As a child of Holocaust survivors, I was aware from an early age that the world could be a place of senseless evil. My first word was “why?,” which eventually expanded to “Why are victims of horrific acts suffering?”
My mother, Bernice (Bronka) Amatenstein, fed me stories of being imprisoned at age 14 in Langenbielau, a German concentration camp, and four years later returning to Dąbrowa Górnicza, Poland, to discover that her mother and two sisters had been gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The same fate awaited my paternal grandparents and the curly-haired child who never became my aunt after the three were “greeted” at the arrival platform at Birkenau’s railroad station with an immediate death sentence from Josef Mengele.
I was 23 and newly escaped from an abusive marriage when I first picked up Man’s Search for Meaning. Originally published in German in 1946, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s memoir/spiritual survival guide was hailed by a 1991 Library of Congress survey as among the most influential books in America. I believe if Frankl were alive today, he would substitute the word “humanity" for “man’s.”
The first 90 pages or so feature Frankl’s account of his experiences as “ordinary prisoner” number 119,104. The book’s second half features the Austrian psychiatrist’s description of logotherapy — the school of therapy he created based on the belief that through a search for purpose and meaning in life, individuals can endure hardship and suffering.
On my first reading, phrases like “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” helped me stop blaming myself for failing to protect my financial interests in the divorce.
This led to my ex’s creditors driving 24-year-old me into bankruptcy court. Inspired by Frankl, I began viewing this naive error as a priceless opportunity to create a life that was mine alone to shape. My motto became: “A mistake that can’t be undone is a learning opportunity.”
As I navigate life’s increasingly complex passages — the unraveling of old friendships, my quitting a secure editorial job to enroll in social work school, my parents’ physical and mental decline, my breast cancer diagnosis at the dawn of the pandemic, the terrifying uptick in racial and religious prejudice — Frankl’s masterpiece remains my guide and succor.
My thoughts can either cage me or set me free
In May 1992, a car rolled over my left ankle as I stepped off the sidewalk, resulting in three surgeries, two years of physical therapy and permanent arthritis. While running a marathon had never been a goal, after the accident, even a few minutes of my beloved step aerobics class led to shooting pains. Angry thoughts ricocheted around my brain, feeding my sense of helplessness: I didn’t deserve this; nothing good ever happens to my family. …
In a sane moment I began thumbing through Man’s Search for Meaning, knowing that whatever page I landed on would be the right one. And there it was: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl survived having everything stripped from him — including the hair on his body — by focusing on the one thing the Nazis couldn’t touch: “It becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what becomes of him — mentally and spiritually.”
Once I stopped railing against what my ankle no longer allowed me to do and focused on what was still doable — like walking! — my limitations did not feel limiting.
It’s a waste of love to stoke a petty grudge
On one of the rare nights I’d cooked dinner, my partner waited until he was already 45 minutes late to inform me of the “work emergency” that had delayed his departure. I was prepared to unleash my discontent on him the moment Paul walked in. But when I finally heard his key fumbling with the lock, I took a breath and thought, In the tapestry of our life together, how important is this minor missed stitch?
As it often does when in need of a perspective overhaul, my mind wandered to Frankl. What kept him alive in the most brutal moments of captivity were thoughts of his beloved.
He wrote: “Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying.”
When Paul walked in, I kissed him hello and said, “Dinner may not be four-star, or even three-star, but it’s from the heart.”
My age is a badge of honor, not shame
In my 60s, I often reflect on this Frankl quote: “There is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them.”
Whenever one of my younger psychotherapy patients wails about the inconsolable agony of a first heartbreak or the certainty that no one has ever been dealt such a wound, I feel grateful for the adversities I’ve endured. Pain that once felt impossible to rebound from ultimately led to a storehouse of wisdom and strength to draw upon.
Though each of us has to construct our own storehouse, Frankl offers essential building blocks with words like these: “People tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past in which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.”
With Frankl’s help, I continue to hack my way through the weeds to bask in a bounteous harvest. The reason why awful things happen to innocents continues to elude me. But rather than obsess about the injustice, I contemplate what Frankl called a “tragic optimism”: one that “presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.”
Has anyone read a book like the above that gave meaning to their own life? Let us know in the comments below.