Man’s Search For Meaning

Author: Dr. Viktor E. Frankl

Title: Man’s Search For Meaning

Apparently the version of this title that I’m holding now is the 60th anniversary edition of the classic bestseller. In a way it means, I should have heard about this at least 10 years ago. But I did not; until a motivation speaker quoted examples from this book that it got me curious. I wrote down the title in my notes and proceed to search for it.

I reckon that even if I would have heard of this title and proceed to read it some 10 years ago, I would not be able to understand the essence of it until this very moment. The period of life and past experiences are two most important influential factors when it comes to reading, and understand a particular kind of book.

The preface in this edition is written by Gordon W. Allport, has further aroused my curiosity, he wrote,

“In this book, Dr. Frankl explains the experience which led to his discovery of logotherapy. As a long-time prisoner in bestial concentration camps he found himself stripped to naked existence. His father, mother, brother, and his wife died in camps or were sent to the gas ovens, so that, excepting his sister, his entire family perished in these camps. How could he – every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger, cold and brutality, hourly expecting extermination – how could he find life worth preserving? A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to. He, if anyone, should be able to view our human condition wisely and with compassion.”

So I began the journey with Dr. Frankl on his horror day-to-day life in the camps. Written with a great amount of calmness despite his personal experience of the accounts over the years in camps, Dr. Frankl inserted his observation everywhere in the book, and with this subtle explanation, readers would be able to match the connection of few important elements together, progressively.

The observation of different phases on how our brain handles fear is explained in the book., starting from the first phase of survival:

Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends.”

Then a strange kind of humor and curiosity follows once the man has passed this initial stage. Dr Frankl put it as a fundamental reaction toward certain strange circumstances, and one cultivated the curiosity state of mind as a means of protection. He observed that once a man lives pass the initial phase of shock, fear and curiosity, one is slowly moving towards the lack of emotions.

“Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings. By means of this insensibility the prisoner soon surrounded himself with a very necessary protective shell.”

Dr Frankl went on to gives us examples of the beatings, favoritism and indignation in camps, how actions that could not be tolerated today were just a daily affair in the camps. So how it is so related to our daily life of our struggle: first we fought to get even with the situation (or person), then we tried to act alongside the devil (that is inside us: thinking we shall treat the bad with the same attitude) and slowly we gave up hope (feeling tired of fighting) and perhaps many times, and die (emotionally and physically). Then through more examples, the author shows us the other way out – what we ought to be, despite difficulties (even in the camp) is entirely up to our inner self.

In my personal opinion, the book gets very interesting and meaningful once I read through the camp incidents, thinking it is going to be same till the end of it, yet Dr Frankl turned around and ask: so what have all these incidents taught me? He then went on to answer it:

“Seen from this point of view, the mental reactions of the inmates of a concentration camp must seen more to us than the mere expression of certain physical and sociological conditions. Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man an, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those marytrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

It is one of my favorite paragraphs in this book. As, if there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. I do agree with the author that, without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete. But of course, by no means that suffering is the only way to discover the meaning of life. Instead, it is just one of the opportunities presented to some, in order to find the meaning.

As normal human being, we dread of being in the state of suffering, but through many events we see, that through suffering, human being are able to rise above the pain towards a more meaningful future, with the condition of not losing faith in the future as a bottom line. Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

Therefore, what the author is keen to have us believe that, many issues can be solved through an understanding of the meaning of why we suffer, and how we want to be whom we are deep down, is truly dependable on what we wanted it to be.

So how, did Dr. Frankl answer to the question of: what is the meaning of life?

“As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being response.”

Meaning of life changes as we go along the road, but it is never ceases to be. There is meaning of love; there is also meaning of suffering. The book has no definite answer for those who seek for a concrete answer, but for me personally, it has openly provided so many options that we can look into, or of that we’ve seen but forgotten to take it seriously.

Many times we know, that human mind play games on us, by there is nothing like reading a true event account to give you the spirit for moving forward with a brace heart.

The 60th anniversary edition has an additional chapter of his Logotherapy theories, and case study of “Tragic Optimistic”.

In case you’re in pain, read this book, it brings you through a journey of giving life a second chance, believing that plenty of what is going to happen, lie in our own hand, and mind. It does not do the usual motivation stuff and promised you solutions, instead it gives you cold hard facts, and the choice is yours to make.

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