I stumbled upon this book while browsing in the bookshop for something interesting to read during the flight. I don’t often pick up books with heavy topics like holocaust, but in this case I was intrigued by the title, which promised insights in the topic I have developed interest for in the last few years.
Viktor E. Frankl was a psychiatrist and creator of logotherapy and has written many books about it and related topics. “Man’s Search For Meaning” is pretty short, and certainly not enough to cover even the small part of what Frankl has to say, but it is easy to read and great introduction to his philosophy regarding logotherapy and existentialism.
Concentration camps and logotherapy
Book is organized into two main parts.
First part is a collection of snippets from Frankl’s time in the concentration camp, narrated from the perspective of psychiatrist. While this part was certainly an interesting read, it does not give us overall structure to fit all the pieces in. Instead, Frankl builds a notion of several important concepts of his philosophy and let’s us wonder about how they are all going to come together.
Second part is where Frankl talks about logotherapy, his view on meaning of life and it’s effect on man. While I worried during the first part of the book that I might never get the big picture (like in a movie that ends abruptly, leaving many questions open), second part of the book quickly removed my worries with very direct approach, using situations and concepts described in the first part of the book to explain Frankl’s philosophy and glue everything together.
Why is meaning important?
Basic thought of the book is that man needs meaning in order to be happy and to persist through challenges that life throws at him. He supports this claim strongly with the description of the concentration camp life, where person has nothing left but still some find the strength to persist, thanks to the meaning they found, either in their suffering itself or in the life that is waiting for them after the camp.
Frankl distinguishes two types of meaning of life, first being the general meaning of human race and our existance, while the second is the meaning of the individual person in it. He does not go much into the first one and focuses only on the second one.
While reading, I easily agreed with the importance of having meaning in one’s life. How can we make decisions and advance in life if there are no goals that we pursue, and how can we have goals if there is no meaning behind them? However, it can seem hard to find a meaning that we really believe in, so I was interested in what Frankl has to say about that.
Below is sentence from his book that summarizes his views well:
Man needs meaning, unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone. Only then does it achieve significance which will satisfy his own “will to meaning”.
But how can we find unique meaning, something that only we can we do, in this big world? Whatever we do, there is almost always somebody else that could also do it, so how can we hope to be unique?
Frankl says that when looking for such unique role, we can almost always find it in our local environment. We are in unique position to make lives better for our friends, partners, family, children. To excel in our specific field of work, in our creative work (art), in our local community, or to get the most out of our specific situation.
Frankl defines three ways of finding meaning:
- In doing work/deed
- In loving somebody
- In suffering
For me the first two were expected but I was somewhat surprised by the third one, suffering. He mentioned multiple times in the book that there can be meaning in suffering only when suffering is unavoidable. If we can avoid it, we should by any means, but if that is not possible, then through persisting and staying true and strong through the suffering a man can find meaning and grow. He observed this during his days in concentration camps and mostly explains it through stories from that time.
Few cool quotes from the book that I really liked:
Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.
and (rephrased by me):
Past is not lost, but full of treasures. The only things that we really have forever are those in our past, stored safely. Past full of accomplishments is worth more than future full of opportunities.
Main takeaway for me is that to find meaning we don’t have to go to far, we can find it in our family, people we are close with and in unique situations we are in. Even if it seems sometimes like there is no meaning in the current situation, we should take it for granted that there is meaning and take on our responsibilities bravely.
I would certainly recommend the book, since it is a short introduction into a really interesting topic, and I hope to read more books by Frankl in the future!