While meaning can be found through love and work, Frankl focuses most strongly on how to find meaning through suffering. He describes in detail the many injustices he and his fellow inmates were made to endure in the Nazi concentration camps: from walking miles through the snow with bare feet, to being made to ride in train carts surrounded by their own excrement. Most men gave up in the face of this suffering, but those who were able to make their suffering seem meaningful were often able to endure their pain more successfully. For example, Frankl’s friends who did their best to stay alive in the hopes of seeing their loved ones again or who thought of their suffering as a test of faith lived longer than those who lost their ability to see the meaning in life.
While Frankl acknowledges that most people reading his book will never experience anything like the suffering found in concentration camps, he says that suffering is still universal. In fact, it is man’s ability to rise above his suffering that makes him human. But to Frankl, pain is like a gas: even a small amount of gas will expand to fill any room, no matter how large, just as any amount of pain and suffering—no matter the magnitude—“completely fills the human soul.” As a result, the experiences of a concentration camp survivor are not so different from that of a person with a more normal life, at least in that both will have to come to terms with suffering at some point. This suffering can be incredibly meaningful, but Frankl is careful to point out that suffering should not be sought out on purpose, as meaning can also be found through love and work. When one must suffer, however, the best way to survive is by holding on to hope and trying to make oneself worthy of one’s very experience of suffering.
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Suffering and Hope Quotes in Man’s Search for Meaning
At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.
Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understand how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.
I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.
To draw an analogy, a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.
But there is also a purpose in life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces.
If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.
Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.
At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world—I had but one sentence in mind—always the same: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.”
How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.
The crowning experience for all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear anymore—except his God.
For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.
It is one of the basic tenants of logotherapy that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers at Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.