Justine Tan reviews Victor Frankl’s seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Upon publishing this hugely influential and widely renowned piece, many congratulated Viktor Frankl on his success with Man’s Search for Meaning. His response may however seem surprising, as he found it more a tragedy than an accomplishment that millions of people were – and still are – looking to this book in hopes that it might supplement their otherwise vapid existence.
Having been through concentration camps during World War II at the hands of the Nazi regime, Frankl developed a startlingly profound and optimistic approach to life (it should be noted that he developed this not because of his suffering, but because he suffered bravely and sought meaning in those ordeals) . Life — not in the sense of his mere existence as just another number amongst the throng of prisoners, but despite its accompanying indignities and the sheer injustice of the situation. Life with an aim, a future – a genuine hope, for the absence of hope deteriorates one’s physical well-being and, consequently, the will to live.
Surely, Frankl is in an incredible position to speak about finding meaning in the gloomiest and most damned of circumstances, because those experiences were so excruciatingly personal to him and he lived through them. Not merely survived, but lived. His work would likely not have had as much impact otherwise, for theorising without having had to deal with hardship might render one self-righteous as one is utterly detached from its realities.
Despite his general optimism, in parts of his book Frankl reveals the moments when he was at his lowest:
“God knows, I was not in the mood to give psychological explanations or to preach any sermons – to offer my comrades a kind of medical care in their souls. I was cold and hungry, irritable and tired, but I had to make the effort and use this unique opportunity. Encouragement was now more necessary than ever.”
I do not say that he ‘suffered’ in those camps. He certainly did – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. But he transcended his immediate circumstances and surmised that “if there is meaning in life, there must be meaning in suffering”. He identified the value that simple hope of a future could hold for each prisoner.
One of the ways in which he realised this capacity for inner life and spiritual deepening as a prisoner was by thinking of his wife, while toiling with sore feet at the work site one icy cold morning:
“I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation … I knew only one thing: love goes very far beyond the physical being of the beloved.”
Moments like these gave him some degree of spiritual freedom and allowed him to be open to clear perspective, leading him to surmise that the “infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death.”
A recurring message in Frankl’s book is his emphasis on personal responsibility as a vital counterpart of freedom. In a speech he made at the tender age of 16 during a philosophy lecture at which he was invited to speak, he established his enduring foundation of thought and living:
“It is we ourselves who must answer the questions that life asks of us, and to these questions we can respond only by being responsible for our existence.”
Fondly quoting Nietzsche – “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how” – he asks not what one expects of life, but what life expects of him, for “unique opportunity lies in the way one bears his burden”:
“But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist.”
Logotherapy being his brainchild – a form of psychotherapy where existential analysis is applied to help others find meaning in their lives by dealing with emotional conflicts – Frankl believes that people should take charge of their own lives, in that he does not tell them what to do, but why.
“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.”
Human beings are self-determining creatures, so we ought to ‘live as if we were already living for the second time and as if we had acted the first time as wrongly as we are about to act now’. This brings to mind the fact that our lives are finite and that our personal decisions bear much finality, thus spurring greater initiative and responsibility for our choices.
“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment … Man has both potentialities [good and bad] within himself; which one is actualised depends on decisions but not on conditions.”
Against the background of strong racist sentiments by the Nazis, Frankl believed that there were only two races – that of decent and indecent people:
“Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society … in this sense, no group is of ‘pure race’ … Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.”
In the same vein, the Germans in his day could not be condemned as a whole. Frankl refused to partake in collective blame as he believed each individual was unique, irreplaceable and responsible for his own acts and omissions, as “guilt can only be personal guilt”. Also worthy of note is the fact that in speeches he made after liberation, he mentioned that the harshest critics of the Nazis and the Holocaust were not those held in the concentration camps, but the younger generation or those who were comfortably overseas. This may appear strange to most of us looking from the outside, but his occasional encounters with kind – and even life-saving – camp guards whom he described with warm recollection are a sound basis for his stance against collective guilt and condemnation.
Man’s Search for Meaning may be a brief read, but certainly speaks to each and every individual as a rich source of wisdom and encouragement: to look beyond ourselves, and that by helping others find meaning in their lives, we might in turn derive some meaning from our own.