Man’s Search for Meaning is a memoir by psychiatrist and philosopher Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as a Nazi prisoner during WWII. It’s probably the third or fourth book that I’ve read on the topic, but this one is quite different. Unlike other Holocaust related literature, this is less about the horrors that took place but rather the mindset of people as they went through the various stages of their imprisonment.
The first part of the book dealt with Frankl’s observation of the prisoners who started off being alert but quickly grew hopeless and indifferent as their lives were normalized by death and disease. Frankl commented that the key factor to survival was not food or the lack of hard labor, but the will to live. He quoted Nietzsche saying: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Finding a reason to live for became both a constant theme during his time in the camps as well as a part of his broader theory on Logotherapy, a therapeutic approach coined by Frankl himself that focuses less on the past (introspective and retrospective) and more on the future. The approach was conceived before the Holocaust, but it must have been extremely relevant during those years when the only way to stay sane was to be optimistic about what comes next.
As to be expected, a book titled Man’s Search for Meaning should at least attempt to answer that question, and Frankl does. According to him, the meaning of life is different for everyone at every stage in their lives, but it can be found in three different ways: through work, through love, and through our attitude towards suffering. This book focused primarily on the latter.
Specifically about finding meaning through suffering, Frankl clarified that suffering isn’t required for there to be meaning, but just that meaning can be had despite it. So my first takeaway in this book is the power of attitude – being able to control our perception towards a situation we inherit.
In the camps it means to overlook the temporary hunger and imprisonment and think about what each person had irreplaceably lost. Frankl reckoned that it was just a few. Health, happiness, professional abilities, social standings, and many others were all things can still be restored, and therefore most people had a very good reason to live on.
Frankl also provided another anecdote in less extreme times. As a psychiatrist an old man came to him once with depression after his wife passed away. And while Frankl couldn’t bring back his wife, he asked him to imagine what would have happened had he passed away first. Of course, he said that she would be heartbroken. By shifting his attitude a little, the old man realized that his own sacrifice relived the suffering of hers and that gave him the ultimate comfort to live on.
I don’t think these were Frankl’s words but he quoted another philosopher that life is a constant oscillation between boredom and distress, and I kind of agree. In the past I’ve tried to live life by being content, or being in a satisfied state of homeostasis, but I think that’s almost impossible in reality. Life has its ups and downs, let alone your hormones who can decide that for you. It would be much more predictable to acknowledge this and try to see things from another angle.
The second takeaway is the power of purpose. In the book Frankl repeatedly discarded the idea of collective guilt. He recalled that some of the worst people were prisoners that were given jobs in the prison camps. And in contrast, there was the story of the prison warden who used his own money to buy medicine on the black market. By the end of the war, this warden was hidden by the Jews until they could secure a promise from the Americans that he would not be harmed.
The power of purpose is an important one as it relates to discovering your life’s meaning. Again, they were through work, through love, and through our attitude towards suffering.
To find meaning in work is straight forward; it is our professional accomplishments and fancy job titles, but it is much harder to think about the other two as equally significant. Choosing to focus on your family or your loved ones is usually seen as a detriment to your career, rather than both being acceptable choices to fulfill your own purpose and happiness.
The same is also true for finding purpose through suffering. It makes a lot of sense once you think about it, but how many people would say out loud that the meaning of life may be as simple as coming to terms with your differences, may it be trauma, sexuality, religion, or anything else.
But even as I’m writing this, something doesn’t really add up. Even though we know that being a stay-at-home parent is an exceptional assignment, or that overcoming trauma is an exceptional achievement, most people would still place their respect for others based on their work accolades.
So why is that the case? I don’t really know, but I guess part of it has to do with the money that only a successful career can give you. Being really (really) good at your job may be as rewarding as raising a good family, thus making them equally worthy life “purposes”, but only one lets you buy that fancy slice of ham. It’s a bleak thought, and maybe one that will change as we get older.
At the end of the day, having a good career is universally understood: the status, the wealth, and the respect. But if I learned anything from this book, it’s to not over-index on it so much that you discount the meaning of your family, your relationships, and your life experiences. After all, not spending more time with others is one of the most common regrets in life.
Man’s Search for Meaning is a short memoir at <100 pages, so I found myself going back and re-reading some passages. The difficulty in reading Holocaust literature is that the very idea of the Holocaust is so abhorrent that no human experience I’ve been through can even come close. But despite so, I thoroughly enjoyed this book as a study of our motivations.