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Humor and meaningfulness

I read “Man’s Search For Meaning” by an Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl. He survived through several Nazi concentration camps during World War II and in his book he describes—from a doctors point of view—how people behaved and coped. It is hard and depressing, but insightful read. Two things stood out: humor and meaningfulness.


Concentration camps don’t seem like places where people laugh, but Viktor writes:

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.

And …

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.

This isn’t a new idea to me. More than a decade ago I read Laurence Gonzales’ “Deep Survival” in which he analyzes survival and rescue situations that had arisen from wilderness accidents. Here is one quote about firefighters:

The guys called the big beer cooler in the kitchen “the baby coffin.” They had dozens of names for different types of corpses—“crispy critters,” “stingers,” “floaters,” “dunkers,” and “Headless Horsemen,” just to name a few. … [someone] thought I was either terribly disrespectful or out of my gourd. The fact is you have to deal with these things to the best of your ability. If you don’t work with it, it’ll get you. A dead body is not something you get used to.

Then a bit later …

Some high-angle rescue workers call body bags “long-term bivvy sacks.” It sounds cruel, but survivors laugh and play, and even in the most horrible situations—perhaps especially in those situations—they continue to laugh and play. To deal with reality you must first recognize it as such, and play puts a person in touch with his environment, while laughter makes the feeling of being threatened manageable.

The funny thing is, while I was trying to find this passage that stayed with me for so long, I found a paper note tucked between two pages with a quote from “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, a World War I German veteran. The passage is about a dark and seemingly inappropriate humor soldiers indulge in during hard times.

The terror of the front sinks deep down when we turn our backs upon it; we make grim, coarse jests about it, when a man dies, then we say he has nipped off his turd, and so we speak of everything; that keeps us from going mad; as long as we take it that way we maintain our own resistance. But we do not forget. It’s all rot that they put in the war-news about the good humor of the troops, how they are arranging dances almost before they are out of the front-line. We don’t like that because we are in a good humor: we are in a good humor because otherwise we should go to pieces. Even so we cannot hold out much longer; our humor becomes more bitter every month.


Let’s get back to Viktor and concentration camps. Humor is very helpful—no, essential—but is not a long-term solution. How were those prisoners able to survive when there was almost no hope, no freedom? The answer is surprising.

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. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

This is probably the most powerful quote from the book. But it also leaves room for another question: what is the meaning of life? Viktor was approached many times with this question at his office after the war.

I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms. For the meaning of life differs from person to person, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.

Nietzsche summarized it well:

He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.

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Castle Neuschwanstein

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