Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

It has been a while! I woke up this morning and decided it was time to get back on the horse and stop avoiding reading/writing. It has been a busy couple of months, but I cannot pretend that I had no time for reading. In the past two months, I started three different books and despite genuine interest, could not get through more than a few chapters each. I guess I just needed a break.

While the past two months have been busy, I cannot complain. They have also been wonderful. I saw Hamilton on Broadway, explored Ireland for a week with family, spent a whopping 36 hours in New Orleans with my best friend, and moved to Brooklyn. Now hopefully my travel is winding down and I can enjoy my summer in the city with a few good books by my side (…she says, knowing at least 10 of the next 14 days will not be spent at home – happy summer!)

I chose Man’s Search for Meaning to help me out of my slump for two reasons. First, I woke up and needed to accomplish something and knew I could finish this in a few hours. Second, while I have never been particularly drawn to history, the holocaust and WWII in general have always piqued my interest. In the past, I have regretted using the term “favorite” when referring to this time because it sounds callous and entirely disregards what the prisoners went through. So please do not misunderstand me. This time period is fascinating, but in the most cruel and heartbreaking way possible.

This book is broken into two parts, in the first, Frankl recounts his time in various concentration camps, notably Auschwitz. In the second, he describes his theory in psychology which he termed “logotherapy.”

I highlighted numerous passages in my kindle and will share a few that really stuck with me. First, to define logotherapy in the simplest of terms, Frankl says,

“It is one of the basic tenets of logotherapy that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.”

And as Harold Kushner says in the foreword,

“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something signficant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.”

Frankl, who suffered more than most can even comprehend, still found meaning in his life. At the end of the book, in the afterword, we hear that Frankl’s meaning in life was to help others find meaning in their lives. In just the short 165 pages of this book, you can see that he was beyond successful in accomplishing his meaning in life. He spoke with countless suicidal individuals and talked them off the ledge simply by finding their meaning, their purpose. One story that really stuck with me (as if others didn’t when I only finished an hour ago) was an older gentleman that spoke with Frankl about his meaning in life. He had lost his wife and was terribly depressed. Frankl asked the man how his wife would have handled the situation if the roles were reversed. The man quickly responded that she would have suffered terribly. Frankl says, “Such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering – to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” Something as simple as this helped the man out of depression. Frankl had an obvious intuition for helping others find their meaning. He used his suffering in Auschwitz to develop his own meaning in life in helping others find theirs. I truly envy the people who got to spend time with this man.

Frankl had a response for all the thoughts I had while reading. First, quantifying suffering. When I read something like this or I hear something in the news, I feel extreme guilt for ever complaining for a second about my life, about my “suffering.” Soon after this thought crossed my mind, I read,

“To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of 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.”

What an eloquent way to describe suffering. Especially when, if we were to quantify suffering, most everyone would pale in comparison to the very man who wrote those words. Still, obviously, reading his recount of Auschwitz makes my troubles feel small (which is actually helpful).

Another thought I had surrounded his idea of logotherapy. I kept thinking of the practicality of it, the logic that one must internalize in order to find their meaning in life in spite of suffering (though he makes it known that suffering is not at all a requirement in finding meaning.) I struggle between logic and emotion on a regular basis. When taking Myer’s Briggs personality quizzes, I am smack dab in the middle between “Thinking” and “Feeling.” I can think logically about just about any situation, no matter what suffering is involved. At the same time, I am very far from someone who is cold-blooded and doesn’t think about others feelings. Moral of the story: never come to me for advice. Anyways, Frankl cleared things up for me in throwing out the idea that logotherapy is all about logic. He said,

“Logotherapy is neither teaching nor preaching. It is as far removed from logical reasoning as it is from moral exhortation. To put it figuratively, the role played by a logotherapist is that of an eye specialist rather than that of a painter. A painter tries to convey to us a picture of the world as he sees it; an ophthalmologist tries to enable us to see the world as it really is. The logotherapist’s role consists of widening and broadening the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible to him.”

I tend to go from zero to sixty too quick. No reading in two months to a book and long post in one day, so with that, I will conclude with some other excellent quotes. I have lots of thoughts on them, but quite frankly am not sure how to put any of them into words at the moment. Enjoy.

“It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”

“The emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in the categorical imperative of logotherapy, which is: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” It seems to me that there is nothing which would stimulate a man’s sense of responsibleness more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is past, and second, that the past may yet be changed and amended. Such a precept confronts him with life’s finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of both his life and himself.”

“A positive attitude enables a person to endure suffering and disappointment as well as enhance enjoyment and satisfaction. A negative attitude intensifies pain and deepens disappointments; it undermines and diminishes pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction; it may even lead to depression or physical illness.”

“From this one may see that there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past – the potentialities that have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values the have realized – and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.”

Thank you for reading and thank you to one of my old high school teachers for the recommendation, I loved this book and would highly recommend.

One comment

  1. I often think about Diana Nyad’s story of speaking with a Holocaust survivor. Diana felt guilty about talking about her own experience of being raped by her swim coach because she compared her experience to that of this woman who was a Holocaust survivor. But this woman told her that each person has his/her own pain and sorrow and that she should not feel that her pain or guilt should be “less” because it didn’t seem as horrific as what she (the Holocaust survivor) had experienced.
    I’m an INTJ and I, too, can apply logic to any situation and put my feelings aside. I even had one friend who called me a “Vulcan” (from Spock on Star Trek). I often seemed cold and aloof. This has served me well in life in many ways but I often wonder why I’m not more sensitive to others’ feelings. I try to think of ways to be more caring but sometimes it just doesn’t feel like “me.” I think it’s interesting that you draw the conclusion that people should not come to you for advice because of your propensity to see a situation logically. Perhaps when people come for advice, what they really want is someone to just validate their feelings and to have someone say, “Yes, I hear you.” Perhaps they really don’t want advice. But, of course, we think logically, so perhaps we feel like we must give advice.
    I’m glad you enjoyed the book and your time away from reading and blogging. Glad you’re back!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s