“Man’s Search for Meaning”
by Viktor Frankl
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”
If the above quote does not make you want to read this mesmerizing book then read on because it gets better. Viktor Frankl’s bestselling legendary book just keeps on giving. The book is divided into two parts. The first is titled, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” and though he does give graphic description of the “hell” he lived through while incarcerated, Frankl focuses more on how he, as a psychotherapist, observed and interpreted how the human psyche coped and survived. It is a tough first 93 pages to read but does effectively set up the second part titled, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell”. Logotherapy, (Logo is Greek for “Meaning”), is the psychotherapy that he developed. Over the last 53 pages of the book he explains his theory, and on almost every page there is a nugget of wisdom to be absorbed.
With this review it is my hope that I do this very powerful book the justice it deserves. It has the power to help enhance your personal life and the interaction you have with others, but it also has the potential to have a significant effect on a greater scale, for as he says in the last two sentences :
“Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.
And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”
Part 1: Experiences in a Concentration Camp
Viktor Frankl “existed” in four different concentration camps for over three plus years. In this first section of his book, he does not attempt to give facts and events that took place during this time but rather gives, personal experiences, experiences that millions of prisoners suffered time and again. In his own words he states, ” I try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?”
Frankl does this by observing three phases of his inmates’ mental reaction to concentration camp life: the period following their admission, the period when they are well entrenched in camp routine and the period following their release and liberation.
He defines the first phase as being dominated by shock. He describes a condition known as “delusion of reprieve” when a condemned man, immediately before his execution gets the illusion that he might be reprieved. He states that nearly everyone arrives at camp with this illusion but within the first hours this illusion is crushed for over 90% of them. A grim sense or humor and curiosity then set in which helped somehow in detaching the mind from its surroundings and served as a means of emotional protection. As well, a sense of surprise was felt by the inmates due to their ability to endure a significant lack of sleep, food and hygiene, as well as cold and frostbite. Finally, there was a boundless longing by the inmates for their home and family. To summarize this first stage he quotes,” Yes, a man can get used to anything, but don’t ask us how.”
Apathy, the blunting of emotions and feelings, was the most prominent psychological reaction in the second stage. The suffering, the dying, the dead, became such common place that after a few weeks in camp the sight of these events could not emotionally move the inmates anymore. Again this served as a protective shell for the inmates from the horrors that surrounded them daily and allowed them to centre their remaining emotional and physical strength on one task, preserving their own life and that of their closest friends.
It is during this second stage that you sense that Frankl is developing and strengthening his Logotherapy ideas. He discusses the intensification of inner spiritual life, the need not to lose values and self respect or the inmate is threatened with losing the feeling of being an individual which significantly diminished his chances of survival. Significantly and surprisingly, he argues that though it may not seem so, the inmate is not completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings. He states that there are example, as few as there may be, that man does have a choice of action and that apathy could be suppressed. He states,” Fundamentally, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him…it is this freedom that makes life meaningful and purposeful.” He extends these thoughts to suffering when he states, ” the way a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails…adds a deeper meaning to his life.”
Frankl’s overriding psychological observation in the third stage, liberation, was that of “depersonalization.” Once liberated the inmate who had dreamed of this very moment, everything appeared unreal and unlikely. The inmates had to endure a step by step process to become human again. As well, the inmates felt bitterness and disillusionment as they attempted to return to their former lives. Their post war/concentration camp world was not how they had envisioned it. They were not prepared for unhappiness and for the struggle to survive to begin again.
Part 2: Logotherapy in a Nut Shell
Part 1 sets the stage for some of the most powerful reading you will encounter. Frankl explains Logotherapy, “meaning therapy,” as a therapy that focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning. According to his theory, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.
He states clearly that the search for meaning is a life long journey. To help explain this, he makes the analogy of your life to a full length movie. Each moment in your life is a like a frame in a movie. Each moment or frame must be observed and considered individually but together they tell a story that has meaning. The full meaning of your life may not be totally revealed until the end of your life, similar to what occurs in a movie.
Frankl states that you can discover the meaning of life three different ways:
1. By creating a work or doing a deed, in other words by achievement or accomplishment.
2. By experiencing something or encountering someone. This means experiencing goodness, truth, beauty and love, the ultimate definition of togetherness.
3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. Due to the suffering he and others endured in the concentration camps, Frankl spends a lot of time in Part 1 discussing his rationale for finding meaning in suffering. When we are suffering we all have a tendency to say, “what is the purpose of this suffering?” Frankl had every excuse in the world to say that but he makes a convincing argument that there is meaning to be found. He clearly states that to find true meaning in suffering, the suffering has to be unavoidable, such as a death in the family, being held against your will, losing your job through no fault of your own. He states to suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.
To find meaning in suffering Frankl states that we must accept the challenge to suffer bravely and that life has meaning throughout this ordeal. So often when we face challenging situations, we cave in to the suffering and as a consequence lose hope and meaning. As well, Frankl states that when we are no longer able to change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves. This I found to be a very powerful message. He concludes this section on suffering by stating that suffering is not necessary to find meaning, but meaning is possible even in spite of suffering, if we choose to accept it. He states the choice is always ours, just like it was for the people in the concentration camps. Frankl uses a quote from the German philosopher Nietzsche to emphasize this point, “he who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any HOW. ”
Frankl concludes his powerful message by stating three key points;
1. Everyone has his own specific mission / vocation in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands to be fulfilled.
2. Everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.
3. Man has a responsibility to fulfill his “meaning. ”
Vikto Frankl presents a powerful and unique perspective on living your life purposefully and with meaning, often in the face of great adversity. His life as a Nazi concentration camp survivor is a great example of that. I came away from reading this book highly motivated and saying to myself, ” If he can do it why can’t I do the same?” I present the same challenge to you.
Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, Beacon Press,
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