We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life daily and hourly. When Man’s Search for Meaning was first published in 1959, it was hailed by Carl Rogers as “one of the outstanding contributions to psychological thought in the last fifty years.”
Man’s Search for Meaning – Book Review
The book is a novel-like narration of Viktor E. Frankl experience in four different German concentration camps in WWII and a detailed description of how he and others coped with those experiences. It is extraordinary, moving memoir of three years in Nazi death camps. This memoir of his was written in nine days in 1946, shortly after returning to his former home in Vienna, Austria.
He learnt that the Nazis had murdered his pregnant wife, his parents, his brother and most of his friends. A truly heartbroken even for any sane human being.
Later part of the book includes his personal approach to psychiatry called logotherapy, based on the belief that each person needs to find something in his or her life. Something particular and personal to them to give their life meaning.
We need to look outside ourselves.
There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
I absolutely love the first part of the book. The book is a quick read but a wonderful one.
I rated the book at 5.00/5.00 ★ Indeed one of my personal favourites.
Some other personal favourite —
- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- The Five Thieves of Happiness by John Izzo
- Before Happiness by Shawn Achor
- The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
- Principles by Ray Dalio
Man’s Search for Meaning – Book Notes
A little bit on Viktor E. Frankl
Viktor E. Frankl studied philosophy and psychiatry in his younger years. He’s even had a correspondence with Sigmund Freud who submitted an article of his to a leading journal. He was then only 16 years old.
By age 34, in 1939, he was head of neurology at Rothschild Hospital, Vienna’s only Jewish hospital. But when the Nazis closed it, Frankl feared for his and his family’s lives.
In 1942, the US consulate offered him a visa as a tribute to his reputation. He wanted to take up on the offer. But then, he saw a piece of marble, from Vienna’s largest synagogue which was destroyed by the Nazis. The marble was a sentimental token saved by his father, it had the engraving of one the Ten Commandments.
That engraving was “Honor thy father and mother” — in Hebrew. A sign of God? A hint for him not to abandon his family?
Maybe since he let his US visa expires. Soon, the Nazis deported him and his family in September 1942. Between then until March 1945, he went through four death camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kaufering and Türkheim
“It is a question of the attitude one takes toward life’s challenges and opportunities, both large and small.”
Man’s Search for Meaning — The reality of the death camp
Frankl quickly recognized the crushing reality of the death camps. He resolved to live within this new reality since all he had was his own existence.
One of the most important lessons he learned was he did not need any of the things he once thought he couldn’t live without. He was able to sleep on rough boards, sharing two ragged blankets with eight other men. He ate almost nothing but lived.
He accepted Dostoevsky’s truth:
“A man can get used to anything.”
Prisoners seeking suicide would hurl themselves onto the electrified barbed-wire fence. Frankl vowed never to “run into the wire.” He would die soon anyway; he wanted each day he could get.
What happens to apathy in these camps
Prisoners get used to their circumstances and no longer look away from humiliating punishments other fellow endured. They even raced to strip new corpses of clothes, shoes or hidden food. Empathy lost when they were starved. As the guards and Capos ruled life and death, the prisoners became their chew toys of fate, further reducing their sense of humanity.
Life struggles might leads to spirituality
Many inmates became more religious. Interestingly, the most sensitive were physically weak, but their deeper interior lives actually managed to fuel their will to survive. And by embracing their inner lives, the men became more appreciative of natural beauty, of that small moment of respites.
Frankl learned that even the tiniest moments could spark profound joy. Longing for his wife, speaking to her in his mind, he found that the full power of love transfixed him.
Amid misery and death, he saw in his soul that “the salvation of man is through love and in love.”
“the salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Fate is a cruel mistress
Over time, prisoners became more passive. Any active decision might further death, so they avoided making choices. As liberation neared, Frankl turned down an SS offer to join other prisoners on a truck to Switzerland.
He chose to let “fate take its course.” He didn’t try to alter his destiny.
Like many, he felt fate controlled him and that trying to shift it meant disaster. The Nazis crammed the men from the truck into a hut, set it on fire and watched the Jews in it burn alive.
We have no say on how lady fate played her hand, but we can choose how we act. He maintained and saw others maintain “spiritual freedom” and individuality no matter what the Nazis forced them to endure.
He found that attitude provides meaning.
How you cope with your fate adds or subtracts meaning from your existence. Amid privation, you can keep your “inner liberty.” Men who could hold onto even a small sense of a future found that it helped them survive. Those who ceased to believe in tomorrow did not.
In February 1945, a friend of Frankl’s dreamed that the camp would be liberated on March 30. On March 29, amid reports that Allied advances had slowed and would not reach the camp when he had dreamed, the man fell into a deep fever. He died the next day. Typhus appeared to be the cause, but Frankl knew his friend’s loss of belief in his future killed him. Life becomes meaningless when people have nothing to strive for, lose their sense of direction and stop searching for meaning.
That is why you must seek answers to the questions your unique life raises. The singularity of your existence gives it meaning. Yet a meaningful life includes death and suffering. Frankl found that life at the bottom of existence revealed good and evil clearly.
Their experiences depersonalized them. They no longer felt joy when the Allies freed them. The newfound freedom seems to be a dream that they can no longer connect with. Even though their physical health began to improve, their mental health takes longer to heal.
Frankl new therapeutic approach which leads patients to understand the purpose and meaning of their life. Logotherapy concerns on the “will to meaning”. Believing that our journey in finding life’s meaning is a human’s primary drive and since each person has their own meaning, they should seek to discover and fulfil them. If not, they will suffer what he called “existential frustration”.
In other words, logotherapy tries to help patients identify what their souls need the most and help them find the means to fulfil it. This, in turn, will give their lives meaning.
Man’s Search for Meaning — The Existential Vacuum
A sense of emptiness, the existential vacuum is a malaise from the late 20th century and beyond, manifesting as boredom. It springs from a disconnection between you and your goals. It occurs when you cannot find or connect to your necessary purpose.
People without a goal fall prey to “conformism,” doing what everybody else does, or “totalitarianism,” doing what other people say. The vacuum might become apparent during times of enforced leisure, like a quiet Sunday.
If Man’s Search for Meaning is a nonfiction novel, it is a wonderful read. But it’s a memoir, hence, your heart might ache as you reading it. If anything, the book make me grateful for my life and given me a new perspective on suffering, love, life and hope.