What Victor Frankl can teach us in a time of COVID
A recent column in the Financial Times highlighted that books that have not been newly published are making up an increasing percentage of the market share of book sales. The onslaught of lists containing ‘the best books of 2020’ was underway from the start of the month. But new isn’t always better.
Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946, has sold millions of copies. It can be read on many levels. It is a compelling insider’s account of the of the hellish if frequently mundane existence in a concentration camp. But it could be classed as modern-day self-help text and a commentary on wellbeing. The self-help genre has its sceptics, understandably. Within it, many cliché merchants offer snake oil solutions to life’s problems. The notion and application of wellbeing can often provoke derision. Organisations look to support with wellbeing, but the attempt often backfires, either because it’s done superficially, or because it’s cynical: practices remain in place that damage wellbeing but dare not be touched.
Yet the popularity of self-help or wellbeing books, happiness and hope books, or whatever label is chosen, persist. In the hallowed Sunday Times best sellers lists, they are always there. Readers are curious to better understand this complex experience that is life. As the philosopher Ronald Dworkin highlighted, making a life is a performance that demands a skill “and is the most important and comprehensive challenge we face”.
Frankl takes an existentialist approach to human existence. To live is to suffer and to survive is to find a self-defined purpose in suffering. He approvingly quotes Nietzsche: “he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”. Frankl had to bear the ultimate how. All his family members, including the wife he had recently married, were killed during the Holocaust. Frankl put his chances of survival in a concentration camp at one in twenty-eight. Despite this, he was able to nurture a mental attitude to life in camps that played no small part in ensuring his survival. As Frankl put it, “everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This resilient attitude has relevance in a time of COVID, where the barrage of negative news or new restrictions can overwhelm. Our freedoms have been restricted, there is lack of certainty about the future and we have been kept apart from our loved ones. None of this is easy to bear. Some have even lost loved ones. But, ultimately, Frankl would argue we can still determine our attitude to these plights. Despite the context, there is much we do still have control over, new things to seize, new growth that can take place.
Frankl even has a fairly decent punt at the meaning of life. The meaning of life is not a general question but the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. Rather than getting overwhelmed trying to work out the meaning of life, undertake activities and actions on a day-by-day basis that when doing them or in the aftermath, give a sense of purpose. Our activities and thoughts in the moment carve out meaning rather than vainly searching for a eureka moment of understanding.
Other parts of Frankl’s wisdom seem particularly pertinent too. “Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness” Frankl writes, “unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.” COVID has given a sharp reminder that many of us have taken what we have had for granted. Free movement, unhindered interactions with friends and family, the opportunity to make new plans. How appealing the prospect now seems to not have our lives unburdened by an existential threat. COVID was a sharp, humbling reminder that just like our ancestors, we are vulnerable to the whims of mother nature. Numerous challenges we face in the world, such as climate change, require the individual to take on a responsibility, rather than bathe in a type of freedom that takes what we have had for granted.
Frankl’s experiences and reflections on them offer a springboard for Frankl to offer a generosity to humanity where humanity gave Frankl so little in return. Frankl’s experiences offer the ultimate proof that we can determine our attitude no matter the environment we’re in. And for many a citizen who feels contemporary culture and media leaves them in a void, the individual can find meaning. It’s up to them and it’s possible. If Frankl could, we can.