Viktor Frankl on Humor as a Lifeline to Sanity and Survival
By Maria Popova
“When one is considering the universe,” Ella Frances Sanders observed in her lovely illustrated celebration of wonder, “it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.” Somehow, on our tiny beautiful planet adrift in a vast unfeeling universe, we have managed to create myriad causes for weeping. “Our life has become so mechanized and electronified,” the Hungarian journalist and László Feleki wrote with astounding prescience half a century ago, “that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor?” Mechanization is but one way to dehumanize life, but there are others, grimmer, far worthier of weeping and more savaging of sanity.
Even in the face of those — or perhaps especially in the face of those — the ability to laugh stands as a vital protection of sanity and a mighty form of resistance to inhumanity. That is what the great Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997) attests to in his extraordinary 1946 psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (public library) — one of the profoundest and most vitalizing books ever written, abounding with wisdom on how to persevere through the darkest times and what it means to live with presence.
Reflecting on the inner acts of rebellion by which prisoners maintained their dignity, sanity, and zest for life in the concentration camp — making art in secret, reading smuggled books — Frankl writes:
Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.
He recounts how he awakened a friend to the life-saving value of humor — an acquired skill, like any art — through what is essentially a disciplined implementation of creative prompts:
I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site to develop a sense of humor. I suggested to him that we would promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily, about some incident that could happen one day after our liberation. He was a surgeon and had been an assistant on the staff of a large hospital. So I once tried to get him to smile by describing to him how he would be unable to lose the habits of camp life when he returned to his former work. On the building site (especially when the supervisor made his tour of inspection) the foreman encouraged us to work faster by shouting: “Action! Action!” I told my friend, “One day you will be back in the operating room, performing a big abdominal operation. Suddenly an orderly will rush in announcing the arrival of the senior surgeon by shouting, ‘Action! Action!’”
Telescoping from the particular to the universal, Frankl considers how his experience in the concentration camp illuminates a broader consolation for the human struggle:
The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.
To find humor in the grimmest of circumstances is not only a survival tool but a supreme act of creativity and an assertion of the most unassailable personal liberty. Frankl writes:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful. An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces.
Complement the indispensable Man’s Search for Meaning with Frankl on seeing the best in each other — another triumph of creativity and spiritual strength — and the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on the art of living, then revisit the Polish painter Józef Czapski on how Proust saved his soul in a Soviet labor camp, Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how one book saved young women’s lives, and the stirring letter on suffering and transcendence Oscar Wilde penned in prison.
Published August 19, 2019