Viktor E. Frankl On Human Suffering In Concentration Camps: Man’s Search For Meaning

Earlier this year I picked up this book I have had for about a year now. The title, Man’s Search For Meaning, written by Viktor E Frankl. I had no idea about what is in this book.

I was having a low time in my life and maybe thought that this book might give me some motivation or a nudge towards the right direction. 2020 has been a weird year for me. I was looking for some guidance somewhere, anywhere I could find it.

To my surprise the book was about what real suffering is, and it put everything in it’s rightful place for me. This small book changed who I am.

Let’s get to what Frankl had to say about concentration camps and finding meaning in one’s life.

Frankl saw three possible source for meaning: in work(doing something significant), in love(caring for another person, as Frankl held on to the image of his wife through the darkest days in Auschwitz), and in courage in difficult times.

This sentence alone helped figure out quite a bit about life, career choices and choices in general. Work is what takes the most amount of time in our lives.

And through our work we are able to recognize ourselves, figure out who we really are. So being able to choose what we work upon, how we work upon those things is definitely a big plus.

Love is something that motivates and pushes us. I would say that it is also what is responsible for the courage in difficult times.

People who matter to us the most can push us through hard times even if they are not with us.

Like a drowning man clutching saw a straw, my inborn optimism(which has often controlled my feelings even in the most desperate situations) clung to his thought: These prisoners look quite well, they seem to be in good spirits and even laugh. Who knows? I might manage to share their favorable position.

So, Frankl talks about his optimism right as he is about the enter the camp for the first time. Even though in his heart he know what happens to people at these camps, there is a spark of optimism inside him. And sometimes this spark of optimism is what can keep us going through everything that is troubling us.

This inborn optimism as Frankl points out is what can be that one straw, the only straw you need to save yourself from drowning.

In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as “delusion of reprieve”. The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.

We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.

There might be a delusion of reprieve thing going on in our minds, but at least it helps us go through the really bad stuff sometimes.

Fifteen hundred captives were cooped up in a shed built to accommodate probably two hundred at the most. We were cold and hungry and there was not enough room for everyone to squat on the bare ground, let alone to lie down. Once five-ounce piece of bread was our only food in four days.

The conditions that these guys had to live in, just reading those made me a better human being. We sometimes forget to appreciate the small things, the tiny pieces of goodness around us. This put it all into perspective for me.

So, this is when the lockdown had started around April 2020, I was feeling weird that I cannot order a pizza, or get a McDonalds burger.

Upon reading that these guys had a loaf of bread as food for 4 days and they had to do tons of manual labor just put me in a space where a pizza would have been nice but I will not allow “no pizza” to ruin my mood or how I am feeling about life.

My family was safe and healthy, my wife, and me were safe and healthy and that is all that was important.

Suffering is relative. We believe we have it worse off than someone else until we get to really hear what they are going through. And sometimes our suffering just becomes irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

Once again just getting to know someone else’s story is enough to make us feel the importance of everything we have instead of crying over spilt milk.

The significance of the finger game was explained to us in the evening. It was the first selection, the first verdict made on our existence or non-existence. For the great majority of our transport, about 90%, it meant death.

Their sentence was carried out within the next few hours.

Those who were sent to the left were marched from the station straight to the crematorium.

“Was he sent to the left side?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Then you can see him there,” I was told.


A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.

“That’s where your friend is, floating up to the Heaven,” was the answer.

Notice the bodies piled up in the truck….

This one was a heavy one.

I have thought about this sentence and tried to think about how they might have felt about the fact that a simple finger pointing to left or right can be the difference in them living or being burnt alive.

No matter how hard I try I cannot un hear or un imagine what went through my mind when I first read this paragraph.

I am making sure to include it here just so that we know that sometimes finding meaning means just being happy at the smallest of wins and not let the biggest of losses weigh us down.

Sometimes the other men invented amusing dreams about the future, such as forecasting that during a future dinner they might forget themselves when the soup was served and beg the hostess to ladle it “from the bottom”.

Our soul finds a way to live, we learn to let things and events pass as time passes. We realize that the only thing that will stay is how we react towards things that happened in the past.

Human imagination and our abilities to think of an optimistic future is sometimes all that can keep us going through the really bad ones.

The train says Hitler is finished.

I learnt a very important lesson from this “from the bottom” joke. Sometimes a small chuckle is enough to pull us out of a pattern of self inflicted or even externally inflicted misery.

One literally became a number: dead or alive –  that was unimportant; the life of a “number” was completely irrelevant. What stood behind that number and that life mattered even less: the fate, the history, the name of the man.

For instance, I heard one prisoner talk to another about a Capo, saying, “Imagine!” I knew that man when he was only the president of a large bank. Isn’t it fortunate that he has risen so far in the world?”

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

‘I will throw you into prison.’ ‘Correction – it is my body you will throw there.’ ― Epictetus

No matter what we go through in life. Remember we always will have a control over our minds.

And it is our mind that can get us to come out of the most ridiculous of a pickle.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances , to choose one’s own way.

Be good to yourself, be good to humanity, don’t take everything too seriously, live for the good times and push through the bad times.

Know A Thousand Things: Miyamoto Musashi On Strategy In His “The Book Of Five Rings In 1645”

Book of five rings by Miyamoto Musashi

He knew his end was near, he wanted to share everything he had learnt through countless duels, battles with enemies and with himself throughout his life.

This was around the year 1643. There was a cave in the mountains north of Kumamoto, Japan. It was the perfect spot for this 60 year old man to retire into.

He was getting frail, his hair unkempt as usual. His receding hairline had retired to almost the back of his head.

Although old and frail, his mind was sharp as ever. He had chosen this cave to be the spot to transfer everything he had learnt about life throughout his travels across Japan, lessons he had learnt from his enemies and the battles he had fought. This would be his philosophy on life and martial arts compiled into text.

This text he named Go Rin No Sho.

Miyamoto Musashi is arguably the best swordsman our world has ever seen. He was born in 1584 in Miyamoto village in Japan.

He is known for his Book Of Five Rings where he highlights his philosophy of living a worthy life.

Although he garnered a reputation for not obeying a few rules such as not dressing the Samurai way, keeping his hair unkempt, he also had a reputation for using unusual weapons in duels.

One of his most famous battles was when he defeated a master with just a piece of wood derived from a boat oar, with one blow. He is also claimed to have defeated 60 opponents in 1 on 1 combat.

I believe his unusual choice of weapons, unkempt hair and body were simply means to throw off opponents. He was a master in the art of deception.

He would do exactly the opposite of what his opponents might have expected him to do. He arrived late to the duels when expected to be on time.

Once upon a time, his opponent set a trap with his partners to lure him into a 1 on 1 duel, while arriving with a platoon of people. As Musashi had a reputation of arriving late, they could easily ambush him.

Well, on that day he arrived early, earlier than the opponents and with one fell swoop beheaded their leader. This caught everyone off-guard, where he was able to then win over all those people.

Miyamoto Musashi, followed Bushido. Bushido is the way of the Samurai.

This code was practiced by all Samurais in all of Japan. And the basic premise of this code was honesty.

Honesty does not just mean being honest with other people, it also means being honest with yourself. Being honest about your shortcomings and your strengths in order to build a better you. Musashi in his book of five rings constantly talks about the importance of improving yourself from all fronts and how your death is dishonorable if you haven’t given something all you had.

Miyamoto Musashi promoted people to take up arts such as calligraphy that teach precision, patience and attention to detail as a means of winning in life. He was a master artist along with other things as well.

Art By Miyamoto Musashi

This is a truth: when you sacrifice your life, you must make fullest use of your weaponry. It is false not to do so, and to die with a weapon yet undrawn.

Miyamoto Musashi

Life can be easy at times, and at times it can be hard. We all have our fights, small or big.

We do not want to look back at our lives when we are 75 and say I wish I would have tried that thing I always wanted. Never leave your weapon undrawn.

It will seem difficult at first, but everything is difficult at first.

Miyamoto Musashi

And we must fight our fights. To do that however, we must train ourselves to be stronger, wiser and better human beings. With time and delibrate training things start to become easier and easier as they get ingrained into our minds and bodies.

The letter below depicts one of the stories where Miyamoto’s way of thinking shows us that almost all hurdles in life can be crossed with adequate training of he mind and the body.

Dear Mookung, How are you?

I have been staying at Yagyu’s house. He is a really kind friend, so I am doing very well. However, a month ago, while I was learning swordsmanship from Yagyu, I met another friend, who is named Miyamoto Musashi. Before I met him, Yagyu told me that Miyamoto Musashi was the strongest Samurai in Japan. I asked him, “Is he stronger than you?”

He answered, “I did not compete with him, but I talked with him about swordsmanship many times. At that time, I always thought he was stronger than me.” I was surprised at his answer because Yagyu had very great swordsmanship. I met Miyamoto Musashi at his home.

Yagyu and I went to his home together, and I had an opportunity to learn swordsmanship from him, so many people envied me. Before teaching us swordsmanship, he showed us his swordsmanship. He said this style of swordsmanship was ‘Niten ichi ryu’. While learning swordsmanship, I asked how to have great swordsmanship to him. He pointed to a straw mat and said, “Can you walk on edge of the mat?” I walked on the edge of the mat as he said.

He asked again, “If the width of a bridge whose height is six feet is as narrow as the edge of the mat, can you walk on it?” Actually, the width of the mat was approximately three inches, so I thought it might be very dangerous to walk on the narrow bridge.

I answered, “Hmmmm… I am not sure…” He asked, “If the width is three inches, can you walk on it?” I said, “Of course, I can walk on it.” “How about this? What if the bridge links a mountaintop and the other mountaintop? Can you walk on it?” I answered with a serious look, “It is impossible. It is too dangerous to walk on it. I will never walk on it.”

Miyamoto Musashi laughed and concluded this argument. “The width of the bridge is same, so if you walk on the six-feet-height bridge, you can walk on the 3000-feet-height bridge. However, because we have distracting thoughts like fear of danger, people cannot walk on it.

Swordsmanship is the same as this. Thus, training in swordsmanship means throwing away the distracting thought.” I am impressed by his explanation. Before I met him, I just thought Samurais were only strong but not smart, and I saw many Samurais who swaggered because of their swordsmanship.

However, he was very different from them although he was the strongest Samurai in Japan. Thus, I believed that because of his personality, most warriors respected him. However, Musashi was also humorous, and he described swordsmanship and  object greatly, so he could be much famous than other Samurais.

After that day, we became good friends. He taught me swordsmanship, and I taught him accounting. He was very interested in learning accounting and good at math. However, he was going to have a big battle with his biggest rival, Sasaki Kojiro the following month.

Thus, I have not seen him for a while.What do you think about stories about my friends, Musashi and Yagyu? I hope that you enjoy my stories. After introducing two more friends, I will be able to go back home. I miss you a lot. I hope to see you soon.


Dongpyo Hong 

With enough deliberate practice put into something, we can master that art. Training of mind, training of body are the most important things.

Seneca: On Choosing Our Teachers, Letter 52

Seneca The Younger, or more popularly knows as Seneca was one of the most prolific stoic philosophers this world has every seen. He was also an advisor to King Nero.

He wasn’t just another academician from 50 AD who used to teach people about philosophy. No. He lived his teachings. He was a famous playwright and a writer.

One of the richest men in Rome, and of course an advisor to the king.

He had seen his fair share of hardships in life to the tune of being exiled to Corsica for 7 years. His life ended with a stoic suicide that was ordered by none other than King Nero himself.

He wrote mostly about tragedy and is most popularly known for a compilation of his letters which mention Lucillus quite a few times who was the governor of Sicily in around 65 AD.

Letter 58, By Seneca The Younger

His letters are an amazing resource for someone living in the 21st century.


I was too.

The letters have a very high applicability in our times as well. This is because he talks about loss of a friend, of a loved one, being rich and being poor, on contemplating our mortality and more real life day to day problems.

His philosophy, Stoicism in general is not an esoteric philosophy. It is very well connected to our daily lives.

In a letter on choosing your teachers he talks about quite a few prominent ideas that I thought of sharing with you guys.

How mad is he who leaves the lecture-room in a happy frame of mind simply because of applause from the ignorant! Why do you take pleasure in being praised by men whom you yourself cannot praise?     Pythagoras made his pupils keep silence for five years; do you think that they had the right on that account to break out immediately into applause? 

Seneca, Letter 52: On Choosing Our Teachers

The applicability of the above line in 2020 from the letter comes as no surprise to me.

In this day and age of online course creators, and people who make videos and write articles teaching other people for social media followers and views, bangs right on.

It makes me wonder how the 1st Century Rome was. We might think that the world has changed drastically, but by this sentence alone, I know there were teachers preaching only for the claps and applause.

Teachers must lead by example and not just by word. That does not mean you cannot share what you are learning while you’re learning something but it is always better to apply before you teach.

Those are the types of teachers we should seek. A real teacher does not live for the applause but for the transfer of the knowledge itself so that when he dies, his knowledge is passed on.

These outcries should be left for the arts which aim to please the crowd; let philosophy be worshiped in silence. Young men, indeed, must sometimes have free play to follow their impulses, but it should only be at times when they act from impulse, and when they cannot force themselves to be silent. Such praise as that gives a certain kind of encouragement to the hearers themselves, and acts as a spur to the youthful mind. But let them be roused to the matter, and not to the style; otherwise, eloquence does them harm, making them enamored of itself, and not of the subject.

Seneca, Letter 52: On Choosing Our Teachers

I love that he says philosophy is worshiped in silence. I believe that real work in life gets done when nobody is watching.

We all put a mask on when people are watching us. Stoic philosophy is not a mask we can wear that easily.

Principles and teachings of Stoicism need to be contemplated upon, studied and applied to the situations in life.

If we start getting aroused by the way a teacher teaches, by how that person dresses and portrays himself, we are on the wrong path.

As a student we must get charmed by the subject matter and it’s application rather than just the style of the person teaching the subject. especially when it comes to practical philosophy of living life.

Upper Cover Of The Published Letters by Seneca

I should accordingly deem more fortunate the man who has never had any trouble with himself; but the other, I feel, has deserved better of himself, who has won a victory over the meanness of his own nature, and has not gently led himself, but has wrestled his way, to wisdom.

Seneca, Letter 52: On Choosing Our Teachers

This is classic Seneca. Tragedy teaches us more than the good times.

It is fine to choose to follow people who never had a conflicting opinion with themselves.

Maybe they have never wanted to do too many things or loved many things and had to choose only one or two of them.

The experience of letting go of something that you love, the experience of fighting with your own self, makes you a better teacher and a better student.

There are obstacles in our path; so let us fight, and call to our assistance some helpers. “Whom,” you say, “shall I call upon? Shall it be this man or that?” There is another choice also open to you; you may go to the ancients; for they have the time to help you. We can get assistance not only from the living, but from those of the past. 

Seneca, Letter 52: On Choosing Our Teachers

When looking for teachers, let’s look at the people who have lived in the past and have passed on their teachings, their philosophies on life and their experiences are going to be the first ones to choose.

Those guys have nowhere to go, so you practically have an unlimited amount of time with those people and their teachings.

I get a lot of people who ask me about finding a mentor.

Lo and behold, I give you unlimited resources at your disposal.

Let the Marcus Aurelius teach you leadership, let the President Lyndon Johnson teach you politics, let John Bogle teach you investing, let Charles Darwin teach you evolution and let Da Vinci teach you how to watch closely and think.

Choose as a guide one whom you will admire more when you see him act than when you hear him speak. 

Seneca, Letter 52: On Choosing Our Teachers

And when you have chose from the dead, choose a teacher from the living.

But don’t choose too many teachers at once. Look for one or two sources and then dive deep into those sources, building upon what you learn from them.

The real teaching does not happen while listening to the teacher. It happens when you think about what the teacher taught.

The best way to find a great teacher is by observing at what they do and not what they say.

Follow people who were in a similar situation as you in their lives and progressed from there.

Look at what they did to come out victorious on the other end.