Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

mans-search-for-meaningWhy this Book: Though all of us had read it before, my three-person reading group agreed to read this wonderful little book again.   By Man’s Search for Meaning, I refer to his  Experiences in a Concentration Camp (about 100 pages) and not the follow-on longer piece explaining Frankl’s “Logotherapy” that normally accompanies it.  Man’s Search for Meaning has been recognized by many sources as one of most influential books of the 20th century.

Summary in 3 Sentences:  Viktor Frankl was a young Jewish psychotherapist practicing in Vienna, Austria, when he and his wife were arrested by the Nazis, crammed into a cattle car and sent to Auschwitz.  This book is Frankl’s  memoir of his experiences and how he dealt with the brutality, deprivations, suffering, and dying, that surrounded him and  became his life as an inmate in several Nazi concentration camps during WW2.  He shares his message of how a sense of purpose, facing one’s fate with courage and determination can give meaning and nobility to one’s life in the most austere and brutal of circumstances – when everything has been take away except the “last of human freedoms” – the ability to “choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”

My Impressions: This is an inspiring and positive book, in spite of the darkness of the world he describes.  The darkness is the context, but the focus is the light – the determination to survive, as best one can, holding on to one’s humanity, as best one can, when it seems that Love, Good, and Charity have abandoned one’s world.  The lessons he shares in the extremes of the concentration camp apply to all of us – even in our very comfortable civilized lives  – since psychological suffering takes many forms.

He discussed the experience of coping wth the concentration camp experience, in three phases:

  • The shock of entry into the concentration camp, when everything was taken away from them, and “all we possessed, literally, was our naked existence.”
  • The second phase was the resignation of being in the camp, “the phase of relative apathy in which we achieved a kind of emotional death,” in the face of the the horror, the suffering, the torture and the dying.
  • And the third phase was release and starting life anew, after they “literally lost the ability to feel pleased, and had to relearn it slowly.”   Frankl writes “Step by step I progressed, until I again became a human being.”  

In about 100 powerful pages in Experiences in a Concentration Camp Frankl gives us the essence of what he learned about himself, about others, and about suffering in each of those three phases.

This was perhaps the fifth time I’ve read this book.  I try to read it every 4 or 5 years and every time, it takes my breath away. Though there is almost no religion in this book,  the spiritual lessons are palpable.   Frankl’s story and his lessons from it remind me to invest in and reinforce the spiritual dimension of my own life.  It was really great to read it with Jay and Emily who had both also read it  before, and who were grabbed (again) by different quotes, scenes, and lessons than was I.  I did not read the Logotherapy piece with them again – they found, as I had when I read it 10 years ago, that it philosophically reinforces the message of Frankl’s story in Experiences in a Concentration Camp.

Viktor Frankl gives 3 simple rules as the source of true happiness:

  • Do work that matters
  • Love unconditionally
  • Grow from adversity.

We see all of these in action in Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl’s own words capture the essence of this short book much better than can I.

Some (of the many) Powerful Quotes:   (no page numbers because I’m reading an out-of-print edition, and it has been reprinted so many times…)

Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself, or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.  Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success; you have to let it happen by not caring about it.  (from the preface to the 1984 edition)

We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives.

At such a moment, it is not the physical pain that hurts…it is the mental agony caused by the injustice and unreasonableness of it all.

Reality dimmed, and all efforts and all emotions were centered on one task: preserving one’s own life and that of the other fellow.

 In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.  Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain… but the damage to their inner selves was less.  They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.

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.

Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved.  It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.

The intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past.

Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.

We were grateful for the smallest of mercies…The meager pleasures of camp life provided a kind of negative happiness, – “freedom from suffering,” …Real positive pleasures, even small ones, were very few.

Everything that was not connected with the immediate  task of keeping oneself and one’s closest friends alive lost its value.  Everything was sacrificed to this end.    A man’s character became involved to the point that he  was caught in a mental turmoil which threatened all the values he held, and threw them into doubt.

It was, therefore, in an attempt to save one’s own skin that one literally tried to submerge into the crowd.

..fate was one’s master…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.

We all had once been or had fancied ourselves to be “somebody.”  Now we were treated like complete nonentities.  The consciousness of one’s inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things, and cannot be shaken by camp life.  But how many free men, let alone prisoners, possess it?   Without consciously thinking about it, the average prisoner felt himself utterly degraded.

There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed.  Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic  and physical stress.

We  who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of  bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, 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. …any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually.  He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.  Dostoyevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

…The way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement.  It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. 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.

He may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation, he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of, or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.

It is true that only a few people are capable of reaching such high moral standards. Of the prisoners only a few kept their full inner liberty and obtained those values which their suffering afforded, but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate.

It is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.

The prisoner who had lost faith in the future -his future – was doomed.  With this loss of believe in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.

The typical reply with which  such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life any more.”  …We had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.  …Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering, he is unique and alone in the universe.  …His unique opportunity lies in the  way in which he bears his burden.

Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the  meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value.  For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.

I said that someone looks down on each of us in the difficult hours – a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God -and he would not expect us to disappoint him.  He would hope to find us suffering proudly – not miserably – knowing how to die.

We all said to each other in camp that there could be no earthly happiness which could compensate for all we had suffered.  We were not hoping for happiness – it was not that which gave us courage and gave meaning to our suffering, our sacrifices and our dying. And yet, we were not prepared for unhappiness

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

  1. bradswebblog says:

    Just started revisiting your blogs again as I’ve been working on mine for the past week.

    Good review…. I’m going to pull this one off the shelves this year and read it again. Like you said – worth re-reading every few years, as you’ll have several new years of life experience as a backdrop to Frankl’s lessons.

  2. Ed Hebert says:

    Interesting review! Can’t imagine being better qualified to offer the spiritual guidance Frankl provides. I recently read that intellect can be measured by three prepositions: what, how and why. The scale of ones intellect will be shown to increase as he demonstrates the ability to progress from the what to the why. Most of us rarely get beyond what and how….and society is definitely engineered to keep us in these limited realms. Congratulations on exploring the “why” on our most complex issue.

    • schoultz says:

      Thanks Ed. Suffering takes many forms, and I always learn a lot by hearing about, reading about how people have handled about as bad as it gets. Frankl quotes Nietzsche, “if a man has a why to live for, he can bear almost any how.” Thanks for your comment. Bob

  3. Pingback: Stay Fascinated, my friends! | Bob Schoultz's Corner

  4. Pingback: The Existentialist’s Survival Guide, by Gordon Marino | Bob's Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s