Yes to Life in Spite of Everything – Viktor E. Frankl

Viktor Frankl, like anyone who endured the atrocities of the Holocaust, is someone I don’t have the vocabulary to describe. I’m in awe of the resilience and oftentimes almost unfathomable positivity of anyone who has lived through experiences I can’t even imagine.

What’s even more extraordinary is that the lectures Frankl gave, which are the basis of this book, were presented only nine months after his liberation from his final concentration camp.

With an introduction by Daniel Goleman and afterward by Franz Vesely, Viktor’s son-in-law, this book comprises three of Frankl’s lectures:

  • On the Meaning and Value of Life
  • On the Meaning and Value of Life II
  • Experimentum Crucis.

These lectures focus on suicide, forced annihilation and concentration camps respectively. With such difficult content I had expected this read to be quite depressing, but there’s hope running through even the darkest of themes. Given the author’s belief that we can find meaning regardless of our circumstances, this hope felt particularly appropriate.

This meaning, Frankl asserts, can come through “our actions, through loving, and through suffering.” Meaning doesn’t only come from work. Illness, physical or mental, doesn’t necessarily equal loss of meaning. Suffering can be either meaningful or meaningless.

Some of the early text read the way some university philosophy lectures I’ve attended felt, where I was anxious for the lecturer to get to the point, but these sections were the groundwork for what was to come. Frankl gives examples of patients he treated and people he encountered in concentration camps, and these provided the answers to ‘how does this theory apply to real life?’, which is something I always seek.

The third lecture was the one that I found most insightful. Building on the two previous lectures, Frankl discusses his thoughts on the “psychological reactions of the camp prisoners to life in the camp.” Learning how this lecture specifically related to his own ability to find meaning was inspirational.

It can be tempting, when someone talks about the importance of your attitude or finding meaning in suffering, to get into ‘yeah, but’. Yeah, but how would they feel if they were in my situation? Yeah, but what qualifies them to speak to me about suffering? It’s hard to ‘yeah, but’ when the person you’re hearing it from is Viktor Frankl.

While Frankl specifically says that no one’s suffering can be compared to anyone else’s I still find it difficult to think of any of my experiences, not matter how painful they are for me, to be comparable to those who have been subjected to concentration camps. After reading this book part of me wants to admonish myself for having a whinge about any problem I face. However, the overwhelming takeaway for me is if people like Viktor experienced what they did and still managed to find hope and meaning, then it is always possible for me, no matter what comes my way, to change my perspective.

To say yes to life is not only meaningful under all circumstances – because life itself is – but it is also possible under all circumstances.

Content warnings include death by suicide, descriptions of concentration camp experiences, euthanasia, mental illness and suicidal ideation.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Rider, an imprint of Ebury Press, Penguin Random House UK, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Just months after his liberation from Auschwitz renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl delivered a series of talks revealing the foundations of his life-affirming philosophy for which he would become world famous.

Despite the unspeakable horrors in the camp, Frankl learnt from his fellow inmates that it is always possible to say ‘yes to life’. This profound and timeless lesson is amongst many in this remarkable collection now publishing in English for the very first time.

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