It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that is short enough to read in a day, and yet been so blown away by it. There are few out there that deliver such impactful punches to the gut that they leave you speechless, that impart some of the worlds greatest horrors on you in the same sentence as the worlds most beautiful, crystallised moments of kindness and love. Dr. Viktor E. Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is one such book.
It is one that can truly be described as life-changing.
I have had this book on my shelf for a long time, but due to its deceptively slight size and cover, I had overlooked it for far too long. Recently I worked my way through Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss’ most recent two works – in the infamous “What book do you most frequently give as a gift?” question, Dr. Frankl’s work was one of the most frequently appearing. Despite the gravitas of its subject, the book is written in an easy-to-read way and though the subject matter is heavy, Dr. Frankl’s writing is light.
I read this book in a day. I couldn’t put it down. From the second I picked it up, I felt myself to be in his shoes, and I could empathise more deeply with his account than almost any book I have ever read. Due to his background as a psychologist, he gives an account of the concentration camps in Auschwitz and Dachau that is so haunting as to make them understandable to even the most distanced individual from that circumstance. The book is in two parts, first his account of the camps originally published in 1946, and the second a description of his theory of logotherapy added later in 1992 before his death in 1997.
The book has many key takeaways, both from the story of the camps themselves and the discussion of Frankl’s Logotherapy that follows.
He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
The above quote from Friedrich Nietzsche is an underpinning of the concept of logotherapy, and Frankl verifies it throughout the first part of the book with his experiences of the camps.
He illustrates the power of hope and meaning in one’s existence as the ability to allow the human body to exceed its own capability to survive. An example he gives is that of a prisoner who has a prophetic dream in February 1945, that the war will end on March 30th. In the weeks of February and early March, In the days preceding March 30th, the man’s health began to wane and on March 31st he died.
He appeared to succumb to typhus. Frankl knew in fact that he had simply lost his way.
It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”
This touches upon the sense of entitlement. Our expectations of what life will bring mean very, very little. As we have all experienced, bad things will and do happen to good people, and good things will and do fall in the path of people with malicious intent. This is an ineradicable truth of life. What this means for us is do not expend energy on your expectations of life: conserve it for what life will inevitably demand of you.
Frankl goes on to say “Life means taking the responsibility to find the answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it sets for each individual.”
This extends beyond the psychological and into the philosophical. It also pre-empts the second part of the book, where he discusses his psychotherapeutic theories. It is a call-to-arms to be responsive to the demands that life will inevitably place upon you, and to rise to the occasion every time.
Who can throw a stone at a man who favours his friends when under circumstances which, sooner or later, it is a matter of life or death? No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”
Frankl also calls into question human nature. He recognises that a certain type of hardiness and resilience was required to survive in the concentration camps and that there was a requirement for one to have the willingness to do whatever was necessary to survive. The concentration camps were a place where each individual was identified only by a number – the inmates were constantly dehumanised, and that is brought to the forefront in Frankl’s observance of their psychological outlooks.
In this reflection, he is querying the requirements placed on a person who was to survive the camps. He supposes that survival in the camps was made up of many small choices, a struggle to face every waking second what life expected from the victims. It required the willingness to steal another man’s piece of bread or to change a number on a sheet so that someone went to the gas chambers in place of a friend or loved one of one’s own.
Within the opening 3 pages of the book, both the above “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” from Nietzsche and the below quote make their appearance.
We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return.
This is the most harrowing realisation I took away from the book; that to survive such suffering, requires a constant choice between one’s conscience and one’s life. And that the best of the victims of the camps chose their conscience.
He implores us to be introspective before accusatory, and in doing so encourages self-reflection and introspection. This is emphasised when discussing his theories of logotherapy in direct comparison to those of Freud and Adler’s theories of will to pleasure and will to power respectively.
Frankl’s logotherapy represents the will to meaning.
Man’s Search for Meaning is a treatise on the need for a why in life.
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely-chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
He also discusses the presence of what he calls an existential vacuum and offers a prediction for the future that is Orwellian in its accuracy.
“No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformity) or does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).”
“The existential vacuum manifests itself in a state of boredom… progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in the leisure hours available to the average worker. The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with all their newly-acquired free time.”
Only one lack remains [in our time], even though not yet felt, the lack of difficulty. Out of love of humankind, out of despair over my awkward predicament of having achieved nothing and of being unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, out of genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I comprehended that it was my task: to make difficulties everywhere.