That which does not kill me, makes me stronger – Nietzsche
We have come to know Man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips. – Viktor Frankl
‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is a book that, at first, may put off a lay buyer by the title itself. “Another self help book”! is probably the thought that would cross the mind, as it did mine. Cynicism of commercialization of the problems of modern living runs deep. Each book that purports to provide a solution to the problem in career, marriage, relationships and to the general feeling of emptiness ends up providing pop stories that makes for light entertaining reading doubling up as inspirational stories – of how other people solved their issues (or how monks sold their Ferraris!). Psychology tells us that herd mentality works for humans. If I know that some other guy cracked the secret of happiness, the brain releases enough happy hormones to make us feel that we can do the same. So the temporary happiness. And then we forget what it was all about!
And that is precisely the reason that you need to pick up this book. And you may never again may need to pick up another book to ‘help yourself’. ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ written by holocaust survivor Viktor E Frankl is a book that I can safely add to the small list of books that I can say has changed the course of my life perceptibly.
Viktor Frankl is perhaps the one of the best persons to have written a book on the topic. He was a Holocaust survivor. But that is only the part of the reason. There were thousands of survivors and not only of the Holocaust – of various Gulags and other extermination camps run by other regimes and countries. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who was in the process of developing his theory of logotherapy – study of how people find meaning in life, before he was seized by the Nazis. In the concentration camps, in a situation that was unique to modern human experience, Frankl was able to become a dispassionate observer of the people around him. And of himself. And he observed and kept developing his theory.
And he discovered some startling discoveries about human behaviour that otherwise would have been denied to him had he been just given an university environment.
And it is these discoveries and observations that he has put into this slim book. Slim yes but I don't recall the last book that I have highlighted and made notes of so much. Right from the first page, you start feeling the power of the book. Power that can only come from the words written by a man who has seen hell and has, for the benefit of those who come later, was able to record how man behaves in hell. And why some men can come out of hell unbowed while most are annihilated.
Man’s Search for Meaning is divided into two parts. In the first part Frankl takes us through his experience in the concentration camps. Through his eyes we see the world that he had to survive. He notes the behaviour of people around him – of prisoners and of guards. And he notes some things that can be observed only in extreme situations. Hope, he realized was a cause for life. And of death. Frankl narrates how he saw fellow prisoners literally turn from healthy people to being a corpse within a couple of days. Just because they lost hope and therefore the will to live.
In the second part he expands upon his theory of logotherapy. And in the process gives a primer on how to live.
“One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. The more one forgets himself-by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love-the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. 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.”
is one of the first lines that I highlighted. Ah! good, no pop psychology, no mysticism, no universe is in you type of bullshit. And that's how ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ starts. Cutting through the bullshit. Viktor Frankl tells us the things as is. No sugar coating. An example. His wife, pregnant at the time the Nazis captured them, was kept separately in another camp. He was not to know till after the war that she was killed almost immediately after arrival at her camp. Yet he finds out one of the greatest revelations of logotherapy from this.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth-that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.
Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved
Viktor was able to pass some of his darkest moments by visualizing his wife and her smile and kept alive the love he felt for her. He drew strength from the hope that he would see her again. It is love, literally, that kept him alive
On finding out later that she had died, in the midst of his world crashing down a second time, Frankl did not sit down and die. For as he had learnt – even in the worst of time, life does not cease to have a meaning. As he was to tell his patients and students later on – the only thing that matters in the end is what response we choose to give.
Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.
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.
So Viktor Frankl chose to choose life and find meaning in it.
He later posed a question to his students – to guess what his, Viktor Frankl’s meaning is life is.
One student got it right. Viktor Frankl’s meaning in life was to spread the message of his book
For as he wrote,
This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how."
No one except Viktor Frankl himself could do what he himself could do. Therefore he had meaning in his life.
This above statement may be the single most important lines that I have read. What different people have poured tones of ink over, Frankl sums up in a paragraph. For what can be more powerful and more empowering than the realization of our uniqueness? That no one can replace us and what we feel. That our memories and experiences are our own and own alone. No matter what the conditions.
And Frankl is nothing if not practical to the point of dispassionate stoicism
If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.
Suffering will happen. Period. We need to know that it is as much a part of existence as happiness. What matters is our response to it
There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one's work or to enjoy one's life; but what never can be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end. In other words, life's meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the potential meaning of unavoidable suffering
Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it
Meaning of life is not to be found in a particular episode or in a particular form of feeling or in the way we meditate. It is to be found by living and finding meaning outside of us – in someone or some work. Fulfillment and meaning is to be found in our actions an in the way we feel for others.
By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.
This particular part above suddenly opened up a small fresh window for me as I read it. I felt the truth of the statement instinctively. I think our modern self help gurus may have got it dead wrong. Its not in ourselves that we can find meaning but in others and in our work that has some meaning to the outside world I think we were never wired to be isolated happy beings…
There is another beautiful thought that Frankl keeps coming back in the book. That of the fact that each moment we live is something that remains with us forever. Our past is the only tangible proof of our existence. All that we have felt, each moment that we have felt and lived and cried and laughed is something that is unique to us and is life’s greatest treasure to us
What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you. Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.
For me, Frankl tackles beautifully one of the most difficult question that I had. And makes it look simple. I, like so many, have often wondered about the question of meaning in a general way – as if there is supposed to be a general theory of meaning. A one meaning to explain it all. Frankl gives the answer while demolishing the whole notion of a grand theory
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. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?"
I am yet to see a more uplifting advice on how to live a life with meaning!
In truth, Man’s Search for Meaning cannot be reviewed nor explained in detail. It has to be experienced. Reading it once is surely not enough. Its life changing enough to be read at various times in life. But reading it once is enough to change the way we think about ourselves and the way we live in the world. And I think that reading this book will be a different experience for every one. Just as we are unique individuals, just so we would take unique experiences from the book.
In sum Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Since all three are unique to everyone at all times, then it follows, I guess that we will find different meaning in different times, uniquely.
Frankl offers readers who are searching for answers to life's dilemmas a critical mandate: he does not tell people what to do, but why they must do it. This is a small but crucial difference in the way we expect self help books to help us
In the end, all I can say is that not reading this book would have been a great loss to me. Its quite an unique book that is probably even more relevant in our times than earlier. A couple of quotes from the book that Frankl could as well be writing about this time
People have enough to live by but nothing to live for
Our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy
Some things never change! Ah wait, I know Frank would have said to that – “Our reaction to the things can!”
Closing the post with a summation in Frankl’s own words. Who else to close it better?
Now let us turn to the question of meaning itself. To begin with, I would like to clarify that, in the first place, the logotherapist is concerned with the potential meaning inherent and dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout his or her life. Therefore, I will not be elaborating here on the meaning of one's life as a whole, although I do not deny that such a long-range meaning does exist. To invoke an analogy, consider a movie: it consists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures, and each of them makes sense and carries a meaning, yet the meaning of the whole film cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without having first understood each of its components, each of the individual pictures. Isn't it the same with life? Doesn't the final meaning of life, too, reveal itself, if at all, only at its end, on the verge of death? And doesn't this final meaning, too, depend on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been actualized to the best of the respective individual's knowledge and belief?