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Man's Search for Meaning

by Viktor Emil Frankl

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Student Question

Which quotes from Man's Search for Meaning relate to listening theory?

Quick answer:

Viktor Frankl's study of Holocaust survival in Man's Search for Meaning contains many quotes about how survivors go through a pattern, or stages, of reactions to their experience. These can be related to theories of listening as multiple forms of communication through which the survivor must reconnect with the outside world, as Frankl did after liberation from the concentration camp, and then communicate his personal trauma to others.

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All Holocaust and genocide memoirs have in common the attempt by the survivor to convey an experience that the majority of readers have not gone through and therefore can barely imagine. Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning has the advantage of having been written by a psychologist, and much of the book is an analysis of a victim's reactions rather than a mere retelling of events that speak for themselves. All writers who have had this experience, of course, do analyze it to an extent, and in ways similar to Frankl, but perhaps not as systematically as Frankl does.

Listening theory attempts to understand how human beings communicate with each other in various ways and also enhance that communication not through verbal means alone, but also through other signals and gestures people can convey. The goal is to find meaning in the experiences of other people as they are related or conveyed to you. This connects, as I understand it, with Viktor Frankl's concept logotherapy, which literally means "word healing" but includes the idea contained in the title of his book: that humanity is motivated by the attempt to find a meaning in life. Early on, Frankl states that his book

does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences....This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough....but with the multitude of small torments.

He deals with the question of

how was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?

Frankl's main effort is therefore to show how the experience affected the individual and to draw general conclusions about the psychological reactions of the victims. Of special importance is his division of those reactions into three phases. The first is shock; the second, a kind of numbness; and the third, upon liberation, a kind of depersonalization and bitterness. (This last is best illustrated by Frankl's fellow survivor Elie Wiesel, who described a "corpse" looking back at him when he saw himself in the mirror.)

I have oversimplified the phases as Frankl describes them, but from his descriptions of these mental reactions, one can draw on his material as illustrations of the listening process which we, as readers, engage in when we attempt to come to grips with Frankl's analysis. For instance, look at Frankl's account of the "selection" process, where the SS man communicates the whole question of life or death by pointing a finger.

Yet the immediate meaning is that the finger pointing to the right meant work for the prisoner, while to the left meant the prisoner was judged sick or incapable of work. Within the context of listening theory, one can examine these meanings, how they are communicated, how Frankl and the other prisoners react to them, and finally, how we as readers react to and digest the information he gives us. It is only the tip of the iceberg in a complex process described throughout the book on many levels, but it is a starting point.

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