Man’s Search for Meaning
by Viktor Frankl
- Personal Development
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Why You Should Read Man’s Search for Meaning
Man’s Search for Meaning is a book about survival. The author, Viktor Emil Frankl was an Australian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor. During World War II, Frankl was cast into the Nazi network of concentration and extermination camps, but miraculously he survived. But his account in this book is less about his loss and sufferings than it is about the sources of his strength to survive.
This book doesn’t claim to be an account of facts. It is made up of personal experiences – the inside story of a concentration camp told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors which have been described often enough, but rather with the multitude of small torments.
How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?
The beginning: Auschwitz
Auschwitz, the very name stood for all that was horrible – gas chambers, crematoriums, massacres. On the day Frankl arrived at the camp, the prisoners were told to get into two lines. One by one, they were pointed to go left or right by the SS officer. None had the slightest idea of the sinister meaning behind that little movement of the man’s finger. The SS soldier put his hands on Frankl’s shoulders to check him out and pointed left. The consequence of the finger game became apparent that evening. It was the first selection – somebody mentioned left meant work while right meant death.
Stages of a prisoner’s psychological reaction
In the first stage of a prisoner’s psychological reaction, they would look away from the ongoing punishments. He could not bear to see fellow prisoners march up and down for hours in the mire – their movements directed by blows and strikes from the guards. But, days or weeks later, things began to change. The prisoner would now stand in front of the gate, in the cold and dark early hours of the morning, standing in pure detachment and ready to march. They no longer needed to be struck by the guards in order to march as they were mentally detached and just walked as they were supposed to.
Apathy, the blunting of the emotions, and the feeling that one could not care anymore were the symptoms of the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions. A prisoner who reached stage two didn’t avert their eyes anymore. They watched the atrocities before them as the emotions they used to feel had dissipated.
In the early weeks, the death of a fellow prisoner was always met with sadness, guilt, grief. But by stage 2, the death of another took on a new message. After one had just died, people looked at the body with no emotion whatsoever. Then people would start to go up to the still-warm corpses and see what they could salvage. One would grab half of a slice of bread that was still in his pocket. One would take his shoes. Another would take his belt.
If someone now asked them the truth of Dostoevski’s statement, they would reply: “Yes a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.”
A man’s search for joy in sufferings
A very trifling thing could cause the greatest of joys during the Holocaust. One day the prisoners were taken from Auschwitz to another camp they thought was the Mauthausen camp. You can’t imagine the dance of joy when they saw that the transport was instead heading for Dachau. They finally went to a camp that did not have a chimney. They laughed and cracked jokes for hours.
The prisoners were often grateful for the smallest of mercies. They were glad when they had time to delouse before going to bed, although it meant standing naked in an unheated hut where icicles hung from the ceiling. They could envy a man who didn’t have to wade in deep, muddy clay on a steep slope emptying the tubs of a small field railway for twelve hours a day. Most of the daily accidents occurred on this job, and they were often fatal.
The attempt to develop a sense of humour and see things in a humorous light is a trick learned by mastering the art of living. And it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, where suffering is omnipresent.
The meaning of our choices
The experiences of camp life show that a man has a choice of action. There were enough examples of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome and irritability suppressed. Those who lived in concentration camps could recall fellow prisoners who walked through the huts comforting others. A man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
Every day and every hour of our lives offer an opportunity to make a decision. A decision that determines if you would submit to the powers that threatened to rob your inner freedom or whether you would succumb to a circumstance.
From this point of view, the mental reactions of a concentration camp’s inmates might imply certain physical and sociological conditions. Certain conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food, and various mental stresses suggested that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways. But in the final analysis, it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision and not the result of camp influences alone.
Even under the most difficult circumstances, accepting a fate and all the suffering it entails may add a deeper meaning to life. Or in the bitter fight for survival, someone may forget their human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man to make use of the opportunity of attaining moral values that a difficult situation can afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his suffering or not. Do not think that these considerations are unworldly and too far removed from real life. It’s true that only a few people are capable of reaching such high moral standards.
On his arrival, a prisoner told Frankl that he felt like he was marching to his own funeral. There seemed to be no future in his life. He regarded it as over and done as if he already died – intensifying the feeling of lifelessness. Anything outside the barbed wire seemed remote and unreal. The man let himself decline because he could not see any future goal and found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts.
When living in the present feels difficult, there is a tendency to look into the past to relieve anxiety. But there is a danger of denying realities in the present time. For Frankl, it became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life and discover opportunities that really existed. We often forget that an exceptionally difficult external situation gives someone the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond themselves.
Discovering our purpose
Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had to show him a future goal. But, what was really needed was a fundamental change in their attitude to life. They had to learn that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We need to stop asking about the meaning of life. And think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist not in talk or meditation, but in right action or right conduct.
Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. These tasks differ for each individual, so the meaning of someone’s destiny is different and unique from the other. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response.
Sometimes we face a situation that shapes our fate based on our actions. At other times it is more advantageous for us to make the use of an opportunity for contemplation and realise assets that way. Sometimes we may need to accept fate and bear our cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness and there is only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.
A man’s search for life meaning
The greatest task for anyone is to find meaning in his or her life, and Frankl saw three places for it:
- Work by doing something significant
- Love by caring for another person
- Courage during difficult times.
When a man finds that his destiny is to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering, he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve his suffering or suffer in his place, and his unique opportunity lies in the way he accepts this burden.