by Jim Denney
In 1969, I sat in a university lecture hall and listened as Dr. Viktor Frankl — psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor — talked about living a life of meaning in a world that makes no sense. Hearing him describe how he survived the horrors of the Nazi death camps transformed my view of life.
Before the outbreak of World War II, Dr. Frankl was a psychiatrist in Austria’s largest state hospital. He treated patients who had either attempted suicide or were at risk for taking their own lives. As he interviewed severely depressed people, he discovered that the one factor that seemed to prevent suicide and heal depression was a sense of purpose.
If people had a reason for living, they could endure even the most painful circumstances. But for those without a reason to live, suicide became in inviting option. From those observations, Frankl developed an approach he called logotherapy, or meaning-centered therapy.
Dr. Frankl had nearly finished writing a book on logotherapy when he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Transported by rail in a crowded, stinking cattle car, Frankl kept his precious manuscript hidden in his coat. Upon his arrival at the prison camp, he showed the manuscript to a capo — a prisoner who collaborated with the Nazis and helped guard the new prisoners. Frankl told the capo, “I must preserve this book at all costs.” The capo replied with an obscenity, then snatched the book from him and tossed it on the ground.
That book was Frankl’s life’s work, his reason for living. But at that moment, he realized that everything, including his book, would be stripped from him. How would he survive the grinding horror of the death camp? He’d have to find another reason to live.
He was eventually transferred from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, and then to Dachau. He saw the human smoke rising from the chimneys of the camps. He lost his wife, father, mother, and brother in those camps. Many times, he came close to death — yet he managed to remain alive until the camps were liberated by the Allies. What kept him alive?
In that hushed lecture hall, my fellow students and I listened as Dr. Frankl explained, “I lived because I had a reason to live.”
He committed himself to re-writing the manuscript the capo had destroyed. Every day, he thought about his book. While digging trenches or caring for dying prisoners, he thought about his book. He’d find pencil stubs and scraps of paper, and use them to jot down notes that he hid from the Nazis. His determination to re-write his book even pulled him through a near-fatal bout of typhoid.
Dr. Frankl told us that those who survived the camps were the ones who held onto a reason for living. He quoted Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
After he and his fellow prisoners were liberated by the Allies, he re-wrote his book from scratch — and it was a much more powerful and compelling book because he poured into it all that he had suffered and learned in the death camps. He had the notes he had saved on scraps of paper, and he began writing the moment the Allied soldiers gave him pen and paper.
Dr. Frankl wrote his new manuscript quickly, and the book was published in 1946, the year after the war ended. He called it Man’s Search for Meaning, and the book has remained in print continuously since its first printing. The dream of writing that book saved Viktor Frankl’s life.
Standing before us in that lecture hall, Dr. Frankl told us that, while digging trenches in the bitter cold, he would visualize himself standing in a warm and brightly lit lecture hall, teaching the principles of logotherapy to young students. I felt a tingle down my spine as he said that, because I was one of the students in that brightly lit lecture hall. I took part in the fulfillment of the vision that kept him alive during his worst days in the death camps.
What is your vision, your calling, your purpose for living?
You and I have the highest calling and grandest purpose in the universe. We serve the Creator. We know His Son. We share the Good News wherever we go. Whatever you are going through, whatever you are struggling with, whatever you are enduring right now, remember your purpose.
You have a Why to live for, and His name is Jesus. Keep your focus on Him and on the purpose for which He has called you.
And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.