Encouragement was now more necessary than ever. —Viktor Frankl
In the tail-end of the summer of 2020, in Portland, Oregon, when the fumes from forest fires crept in like ghosts of old-growth trees, and we couldn't breathe without imagining carbon particles poisoning our lungs, and groceries stores closed unexpectedly when cashiers became sick from fumes, when we hoped for rain and a vaccine and a different President, I decided to re-read Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. A Viennese psychiatrist interested in the psychology of suffering, his focus is was not so much with how we heal but with creative strategies of endurance under oppressive circumstances.
I asked some colleagues, fellow psychotherapists in Oregon, to join me.
To recall anything related to the Holocaust during a global catastrophe of a troubling but much less horrific scale is to venture onto hazardous ground. It risks a perception of comparison. That same summer, right-wing politicians, out of historical ignorance, made such comparisons, and it was inaccurate, troubling, and offensive. That is not my intention here. Early on in his narrative, Frankl articulates he isn't a historian of the era, since others were doing that work, but someone interested in how human beings can preserve some inner psychological freedom even under threatening outward circumstances—not so much with how we heal but with how we endure. From the unique and extreme experience of the concentration camp survivor, he wanted to distill knowledge that in the future would lead others to make meaning from hardships.
It is the wisdom of his survival that draws me.
Written in nine days after his liberation, Frankl's story has broad appeal to everyone—over 16 million copies have sold—but it had urgent relevance for folks like us, psychotherapists practicing during an uncertain phase of the pandemic, with the economic, racial, and political upheavals accompanying it. Frankl endures a collective trauma identical to the humans he is observing. He has no distance from their pain to help them make sense of it. (For most of his ordeal he doesn't tell anyone he is a psychiatrist.)
One of the challenges of doing psychotherapy during the pandemic was how often we found our clients describing our own suffering with visceral precision. The stranglehold of confusion and uncertainty they described, session after session, was our own predicament. A New Yorker cartoon shows it: the psychotherapist and client lie side-by-side on a sofa, staring into space.
In the book group, most of us weren't just supporting clients but also families, especially children, overwhelmed by lockdown's constraints. One therapist had parents living with her after their home burned down in forest fires. Others' parents were sick or recently dead. Another battled the enduring effects of long COVID. We had family members who lost jobs. A psychologist said she was considering leaving the field, utterly spent. At work clients were spiraling downwards with worry and despair; addiction, domestic conflict, and violence burgeoned. The pixelated, two-dimensionality of their faces, sometimes frozen, words blinkering, robbed us of a better sense of what they were saying and feeling and needing.
I confessed to my fellow travelers I had never experienced such bone-weariness. They understood.
Most of Frankl's survival strategies involve an imaginative transcendence by force of intellect and will: using heart and mind to rise above the misery of the here and now. In one famous passage, when the guards' cruelty is extreme and the conditions are brutally cold, he has an image of his wife, from whom he is separated. Not knowing if she's alive, in his mind he sees her—"I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look"—as real to him as the cold and mud and meanness around him. "I understood 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."
The keenness of his memory, the way nostalgia moves in our bodies, resonated. A few months earlier, I was at the grocery story, before the end of "senior hour," reserved for people over 65 to get their shopping done. Some workers controlled the flow of people, others disinfected carts. I wanted to tell them how much I appreciated their efforts when I caught sight of an ancient, hunched-over woman who reminded me of my grandmother, dead now, who throughout my childhood told me stories of surviving the Great Depression, who would have risen to the challenge of the pandemic even as it unnerved her, and I couldn't get the words out because I had a lump in my throat. The emotion connected me to her: her strength of will mingled with her vulnerability and fears. Over the next months the image of her returned. I saw her—at 75, at 80—with her cream-colored sweater and her cane and then her walker, as she volunteered at the Red Cross Blood Mobile, determined to be of service.
Even when we are alone, Frankl reminds us, we are accompanied.
Another avenue of mental expansion he offers involves noticing natural beauty. "The mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset" (glimpsed from a transport to the camp) or "The whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red..." Nature consoles him, briefly, but it also concentrates awareness on the richness of a moment, freed from dread about the future. During the pandemic, my children and I walked in nearby forests, those untouched by fires—the iconic feature of our city. Even on overcast days when the sun was obscured by distant smoke, there was quiet beauty, the smell of mud and grass, letting us forget, momentarily, our longings for friends and family.
Another maneuver involves contemplating the future. During a day when Frankl has intense pain from sores on his feet (his shoes are torn), he fixes on the dream of the book he will write reaching millions. "Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room," he tells us. "In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp. All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science..." A Google search reveals Frankl's view of the future was accurate. YouTube videos show him teaching students charmed by his buoyant energy and humor, his irrepressible vitality and optimism.
Toward the end of the book group, I offered to read another passage to my colleagues, staring at me through Zoom squares, books in their hands. In the camps Frankl does not want anyone to know he is a psychiatrist. When it is discovered, on a day when morale is low, he is asked to deliver a talk. "God knows, I was not in the mood to give psychological explanations or to preach any sermons," he writes. "I was cold and hungry, irritable and tired..." He looks out at the haggard faces of the discouraged troops he needs to rally:
"...[B]ut I had to make the effort to use this unique opportunity," he asserts, mustering inner strength. "Encouragement was now more necessary than ever." Looking at the prisoners staring back at him, he tells them about hope and resilience, how they are rooted in hard experiences, that suffering and sacrifice are parts of life that magnify a sense of purpose.
They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning. I said that someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours—a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God—and he would not expect us to disappoint him...
With a jolt at that moment in 2020 I realized it: Viktor Frankl is looking down on each of us now, too. We're part of the audience he imagined long ago, another tribe of tired souls needing encouragement to keep plodding. The urgency of the early pandemic gave us an intimacy with his voice, long gone, as if he were a friend offering consolation. He is telling us how to be, speaking lessons of endurance, as real as if still alive.
Awful and unending as the pandemic was, we knew Frankl was speaking to us from another moment in time, one whose tragedy is unsurpassed, a humbling perspective-giving.
When I looked up from the book, I saw the faces of my fellow psychotherapists—really, they were friends now—smiling from the two-dimensional frames of their offices, grateful for his voice, his belief in human resilience under the worst circumstances, his reminding us that in the warm space of the heart's imagination we were so much bigger, and less alone, than we knew.