Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Fankl

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s search for Meaning is one of the great books of our time. Typically, if a book has one passage, one idea with the power to change a person’s life, that alone justifies reading and re-reading it and finding room for it on one’s shelves. This book has several such passages – Harold S Kushner.

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The book is divided into two sections. The first comprises the experiences of Frankl’s internment in several concentration camps during World War 2; the second details a theory he proposes called Logotherapy, which involves looking to the future in an effort to find meaning in life with the view to improving every day existence.

Although there are many disturbing events detailed in the first part of the book, Frankl has focussed on using his skills as a psychoanalyst to try to work out why some people survive such horrendous circumstances and others do not. What is it that enables one to cope and another to give up?

Frankl believes it is linked with man’s view on the meaning of life.

It is something that most grapple with at some point in their lives. What meaning does life have? This does not refer to the all encompassing ‘what is the meaning of existence for humanity’ but more of ‘what is the meaning of life for me?’

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters therefore is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

Frankl says that as the prisoners were transported to the camps many were still under the illusion they would be reprieved; that all would be well. They still had hope and therefore retained the desire to survive. Soon after they arrived, however, hope faded with the horrors of their ordeal and with it their will to live.

During what Frankl terms “the first phase of our psychological reactions” most considered suicide as they viewed the future with little hope. Some took their lives by running into the electric fence surrounding the camp – so desperate were they.

The second phase, which came after the initial shock and the desire to kill oneself, brought apathy and a form of emotional death. Many of the prisoners would no longer avert their eyes to the constant beatings of the other prisoners; they no longer felt any emotion when watching someone being tortured.

Frankl describes how, on one occasion, a twelve year old boy was forced to stand to attention for hours in the snow and then to work outside with bare feet because there were no shoes for him. His toes became frostbitten and the doctors on duty picked off the black stumps. As the other prisoners watched they no longer felt disgust, horror or pity. This deadening of emotions occurred within just a few weeks of exposure to such horrors.

Gone was hope and any meaning to life.

Frankl – one of the few who survived the concentration camps – believed that “forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing: your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation” and it is possible this way of thinking, and his determination not to allow any given situation to destroy him, that enhanced Frankl’s chances of survival.

Frankl also observed that:

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen…they were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.”

Frankl believed that such intense experiences provided the opportunity for spiritual growth and with it the hope of a better future. His view was that even suffering provided meaning to life if you viewed it as such.

“When a man finds it his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”

It is possible to see all around us those who find meaning in their suffering: Charities set up in the name of loved ones who have died, such as the Willow foundation. This was founded by former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson and his wife Megs after their daughter, Anna, died of cancer. The charity provides special days for children and young people who are very ill, to give them something to look forward to.

Megan’s Law in the United States was passed after the parents of Megan Kanka – raped and murdered at the age of 7 – campaigned to have a law passed enabling communities to be warned of sex offenders in the areas in which they lived.

Some, at the death of a child or a loved one, can no longer find any meaning to life whereas others use this suffering to help others and therefore find some meaning to their own lives.

As expressed by Harold Kushner in the introductory quote there are many passages in Man’s Search for Meaning that have the power to change the way we view life. One is that we have the opportunity to choose how we respond to any given situation we find ourselves in. Whether this is a life-changing event or a more chronic leeching of our sense of self, ultimately we can choose how to respond to it. Some situations we are unable to change but we still have the choice to accept what it has to offer. Frankl believes this can determine whether we sink or swim.

Another is that life can have meaning whatever situation we are in. Meaning can be found in suffering – as the examples above show – and it can also be found in the boredom of the daily routine as boredom often spurs us on to change what is not working in our lives if we approach it in the correct way.

Man’s Search for Meaning was written over seventy years ago but its message is timeless. This book will be read in years to come and will still have the power to change the life of its reader.