I finally read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl this week. I had seen it mentioned in other books and my senior pastor has referred to it before. From what I had read and heard, this was a book that I needed to read. It has been printed more than 12 million times which makes sense because there are so many gems of wisdom contained in it. This is a book that I am sure to read again in the future.
In the beginning of his book, Frankl recounts his time in various World War II concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau, but unlike other Holocaust memoirs I’ve read, he does not greatly detail the horrors of the camps. He does describe them somewhat, but as a psychiatrist, he chooses to primarily examine the toll of the camps on people’s psyche. He recounts the various feelings prisoners, including himself, felt during various stages of their captivity. The realm of psychology he had been pursuing and writing about before his deportation was Logotherapy (therapy in which a mental health expert helps a patient find meaning in his or her life in order to improve the patient’s mental state), and he was able to use this therapy successfully with some of those who had lost hope since they felt their life seemed to have no meaning anymore. He also believed that concentration camps were hard psychologically for prisoners because they had no idea when their sentence would be over whereas those in regular prisons typically know how long their sentence is and can look forward to the day when they will be released.
Part two of the book contains Frankl’s insights from the camps which we can apply to our own lives. For instance, he asserts that prisoners still had the freedom to make certain choices in how they would react to their circumstances even though this was the only freedom they had. Some of them reacted in terrible ways while some were heroic in looking after others. He also points out that constantly dwelling on the past and what has been lost can make people miss opportunities to grow spiritually in the present. One thing that helped him to survive was visualizing the future, picturing himself in a lecture hall giving a speech on “psychology in concentration camps” which gave him a purpose to go on and a dream that he hoped he could someday realize.
Recently I read the book Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman in which the author talked about the connection between the mind and body and how those who are pessimists tend to have poorer health and shorter life spans. Viktor Frankl saw this first-hand in the camps. When people lost hope, they usually did not live long after that. This is also iterated in Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night when he states that in the camps, “If you cried, you died”.
So what is the meaning of life? For Frankl, it depended on the person and their individual circumstances. In one of many powerful analogies he uses, Frankl states that asking for the meaning of life is like asking a chess master for the best chess move. There can be no right answer because there are too many different factors depending on the players and the situation. Each person must find his or her own meaning or purpose in life. He states, “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment”.
You’ll have to read the book if you would like to find out the various ways one may find meaning. There is far more knowledge in this book than I can hope to fit into a blog post, and my summary pales in comparison to his astute observations, descriptions, and explanations.