Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

“Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the great books of our time. Typically, if a book has one passage, one idea with the power to change a person’s life, that alone justifies reading it, rereading it, and finding room for it on one’s shelves. This book has several such passages.” Harold S. Kuschner

This was the final memoir I read for Dr. Kerry’s Jews and the Holocaust class. I seem to remember reading it before, but forgot how seminal his ideas were (my bad). I would pausit his book consists of two parts (with additional addendums clarifying more psychologically what he is discussing as Man’s search for Meaning), the first part contains a more historical account of several events that happened to him during three stages of camp imprisonment. The first, the entering of the camp, the second, the adjustment to daily life in the camp, and the third, liberation. The second part Frankl elucidates his theory on meaning in life, and how one achieves it.

Like the other works I’ve read, there is a definite sense of converging of emotion, where death, life, hunger, fatigue, all become so commonplace that they lose their meaning. Once, in a conversation with Roger Merrill, the President of the Sunday school of the church, he said that the temple is a way for us to gain perspective of our lives. It allows us to look beyond the bounds of earthly existence. Satan tries to narrow our view; he gives us things that make us only see the day to day, and forget where we came from and where we’re going. He doesn’t want us to see perspective.

Sometimes, like today, I lost perspective. I started becoming extremely stressed out because I wasn’t prepared for chemistry recitation and my office hours, I was behind on Ochem, and I was behind on my paper (of which, part is supposed to be from this book!). But I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in a concentration camp. Even in the worst possible scenario, I flunk a class, I would still be able to go home and have a meal, see my friends and family, and with a bit of luck, still get into med school. So perspective really is a way to calm ourselves, educate ourselves, and put things in their proper place.

A couple quotes I wanted to bring up.

“A man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the size of human suffering is absolutely relative.” Isn’t this an interesting position? Sometimes we will try to place everyone’s suffering on a spectrum. But to each individual, their trial is the mountain, and everyone elses’ the molehill. It gives us an edge in trying to have empathy for others.

“inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it became clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.” Our inner strength and response to what happens to us defines us. This is aluded to later in what I term Frankl’s thesis of his book, which I quote later. Let it be said that it isn’t our environment that causes us to be a certain way, but who we are responds in certain ways. And we are in control of who we are.

“The way they bore their sufferings was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom–which cannot be taken away–that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

“An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art or nature…But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. 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. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.” How is this true? How is suffering, death, and pain meaningful? Here is a quote I’ve been saving for awhile:

“There is no genius other than one which is expressed in works of art; the genius of Proust is the sum of Proust’s works; the genius of Racine is his series of tragedies. Outside of that, there is nothing. Why say that Racine could have written another tragedy, when he didn’t write it? A man is involved in life, leaves his impress on it, and outside of that there is nothing.”

Jean-Paul Sartre defining existentialism, the idea that after we exist, we develop our own essence. Basically, we create our own measuring stick with which we are defined. We are only what we create and how we respond to life. So, when we suffer, and we respond with courage, fortitude, compassion for others, these are traits that become tangible through our actions. They become real. We then, are defined by what is real.

Each life is unique in the challenges presented to each individual. That is why the value of each life becomes so valuable: a person cannot be replaced, and a person’s meaning cannot be measured by anyone else but himself. Because it is that person and that person alone which creates meaning by responding to such challenges.

Let me end by quoting what I deem as the crowning thesis of Frankl’s book. I’m not giving anything away by this, but hopefully it inspires you to read this beautiful and positive work.

“I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms. For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to the chess champion: “Tell me, master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. 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.

As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the quesion of the m
eaning 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 responsible. Thus logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.”

I must end by thanking my parents who have created a legacy for me to strive everyday to follow. They have showed me how to honorably respond to life’s challenges with courage, fortitude, honor, compassion, love, and hope. No day is perfect. None of us are perfect. No trial is lined with silver. Cumulatively, each act becomes another chip hammered from our own Michelangelo. And their parlor definitely contains two masterpieces I hope someday to emulate.

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One thought on “Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

  1. Vanilla Mistral says:

    This makes ME love your parents :). Thanks for writing this. I’m reading this now, and I am blown away again. I read it in high school and my eyes were opened to the depth a human soul can achieve. I think I am getting even more from it. I too hope to be a human masterpiece of some kind. As Frankl says, “What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” I guess that’s my job this week–figure out the meaning of my life at this time. Vamos.

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