’s observations led him to believe that a large part of the survivors, were able to survive the burdens of a concentration camp, not because of their physicality, but because they believed they had something to look forward to. There was an inner belief that the brutality they faced everyday would one day stop, and it was this belief that gave them a reason to fight for their survival. For some, it was the hope of reuniting with their families after the war, for some it was about starting new lives, while for some others it was just the idea of witnessing a free world once again that is not at war. For Frankl, personally, it was the idea of meeting his wife, and professionally, the possibility of taking forward his theory.

Perhaps, this was the root of his theory and ‘Logotherapy’. His intention to observe, understand, list and categorise how his suffering served to insulate him from the cruelties he faced every day. As a psychiatrist, he was trained to understand the human mind and the human psychology, and it’s possible that the desire to understand and record his experiences and his theory is what served as his salvation. It’s even possible that before observing the other prisoners, Frankl observed a meaningful reason to survive within himself, which he later observed among others. And this led him to the conclusion that even in the most difficult times, an individual’s life can still have meaning, that even suffering can be meaningful.

Whether a prisoner gave in under the conditions of a concentration camp, or whether he decided to soldier on, their actions were driven by a reason. An answer to ‘Why?’. But what’s equally important is ‘How?’. How was one individual able to endure and survive the same conditions that drove another individual to his death? And this is when you realize why someone who knows he has a reason to live, can co go to any lengths, can face any difficulties and can endure any pain to ensure his survival. Or as Frankl puts it, ‘He who has a Why to live for, can bear almost any How.’

In the second part of the book, Frankl introduces us to Logotherapy, and explains how he deployed Logotherapy or ‘psychological healing’ for years after his liberation to help individuals. Individuals who no longer believed there was any reason for them to carry on with their lives, and even some concentration camp survivors who found themselves in a state of what Frankl described as an ‘existential vacuum’ – where survivors psychologically found themselves in a state of meaninglessness or emptiness. He goes on to explain that finding something meaningful in your life is not restricted to just doing something that has a large social significance. You search for meaning can be answered by even the simplest of deeds, like teaching a student Algebra for a few days, knowing that it can help him better prepare for school, and can eventually help open a range of career possibilities for him. Isn’t this why we see a lot of individuals give up lucrative careers in their industries and take up teaching?

This book, at some point will lead you to ask yourself a key question. ‘What is the meaning of my life?’ or ‘What am I meant to do with my life?’ And even though the answers to these questions vary for every individual, you must know that the answers lie within us. At some level, we even know the answer to this question, without realising that we know it.

But can we use logotherapy to answer some of the questions we ask ourselves on a comparatively smaller level every day? Are we just cogs in a large machine doing the same thing every day, without reason or ambition? Or is there a greater reason behind even our smallest actions? A reason that can potentially give a greater meaning to what we do. Can logotherapy help us understand these reasons behind our routine actions that we may not even think too much about? For example; in my own professional life, it’s of great comfort knowing I know the answers to a question like ‘Why do I work in advertising? Especially after spending four years studying Pharmacy.’ Is it just for the money? Not entirely. It’s the joy of looking at a piece I worked on, in a newspaper or a magazine, and realising, “This was more than worth the pain.” It’s about all the tiresome nights spent in the office, the efforts put in to perfect a brief, watching your creative team take this brief one step forward and execute it to perfection, and knowing that the output will be something worth all the effort. Advertising has also been a place where I found the freedom to express myself in ways that I never could, and a place I have the chance to learn about different industries, different cultures and different brands, every day. To quote another example, this from my personal life, I once asked myself, ‘How do I find it difficult to reach school at 10 am, but can easily reach a playground at 6 am on a Sunday to play 90 minutes of football?’ The answer to that may be a little more complex. Football is a sport that I fell in love with over 16 years ago, over one match, where Manchester United overturned a 3-0 deficit at half time, to score 5 goals in the second half and win the match. It was the belief and the resolve of a team to not give up even while staring at defeat that somehow got to me. And on knowing more about Manchester United, it was evident that this was a club that had made it a habit of ‘not giving up’ even in the face of the worst tragedies. And this is a habit that I would like to inculcate in myself. This was what made me fall in love with the club and the sport. Playing 90 minutes of football is part of that same love for the sport. As opposed to what many believe, these are not 90 minutes that result in physical exhaustion, rather they are 90 minutes of mental relief. It is something that I may never be able to fully explain to everyone, but at the same time, it’s a passion that I would never have to explain to someone who shares it.

It’s not uncommon to realise that the answer to the big question (What is the meaning of my life?) is often linked to the smaller every day questions. For example, why does a doctor or a pharmacist running a pharmacy work over 15 hours a day? Is it just about survival? Is about earning more money? Or is it about ensuring the good health of someone who trusts you? For many doctors and pharmacists, ensuring good health is the answer to their big question, and possibly even their smaller questions. Logotherapy is about finding your own meaning for everything you do, finding out what inspires you to do what you do, and realising what you have to look forward to. And more importantly, knowing that there is a meaning to each and every individual’s life, even if they don’t know it yet.

Published 7 decades ago, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is more than just a story of one man’s struggle, fight and survival in a Nazi concentration camp. It is a fascinating look into life in a concentration camp, and its psychological impact, from the eyes of a trained psychiatrist. More importantly, it tells us, based on first-hand experience, how endurance and the ability to look beyond a difficult phase of your life can potentially hold great meaning for your future. It tells us how times of desperation can allow us a greater sense of appreciation of the good times that follow. It tells us why it takes conflict to truly understand the value of peace and harmony. It tells us how a prolonged injury to an athlete can lead to a greater sense of gratitude towards the sport. It tells us how joblessness can build a greater sense of appreciation of our jobs. And it tells us how these difficult times can in fact reveal great meaning and purpose in our lives.

That leads you to another interesting question. Is ‘meaning’ always an outcome of ‘suffering’? Do things always have to be worse before they are better? Perhaps not. It’s quite possible, even common to find the reason to do what you do, without having to endure too many difficulties. But many who have been through a rather difficult phase may at some point accept that it was this phase that led them into a better direction. Eventually, you realise that ‘not giving up’ in a difficult environment itself stems from an underlying reason and a desire to move forward.

Millions of people who have read this book will undoubtedly use different terms to describe their admiration for this book, each one accurate in its own sense. But the one that I personally prefer is ‘inspiring’. In fact, this is one book that I would recommend you read repeatedly, to not just understand, but to truly appreciate and extract its value.

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