Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived 3 years in the Nazi concentration camp system. Separated from his family, he learned later that his wife, parents, and brother were all murdered by the Nazi regime. After his liberation, Frankl came to terms with camp horrors by conceiving of the psychotherapy known as logotherapy (logos from greek: ‘meaning’), the basis for this book.
Harold Kushner writes in the introduction:
‘Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.’
How can a person make sense of his world when it has become insensible? Frankl dedicates the first part of the book to concentration camp life and reflects on how he and his fellow camp mates survived, and why some did not survive. Frankl is clear: these survivors surrendered their humanity:
‘On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles — whatever one may choose to call them — we know: the best of us did not return.’
After the shock and apathy towards his situation set in, Frankl (and the other prisoners) began to suppress emotion in order to make his situation bearable and to survive. But the mind can essentially bear anything if it has something to work on, whether it be forming ideas, or thinking of a loved one, or imagining what one will do after one is freed. Frankl mentions the Nietzsche quote ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how’ and Frankl survived by using his mind. The Nazis could attack his physical form, but not his mental state.
Where the first part of the book can be read for religious inspiration, the second part of the book is an examination of logotherapy and how its tools can be used to find meaning in life. Frankl used these logotherapeutic tools to come to terms with camp life.
‘Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.’
So, what is the point of it all? Frankl offers that every person’s ‘point’ will be different:
‘One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment, Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.’
Viktor Frankl died in 1997.