Man’s Search For Meaning is a book I have heard recommended on many podcasts, blogs, and from other authors. In the book, Viktor Frankl, who was a psychiatrist, describes his time as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. He describes the suffering and horror that he and his fellow prisoners experienced and does so very objectively. The book also explains the theory of logotherapy which was developed by Frankl and was greatly influenced by his time in the prison camps. It is a fairly short read and worth reading in order to understand the psychology of someone under immense stress and suffering. It is helpful for me to understand how much the human mind is capable of withstanding without breaking. We must grasp what has happened in the past, even events as horrific as the holocaust, so that we can learn from them and contribute to a better future. Below are some of my main takeaways.
“The Last of Human Freedoms”
Frankl describes how there were prisoners in the concentration camps who reverted to self-preservation no matter the cost while there were others who were concerned with the wellbeing of other prisoners and gave up their own food for others. They were selfless even in the harshest of conditions and when there was nothing to be gained. His assessment is that although everything can be taken away from us, we still have the freedom to choose our attitude. We decide how we will act in any given circumstance. This was convicting because I often choose to have a bad attitude and yet the conditions of my life are far better than the conditions of the prisoners Frankl describes. This means I have no excuses. I often say “So and so made me have a bad day because they said such and such.” As Frankl shows, this is simply not true. I choose my attitude. I cannot control what is done or said to me, but I can control my response.
What does life expect of us?
Frankl writes “…it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” His perspective is that we should stop asking about the meaning of life and instead think of ourselves as being questioned by life for our meaning. Each individual has to take the responsibility to answer the questions and solve the problems that life poses to us. I found this to be a helpful mindset. It forces me out of complacency and a victim mindset to be proactive in overcoming difficulties.
No single abstract meaning of life
Most people have thought about the meaning of their life at some point. Frankl makes the case that there is no single abstract meaning for all life. Each person has a particular mission and vocation that is specific to them and can only be carried out by them. You cannot be replaced by someone else. Each of us is responsible for our own life and meaning. This perspective helped remind me that I cannot compare my relationships, career, and situation in life to other people. My life and the things I do have a particular meaning for me and this meaning cannot be transferred to others nor can their meaning be transferred to me. This frees me from the comparison game.
A blog post about Man’s Search For Meaning wouldn’t be any good without discussing logotherapy. Here is how Frankl describes it in his own words: “According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone, and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” These were the three ways that Frankl helped his patients discover the meaning in life. When I think about my own life, I definitely gravitate toward the first method which is discovering the meaning of life based on my work. I realize, however, this can be risky because jobs come and go. If I define my meaning based on what I do, what will I be left with if it is taken away? I don’t have all the answers but realize thinking about these things leads to better clarity in life.
I gained a number of good insights from this book. I would definitely recommend it to friends, however, the descriptions and stories of the Nazi prison camps may be difficult for some people to handle. Although difficult to handle, this does not make them any less important or true.