Recommendation: “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl

If someone now asked of us the truth of Dostoevski’s statement that flatly defines man as a being who can get used to anything, we would reply, “Yes, man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.”
“Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl

One of the books I had on my reading list for a few years was “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl. It’s a short book, the “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” is less than 100 pages. The next two parts (in the edition I have) are about “Logotherapy in a Nutshell” (Frankl’s therapeutic approach) and “The Case for a Tragic Optimism”. I found the two parts about this approach difficult to read, but still interesting. Especially “Logotherapy in a Nutshell”, which has an interesting section on “The Existential Vacuum” (lack of meaning many people experience), which I think is even more applicable today. Well, only we have more distractions, but the lack of meaning is still there, below the surface.

But it’s the first part that is perhaps best known, and which meaning might make the largest difference:

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.
“Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl

Former prisoners, when writing or relating their experiences, agree that the most depressing influence of all was that a prisoner could not know how long his term of imprisonment would be. He had been given no date for his release. (In our camp it was pointless even to talk about it.) Actually a prison term was not only uncertain but unlimited. A well-known research psychologist has pointed out that life in a concentration camp could be called a “provisional existence.” We can add to this by defining it as a “provisional existence of unknown limit.”
“Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl

The prisoner who had lost faith in the future — his future — was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. Usually this happened quite suddenly, in the form of a crisis, the symptoms of which were familiar to the experienced camp inmate. We all feared this moment — not for ourselves, which would have been pointless, but for our friends. Usually it began with the prisoner refusing one morning to get dressed and wash or to go out on the parade grounds. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect. He just lay there, hardly moving. If this crisis was brought about by an illness, he refused to be taken to the sickbay or to do anything to help himself. He simply gave up. There he remained, lying in his own excreta, and nothing bothered him any more.
“Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl

As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. 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 psychohygienic 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 any more.” What sort of can one give to that?
“Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl

Overall, an interesting perspective on the role of meaning in one’s life, both regarding the memories of the different camps he had been, and regarding his therapeutic approach. Including his reasons that give life meaning (1. by creating a work or doing a deed; 2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and 3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering) and his imperative “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.”

Recommended.