Man’s Search for Meaning (2014, first published 1946) by Victor E. Frankl
Every year I will have my own personal retreat for a week – alone. But this year I’m going with a team to Ba’kalalan, the Lun Bawang settlements in the northern highlands of Sarawak. I’m at the crossroad of my life-vocation now, so I choose Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning (formerly known as From Death-Camp to Existentialism) as my reflection book together with selected Scripture verses. Why I choose the book title is obvious but why I choose to read memoir-history on holocaust I’m not so sure. Maybe I was influenced by another holocaust survivor memoir Ellis Weasel’s Night, or maybe by The Diary of a Young Girl’s Anne Frank, or perhaps it was Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, maybe it was by the fact that I’m interested in real-life stories. Whatever influenced me, I’m glad and happy with my choice.
If you're in pain, suffering and depressed – read this book. If you're scared, read this book. If you are lost, read this book. Even if you are happy right now, read this book. If you have time, read this book. If you don't have time, read this book (slowly). Read this book if you’re in search for meaning in your life. “One should not search for an abstract meaning of life,” write Frankl, “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” In other word: live intentionally. As a Christian, I find my meaning ultimately in Jesus Christ, my Lord and Saviour of my life. But I also find that this book is helpful and thought-provoking – even inspiring – in discovering the meaning of life.
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Jew, studied neurology and psychiatry with a focus on depression and suicide years before being arrested and deported by the Nazis in 1942. He defied odds by lasting three years in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau, etc. He lost his parents and brother and his wife, who was pregnant. As doctors were in short supply in the camps, Frankl, after working as a slave labourer for some time, was able to work as a physician until his liberation. As his work prior to his time in the concentration camps had focused on depression and the prevention of suicide, he turned his focus to his own survival story and the people with whom he interacted in the camps. Why did some survive and others perish? What gave people the will to live? What gives life meaning? He often asked his patients who suffer from a multitude of torments this question: “Why do you not commit suicide?” From their answers Frankl can often find the guideline for his psychotherapy, namely, “In one life there is love for one’s children to tie to; in another life, a talent to be used; in a third, perhaps only lingering memories worth preserving.” Frankl believes that these slender threads of a broken life should be weaving into a firm pattern of meaning and responsibility.
Here are five (5) great lessons that I learned from this book:
#1 Start With Why. Frankl observes: “Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychogenic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why – an aim – for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. 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. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, ‘I have nothing to expect from life anymore.’ What sort of answer can one give to that?” Throughout the book, the author speaks deeply about his own ‘why’ and its power to help him endure his situation. He also speaks of many prisoners who had completely lost their ‘why’ and quickly lost their life as a result. There are three ‘whys’ that stand out from Frankl’s writing: Love, Work, and Dignity in suffering. For this first lesson alone it is worth reading this book!
#2 Love is Powerful. One way of how Frankl endured the camps was by thinking constantly of his wife who had been separated from him long ago and sent to a female camp (he didn’t know that she already been killed through gas chamber). Even in the harshest parts of the day, exhausted, sleep-deprived, overworked, underfed, Frankl found salvation in the love that he had for his wife: “[My mind] clung to my wife’s image, imaging it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.” Frankl learned that love really does conquer all and it was an antidote to his pain. “I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. 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, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honourable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfilment.”
#3 Human are Tough. Frankl talks of the terrifying things happened in the concentration camps. How he and his fellows were stripped and shaved completely. How all of their documents and personal possessions were confiscated and burned, including his life’s work of papers. They had everything taken away from – even their names! They were given and called by numbers, not names, which were tattooed onto their skin (“We were treated like animals”). In camps, if you looked weak, you went straight to the gas chambers or to be executed or working to death. Families were separated. And there were other horrible things happened to them physically, mentally and emotionally. “The medical men among us learned first of all: ‘Textbooks tell lies!’” said Frankl, “Somewhere it is said that man cannot exist without sleep for more than a stated number of hours. Quite wrong! I had been convinced that there were certain things I just could not do: I could not sleep without this or I could not live with that or the other. The first night in Auschwitz we slept in beds which were constructed in tiers. On each tier (measuring about six-and-a-half to eight feet) slept nine men, directly on the boards. Two blankets were shared by each nine men.” Who would have thought humans could actually endure hells as harsh as Auschwitz?
#4 I’m Not My Environments. Frankl argues in this book that we are not bound to our environments. The environment can be a harsh determiner of our actions but it is not fate or fixated. We do have a choice: “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. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.” Frankl saw the lowest parts of humanity while in the camps. He saw brutality, inhuman and evil deeds. But he also saw individuals rising up like saints above it all: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” This last sentence is my favourite! You may not have a choice in your circumstances and environment but you always have a choice in how you react and respond to it.
#5 Suffering Can Be Meaningful. Frankl believes that there is great meaning in suffering. Suffering does not automatically make one’s life void of meaning but can actually offer meaning: “An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize the values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfilment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behaviour: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is 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. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.” How can suffering be meaningless if it is so intricately bound to life itself? We all can choose that which we wish to “designate meaningful.” Suffering can be meaningful if we want it to be…
There is a lot to learn from Man’s Search for Meaning, not just five (5) lessons. Get this book and savour it in your heart and mind. Love!
THINK BIG. START SMALL. GO DEEP.