Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

Man's Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

How many of us have a clear idea of what the purpose of our life is? The search for meaning is perhaps one of the most profound inquiries in human existence. And among the best authorities in this field was Austrian psychiatrist and Auschwitz concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl.

Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning describes life in the concentration camp where starvation, chronic lack of sleep, physical torture and psychological harassment were a way of existence. On arrival, prisoners were stripped from all possessions and literally left naked. They lost all possible material links with their former lives. Conditions were such that they brought out a human being’s most primitive instincts, making prisoners focus almost exclusively on survival.

One may think that in the face of these exceptionally difficult circumstances, where apathy was the dominant feeling, an individual feels completely and unavoidably restricted by his surroundings. Frankl, however, openly challenges this idea, offering a life-lesson.

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. (…) they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Frankl refers pointedly to what “having the right attitude” meant.

Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. (…) What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked (…) and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl

Some of the most remarkable passages in the book are those that include Frankl’s reflections on love as a powerful source of meaning. His wife had gone to another camp and was dead by the time Frankl describes a situation that happened one morning, when prisoners were marching to their work site, receiving rude orders from the guards.

Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: ‘If our wives could see us now!’

(…) for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.

(…) I didn’t even know if she were still alive. (…) Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.

I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there.

Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the most original tributes to life. It demonstrates that even under the most adverse circumstances there is still hope if you have the right attitude. In face of suffering, oftentimes we give up, feel lost and question the purpose of life. The book, a must-read for anybody interested in personal development, shows that it is actually upon us to step up to these circumstances and assign our own sense of meaning and purpose to our life.

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