Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl
Man’s Search for Meaning is a famous book – there’s a good chance you’ve heard of it. I’ve heard my dad mention principles from it for many years, and finally the other day I came to the realization that I really should read it for myself.
I’m so glad I did! I’m still processing everything, and I’ll be turning back to underlined passages for a long time to come, but I can truthfully say this book has impacted my perspective on life and living.
To give you some background: Viktor Fankl was a celebrated psychiatrist, and the founder of logotherapy (the psychotherapy which focuses on the meaningfulness of man’s existence, and his search for meaning). He was also a concentration camp survivor.
This book consists of two sections – the first is a series of stories about his experiences in concentration camp. The narrative in this first section is unique from other concentration camp books I’ve read in that he examines his own attitudes and the attitudes of others from a psychological perspective. He talks about the different phases of the mental reactions the inmates went through.
The second section is a basic explanation of logotherapy. This school of thought states that there are three experiences through which we can discover meaning: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” (133).
One of the main ideas I took away from the book as a whole is that even if everything is taken away from us (the ability to be creative, or have pleasures/enjoyment in life), there is one remaining freedom that cannot be stripped away – the freedom of how we react to our circumstances. In the camps, Viktor writes “One could make a victory of those experiences turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate” (93).
Each person has a responsibility and calling in their life, that is uniquely their own and that only they can fulfill. Frankl writes in one section how it was forbidden to hinder inmates who attempted suicide. So instead, they worked to stop those tendencies before they turned into action. He did this by helping each person recognize the responsibility he had. One person had a child still out there in the world, another books that could only be written by him. Essentially, life as they were experiencing it was not offering them anything, but they still had something to offer life.
Logotherapy is essentially a call to action – a call to live each day fully, exerting your efforts toward the unique calling and responsibilities that you have. It’s a call to remember what you have to do, and what you ought to do (not just what you want to do).
I feel like I’m doing a somewhat clumsy job of summarizing this – I can only advise that you read the book itself! If it sounds dry in my description, just believe me that the actual book is really interesting and moves quickly. I highly recommend that you give this one a read!