Weekly I/O #37

Concentration Camp Nightmare, Provisional Existence and Strange Time Experience, Mind and Immunity, Tension for Mental Health, Self-actualization and Self-transcendence

Cheng-Wei Hu | 胡程維
4 min readMar 25, 2022


Weekly I/O is a project where I share my learning Input/Output. Every Sunday, I write an email newsletter with five things I discovered and learned that week.

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The below is extracted from the email sent on March 20, 2022

1. No nightmare could be as horrible as the reality of the concentration camp.

Book: Man’s Search for Meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning is a book by Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, describing his experience in the Nazi concentration camp and his psychotherapeutic method: logotherapy.

When first reading this book, I was struck so heavily by the following narrative:

“I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.”

2. Prisoners who suffered from “provisional existence of unknown limit” experienced a strange time experience: A day lasted longer than a week.

Book: Man’s Search for Meaning

The depressing life in the concentration camp is a “provisional existence of unknown limit”, where the prisoners cannot know how long their term of imprisonment would be. With no date given for release, their term was not only uncertain but unlimited.

A person who couldn’t see the end of their provisional existence was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. They ceased living for the future. They suffered from a strange time experience. In camp, a smaller time unit, like a day, appeared endless since the day was filled with hourly tortures and fatigue. A larger time unit, like a week, seemed to pass faster.

This peculiar sort of deformed inner time turned out to be experienced not just in the camp. Research work done on unemployed miners and tuberculosis patients in a sanatorium also showed that they experienced the same, for they were all without a future a without a goal.

3. The connection between the state of mind and the state of immunity explains why the death rate during Christmas and New Year peaked in camp and how a sudden loss of hope could kill people.

Book: Man’s Search for Meaning

The death rate in the week between Christmas, 1944, and New Year’s, 1945, increased in the camp beyond all previous experience. The higher rate wasn’t caused by a harder working environment, a deterioration of food supplies, a change of weather, or new epidemics. It’s simply because many prisoners had lived in the naive hope that they would be home again by Christmas. When they gradually found out that would not happen, they lost hope, and disappointment overcame them.

The connection between the state of mind of a person, their hope and courage, or lack of them, and the state of immunity of their body explain how a sudden loss of hope could kill people.

The ultimate cause of some’s death was that the expected liberation did not come, and they were severely disappointed, which suddenly lowered their body’s resistance against the latent typhus infection. Their faith in the future and their will to live had become paralyzed, and their body fell victim to illness.

4. What we need for mental health is not a tensionless state but a certain degree of tension between what one is and what one should become.

Book: Man’s Search for Meaning

Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between “what one has already achieved” and “what one still ought to accomplish”. It is a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what one needs is a tensionless state. We need existential dynamics in the gap between what one is and what one should become, instead of equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis”.

What we need isn’t the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by us. Therefore, if therapists want to foster their patients’ mental health, they should not be afraid to create a sound amount of tension through a reorientation toward the meaning of patients’ lives.

5. Self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence. The more we forget ourselves by giving ourselves to a cause to serve or another person to love, the more we actualize ourselves.

Book: Man’s Search for Meaning

The true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within a person or their own psyche, as though it were a closed system.

Viktor Frankl termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that human always points, and is directed, to something (a meaning to fulfill) or someone (another human being to encounter) other than oneself.

The more we forget ourselves by giving ourselves to a cause to serve or another person to love, the more human we are and the more we actualize ourselves.

What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

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Cheng-Wei Hu | 胡程維

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