Book cover art for Man's Search For Meaning
Man's Search For Meaning
Viktor E. Frankl

Part autobiography, part philosophy, part psychology, part prayer - this book is an incredibly human exploration of an inhumane and brutal time about how, even within the cruellest of suffering, can meaning and salvation be found. Its message today is just as relevant as when it was first published in the years following the second world war.

Life as Prisoner Was Unrelentingly Brutal

The experience of the camp was brutal, and just as much about the struggle between prisoners as it was a struggle with those that imprisoned them. Only those prisoners who stayed alive, Frankl says, were the ones who were able to lose all scruples to fight bitterly for their existence.

'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.'

Cigarettes were a form of currency, traded and bartered for goods, smoked only by the inmate Capos who had greater access to food. When you saw an ordinary prisoner smoking his cigarettes, you knew he had given up the chance to trade them for something, for food. If he was smoking, it meant he had given up on life and was enjoying a final pleasure. Once lost, the will to live seldom returned.

Suicide was a frequent thought of many, at least at one point or another, and perhaps only briefly. Early on, Frankl takes the firm decision to never entertain the idea.

'Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature are a mix of good and evil?'

On Entering Camp for the First Time, the First Reaction Was Pure Shock

According to Frankl, there were three phases of psychological reaction to imprisonment following the three stages (imprisonment, entrenched routine, liberation) of camp life. Directly after admission, it is shock. There was, often for many prisoners, 'the delusion of reprieve': the belief that salvation was just around the corner. But, until the very end, it never was.

The shock of what was happening reflected the utter bare nakedness of how they were left after admission - all possessions, documents, belongings, clothes, body hair - stripped away, 'all we possessed was our naked existence. What else remained for us as a material link to our former lives?'

'At that moment I saw the plain truth and did what marked the culminating point of the first phase of my psychological reaction: I struck out my whole former life.'

All illusions, no matter how minor, were destroyed.

'The sufferers, the dying and the dead,  became such commonplace sights to him after a few weeks of camp life that they could not move him any more.

An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour. Ordinary no longer existed.

After Passing Through Shock, Apathy Took Hold

Apathy was a necessary self-preservation defense mechanism. It was to dim reality - allowing tunnel vision on the sole aim of survival.

'This body, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me?'

Many spoke of it being as a sort of regression back to a more primitive form of mental life. You understood your fellow man by understanding his dreams and desires - what did he talk about most?

For most, it was only simple things. Bread, cakes, a bath, cigarettes. The lowest and simplest of needs. No goals or dreams were higher than these.

Hope and Salvation Came From Many Places, Sometimes Unexpected

Those that were best able to survive the strains of camp life were not always the most physically hardy or robust. Instead, it was more often the intellectual and cerebral sorts who had the advantage - they were able to withdraw - to some extent - inwards, into their own thoughts.

Our inner value must be anchored in higher things. When this is so, we cannot be shaken by outer life. How many of us genuinely possess this? 'Without consciously thinking about it, the average prisoner felt himself utterly degraded.'

It was possible to escape into bliss, even only briefly, by thinking about the ones we love. Salvation can be found through love, and in love. We may achieve fulfillment through loving contemplation of the ones we love.

There was an intensification of the inner life of each man, as the outer life dwindled into cold, cruel apathy.

Against this bleak backdrop, a simple beautiful sunset could not be kept from them, often causing many to rush outside to see. 'After minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, 'How beautiful the world could be!'

Humour can be perhaps the most reliable and available source of respite from any situation, allowing us to rise above events, even if only for a few seconds.

We Can Always Make Decisions About What to Do, No Matter the Circumstance

With all the information in the world at our fingertips, we may still make the wrong decisions. Other wheels are in motion, not just our own. So things will not always work out, even with the best of intentions.

'The camp inmate was frightened of making decisions and of taking any sort of initiative whatsoever. This was the results of a strong feeling that fate was one's master, and that one must not try to influence it in any way, but instead let it take its own course. ... At times, lightning decisions had to be made, decisions which spelled life or death. The prisoner would have preferred to let fate make the choice for him.'

But do we have any control over our circumstances or are we merely the products of our circumstances? The short answer is yes, we do, because there are always choices for us to make every day. We may not be able to choose our circumstances but anyone can decide what shall become of themselves mentally or spiritually. Therefore you may retain dignity no matter the circumstance.

The manner in which we take up and bear our crosses in life - how we choose to accept our suffering, if we are to suffer - is a choice we will never be without. Even within the greatest of suffering we have the chance to forge opportunity and create meaning in our lives.

Our inner selves allow for free decisions. Particularly if we find ourselves in 'provisional existence of unknown limit' (e.g. indefinite internment, illness, unemployment, pandemic lockdowns etc.)

With a Good Enough 'Why' We Can Surmount Any 'How'

When we ask 'what is the meaning of life', we should really be asking what life can expect from us, not the other way around. Expecting life to give us meaning, rather than the other way around, is naïve.

With regard to suffering, we can only bear it alone. The exact manner of how we go about bearing that suffering is up to us. This is where the opportunity will low, no matter how acute the situation. In doing this, we must have the courage to suffer if we are to make these decisions about how we do so.

'There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.' - Dostoevsky

Our 'Why' - the Meaning in Our Lives - Comes From the Responsibilities We Bear

We find our 'why' from the unfinished work in our lives - the responsibility to complete what we have started or to carry out some service, to build something, to create a legacy.

We also find our 'why' from the loved ones in our lives - family, partners, children - those that can depend on us and who we must labour for to give them a better life.

If in Doubt, Look to the Future

Humans can only live by looking to the future and this is something that can and must be done even in the most difficult of moments, even it must be forced.

'I became disgusted with the state of affairs which compelled me, daily and hourly, to think of only such trivial things. I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject. Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit warm and pleasant lecture room. In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past.'

Logotherapy in a Nutshell

Our main motivation in life is to find meaning. We are driven to find purpose in what we do and why we do it. However, our search can be frustrated.

Logotherapy is to confront one with one's meaning in life and to then re-orient around it to alleviate what Frankl calls 'noögenic neuroses'.

Noögenic neuroses are not psychological neuroses, rather they are the real world frustrations of one's will to meaning. Traditional psychoanalysis attempts to treat the problem with drugs and endless analysis - logotherapy seeks to make some changes in the real world to make it easier to find meaning in your life.

To not have any meaning in your life is to be without any tension or strain (hormesis) - homeostasis and equilibrium are bad for the soul because we are left without the struggle to complete the work or to provide for our loved ones.

The Existential Vacuum

Frankl identifies what he considers the biggest problem of the 20th century - what he calls the 'existential vacuum'.

The existential vacuum was caused, he believes, by the loss of traditions and expectations (that is, the pro forma pathways to meaning) from the lives of so many. This has led to boredom, a lack of meaning in the lives of many, the 'Sunday scaries' and the 'post XYZ blues' of most that are unhappy with the corporate rat race.

Nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of meaning, other things rush in. The will to money, the will to pleasure, the will to power. All damage the individual and society at large.

Meaning Is Not Abstract

The meaning of life is not abstract. It is real. It is you who must answer the question, because it's not going to be given to you. Right now, what do you understand to be the meaning of your life? Knowing the answer to this question can only come from taking responsibility for something, by bearing a burden.

'Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!'

Meaning comes to us when we set our selves aside and devote ourselves to a task or a deed or to the love of another, and by our attitude to our suffering.

Do Not Strive for Happiness

The goal of life, in all of this, should not be happiness. This is empty - it bears no fruit and if we find, along the way, that we are not happy enough, this will only make us unhappy and send us in a spiral.

Happiness cannot be pursued. It must ensue. It only does so as a byproduct of a devotion to a greater purpose. To aim at it directly is to miss it altogether - those that aim at happiness do not find it. Those that have meaning, that have worth and a purpose, they find happiness. It comes to them from an oblique angle.

'Ironically enough, in the same way that fear brings to pass what one is afraid of, likewise a forced intention makes impossible what one forcibly wishes.'

Where before we might have gone to our priest or rabbi, we now go to our doctors, therapists, life coaches, self help books and social media or help. None are good enough or able to help us find meaning. They are selling a bill of goods.

Finite, But Always Free

As humans we are finite, restricted beings. Our freedom is in the choosing what do with our lives and how we respond to the situations that arise in front of us.

'Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.'

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