Man's Search for Meaning

According to a survey reported in the Times a while ago, Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is among the “ten most influential books in the United States.” I read the book a few months ago for the first time and it has taken me a while to say a few words about it. Given its account of the horrors of life in the Nazi concentration camps, I guess that is perfectly understandable.

Frankl describes the impossibly hard struggle to survive under one of the most brutal conditions man has ever devised, the moment to moment struggle for warmth, food, safety, clothes, shoes and indeed for existence, including his own.

We stumbled on in the darkness over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk.

…only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves.

Out of this experience or perhaps because of it, Frankl developed his theory of Logotherapy built around its core assumption that finding a meaning to one’s life is man’s primary motivational force. Logotherapy deviates from psychoanalysis in fulfilling a meaning, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts. In my notes, I wrote, “Is this what most people think? Is the search for meaning our primary concern, the dominant motivation of our life?”

According to Frankl there are three places where man can find meaning in their life—the work they do or create, the love they experience with someone else, and their response to suffering. He argues that without suffering human life cannot be complete. Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.

A person’s character is revealed in their response to the inevitable suffering they experience. Here he turns to his experiences in the camp for support. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.

Throughout his account I kept thinking, well, he was one of the lucky ones. The odds of survival in the camp were about 1 in 28. Did those who didn’t survive think their life had meaning as they were being forcibly marched to the gas chambers?

(Whenever I think of the Holocaust, I think of the millions who perished and I wonder what would the world be like today if they had not been killed, if the Holocaust had never occurred? The question takes on meaning for me as I think about the remarkable achievements of some of those who did survive.)

I have thought a lot about Frankl’s theory of suffering and the significance he attaches to the experience. Man’s Search for Meaning has left an enduring mark on my life. It seems to have left its mark on most everyone who reads it. The other night I took to the book to a restaurant to read while I was having dinner. And once the waitress saw me reading the book, she actually sat down next to me and proceeded to tell me how much the book meant to her and how it had changed her life.

Her experience is not uncommon. In an Afterward in the edition I read, William Winslade writes:

…the darkness of despair threatened to overwhelm a young Israeli soldier who had lost both his legs in the Yom Kippur War. He was drowning in depressing and contemplating suicide. One day a friend noticed that his outlook had changed to hopeful serenity. The soldier attributed his transformation to reading Man’s Search for Meaning. When he was told about the soldier, Frankl wondered whether “there may be such a thing as autobibliotherapy—healing through reading.

1 comment:

Gillian King said...

Hello Richard,

I read Frankl some years ago, and have also found that in times of great suffering, the meaning I have found has been to bear it as well as I can. To endure without bitterness, to dig within and continue to love and show care.

Speaking of Holocaust, it always summons for me the full range of mass extinctions humans have wreaked on each other -- Pol Pot's killing fields, Russian camps, the Armenian massacre, the mass deaths of native peoples on many continents in the face of European expansion.

In 'Night of the New Moon', Laurens van der Post gives an account of his years in Japanese POW camps during WWII. He doesn't put forward a theory of meaning as Frankl does, but he does emerge from the brutality of the camps without hatred for the Japanese -- a remarkable acheivement.