Books · Emotional Health

Man’s Search for Meaning

[First published August 10, 2017]

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.

He saw that one of the additional meanings of his ordeal was that he would be able to observe human beings under the most extreme kinds of duress and learn something about the nature of man. This may sound clinical and detached, but one of his first discoveries was that the prisoners quickly became detached from their emotional lives. “Feeling” as little as possible was absolutely necessary. Anyone who reacted with normal human emotions to what was happening was certain to perish. He wrote, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”

Frankl’s most helpful insight was that while we can’t control what happens to us (and certainly the concentration camp is the ultimate example of this), we can control how we react. “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,” he said. The young doctor set about trying to control himself as well as he could in this evil circumstance. He was careful to keep in the shadows, for being noticed, for anything, was a shortcut to death. But helping and comforting his fellow prisoners became his goal. It gave him the feeling of being useful, as well as a higher moral compass to guide him. As he said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” He continued,

“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.”

Frankl describes several situations in which, had he turned left instead of right, or gone on one work detail rather than another, he would have died. As random as it was, somehow his path led to his survival and release. He ultimately immigrated to the United States (he had a chance to do so in the late 1930s but would not leave his elderly parents in danger), where he continued his career as an eminent psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.

Here, Frankl continued to develop his own type of treatment, which he called “logotherapy,” based on the idea that man’s primary motive is not the pursuit of pleasure, as Freud had theorized, but the discovery of what we find personally meaningful. In this, he accurately predicted the major afflictions of late 20th-century man. Instead of the sexually repressed and conflicted patients that Freud treated, Frankl saw that most people were complaining of feelings of emptiness and lack of purpose. They lacked joy not because their lives were not pleasurable, but because they were meaningless. Drug abuse, eating disorders, depression, and many other common problems that therapists treat these days are all now considered to be somewhat related to the problem of inner emptiness.

Love, too, is seen in this light. Frankl considered it one of life’s highest purposes, and proposed that only through loving someone else can we truly know them. And the act of loving itself has a meaning and purpose for man:

“By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

This statement is in harmony with the most current research indicating that the happiest couples are those who help each other develop their talents and stimulate them to learn and develop. Loving is not a passive activity—something that happens to you, as in the concept of falling in love, but an active process that involves constant engagement. Those who understand this and live this way are the most likely to have good relationships.

Finally, Frankl had a lot to say about the concept of success and happiness. One might not think that enduring Auschwitz would teach much about this, but he learned that success in life cannot be pursued directly but is instead a by-product of embracing your most personal goals. This is true for happiness as well: it cannot be directly pursued, it ensues as a result of your actions. “Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

Was his suffering necessary for Frankl to accumulate these wisdoms? We all know that many people become wise without enduring the torments that he did (and vice versa), but Frankl’s formidable character and intelligence helped him see important truths. Speaking of the meaning of his experience and the ways he coped, he wrote, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” In an era where the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain have become so acceptable and universal, it is good to be reminded that pain is not always useless. In his words, “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.” And sometimes coping with pain, rather than running from it or denying it, is the best way through it. Frankl’s timeless memoir is a testament to courage and moral fiber. Lets hope these ideals will never be out of date.

 

Reference

Frankl, Viktor. (1946). Man’s Search for Meaning.

 

 

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Kendall Meredith May 22, 2020 at 11:25 am

    Essential article on Victor Frankl. Thank you

    Reply