Books · Emotional Health

Man’s Search for Meaning

Can a book that was written 70 years ago be relevant to the problems people suffer today? It can, especially if it is as prescient and thoughtful as Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Written in 1946, it is structured in two parts. Part One concerns his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz. Part Two is about the existential method of psychotherapy he developed, largely informed by his wartime experiences.

I have frequently thought of his statement about suffering when someone says she feels ashamed about complaining about her problems when she is aware that so many other people are much worse off.  He wrote, “A man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

Already a trained psychiatrist when he was deported by the Nazis, Frankl lost the rest of his family to the gas chambers. He quickly realized that being strong and useful was the way to survive, at least for the time being. He immediately began observing the behavior of the prisoners, finding it fairly easy to predict that when someone had lost the will to live he would succumb to death quite soon. Determined to survive, he used his faith in the idea that living was linked to finding meaning and purpose, a “why” to what was happening.

Yet how was it possible to find meaning in such a situation? Understanding the Nazi death camps is one of the greatest challenges we have had to face. Frankl believed that meaning can be a small, personal thing, like his wish to live so he could be reunited with his loved ones, or a grander meaning, such as serving God.

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