Man’s Search for Meaning

“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”

Viktor Frankl survived three harrowing years in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. A Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna, Frankl’s intellectual curiosity put him in a unique position to observe life and death in prison camp. “Man’s Search for Meaning” is Frankl’s attempt to translate these stories in to lessons about human survival amid pointless suffering.

Man’s Search for Meaning is split in to two parts. In the first part, Frankl recalls stories from his time in the prison camps. As you can imagine, its a catalogue of despair. But, as was Frankl’s way, he found tasks and pursuits that helped him through the hellish years (like managing the camp “medical centre”, a segregated tent for the ultra sick and dying). These tasks and pursuits gave Frankl periods of purpose. In the second part of the book, Frankl describes his professional theory about man’s need for purpose,  and how man can find meaning in, and in spite of, immeasurable suffering.

After the war, Frankl returned to Vienna where he became a prominent and distinguished figure in the medical community. He was best known for developing and championing “Logotherapy”.  Sometimes called “The Third Viennesse School of Physchotherapy”, Logotherapy is the belief that man is motivated by the pursuit of a purpose. This “will to meaning” stands in contrast to the Freudian “will to pleasure” and Nietzschean “will to power” theories that dominated earlier schools of thinking.

“Logos” is a Greek word which denotes “meaning”. Logotherapy regards its value in assisting the patient to find the hidden logos of his life. In this way, Logotherapy assumes that existential equanimity can be found in our will to meaning, rather than in gratification or the satisfaction of our desires. Frankl warns of the “existential vacuum”, the unsettling drifting feeling that occurs when we lose sight of our purpose.

Logotherapy is not directly instructive as to the meaning of life. It aims to help us to see it for ourselves. In this way it does not act like a painter and paint the world as it sees it, it acts like an eye doctor, correcting our vision so that we might see it for ourselves.

Frankl says that we can discover meaning in life in three ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone and (3) by the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering.

The first two speak for themselves. Go, do, seek, and you shall find. Frankl says that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension – between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish. Frankl writes, “I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, ‘homeostasis’, i.e. a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

Now this I can relate to. You know when you have a busy period at work, or you’re organising a big event, or working on an assignment, and it’s busy but you’re organised and driven and, somehow, calm, despite looking forward to the finish line and the glee and relief that will surely follow. You get to that finish line and, yes, it feels good for a moment, until the gaping abyss of spare time confronts you bringing with it all sorts of anxiety and thoughts and feelings of boredom and what am I doing with my life? So you look for a new project, a new purpose. The tension returns and with it comes organisation and motivation and, somehow, calm. And so returns your will to meaning.

As I said, the first and second of Frankl’s “ways to meaning” make perfect sense. It is the third that may confuse. For what meaning can be found in arbitrary suffering?

Frankl says that it is in suffering that we bear witness to the human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy in to a triumph. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Frankl makes it very clear that suffering is not necessary to find meaning, nor should we seek it out. He only means that meaning can be found in spite of suffering. If suffering is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is to remove its cause or to avoid it.

When one encounters unavoidable suffering, one has few choices. Frankl and Logotherapy remind us that one choice always remains. The ability to choose our attitude, to choose our way.

Man’s Search for Meaning intersects history and psychology in a way that is unavailable to most authors of books about psychology and life’s meaning. Frankl elegantly and cohesively weaves his stories and lessons into a profoundly affecting manifesto of hope. Reading this, some 50 years after its original publication, I am left with little wonder as to why this remains one of the most highly recommended and widely read books to emerge from the Holocaust period.

Thought leader(s): Viktor E. Frankl
Book(s): Frankl, V.E. (1959) Man’s Search for Meaning, Random House, UK. 

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