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Man's Search for Meaning

18 Apr 2015

Man's Search for Meaning
Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl (1962)
Man's Search for Meaning may be one of the most celebrated books of the twentieth century but until recently I never even heard of it. Unlike many celebrated books, this is among the most important as well, which is not so common; important books often go uncelebrated, but that is not the case with Man's Search for Meaning. If you've never read it, perhaps never heard of it, take a moment to hear about it. This book, brief and simple, is as profound as it is easy to absorb. For some it could be life changing.

In the book Frankl (1905-1997) says he had already completed a great deal of work on a manuscript for his signature psychiatric achievement, logotherapy, when he and his wife were taken prisoner by Nazi soldiers and shipped off to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Frankl managed to smuggle his manuscript in with him, but he lost possession of it during his early days there. He began writing another book, which evolved and eventually emerged as the form of Man's Search for Meaning that we read today.

I will be frank in stating that I do not care for books about prisons, concentration camps, torture or other forms of inhumane abuse. Depictions in books like Empire of the Sun and King Rat, great though they may be, take me outside my comfort zone in directions I rarely find profitable.

Although Man's Search has the Holocaust as its context, that catastrophe is not his story; he leaves the story, the day to day details, to others. Frankl's purpose is to treat human psychic suffering. Since Auschwitz inmates with unbearable mental suffering were often considered unfit for work and hence doomed to the gas chamber (he says they called such prisoners "Moslems"), Frankl had plenty of work on his hands even while enslaved himself.

Frankl rejected Freudian style psychotherapy, which was in vogue before the war, in favor of helping his patients find meaning in their lives. That is the essence of his message: that a man's or woman's purpose in life is to find meaning. To find that meaning is to end their suffering; and that meaning may be different for each of us, but he suggests it is most easily derived from love. Hence a parent who loses his children may feel he has nothing left to live for, because he lived to love them. Even such a person may find new meaning in life.

Auschwitz was certainly a place to find suffering, and it provided the toughest possible test of his approach. How does man find meaning when all is lost? It comes down, he said, to attitude. Who were the survivors of that horror, and who capitulated? The survivors were often not the physically strongest, he says, and the dead were often not the weakest. The survivors, he believes, were those with the strongest internal lives, those who found something to live for even when everything was taken away. How did they find this? They looked to the ones they loved. Frankl says he and many survivors he knew spent a great deal of their days inside themselves. He would see his wife, talk to her, have long conversations with her, have her talk to him, and see every detail of every word she spoke or gesture she made. Even knowing she might not still be alive - and indeed, she died in Auschwitz without being put to death, as his mother was - he kept her alive in his heart, and in so doing sustained himself.

There are great lessons to learned in Frankl's simple book, but an honest person must recognize that finding meaning is not as simple as acknowledging the need for it, just as having a good attitude does not instantly arise from the understanding that a good attitude is good to have. People who are pathologically depressive, for instance, struggle daily for that good attitude; saying it is not enough. And yet by saying it, Frankl has made a giant stride for many of us. Read this book, re-read it, keep a copy for your permanent library, and pass on a copy to others. Keep it alongside your Bible, Torah, Qoran, or other holy books of similar importance. Few books of value are so quickly taken to heart, and so slowly lost. Five stars.


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