Few books have meant so much to me as Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl.
Of course, I have quoted and thought about Viktor Frankl and his life many times. His life in concentration camps, his reflections on what that had meant to him. His so well-expressed belief that it is not one’s circumstances but one’s reaction to them which matters most. His book, which has gone through countless printings, and sold over 123 million copies, is one that I had never read before. It is short and utterly profound. It is founded on the belief that life is not primarily a quest for pleasure or a quest for power, but it is a quest for meaning. And Frankl finds that quest for meaning deriving from three sources: an activity or act to which one commits himself; an experience, particularly an experience of love, but also the experiencing of nature; and the meaning that flows from the dignity with which one approaches suffering.
Frankl’s most enduring insight is that forces beyond our control can take away everything we possess except one thing, our freedom to choose how we will respond to a situation. We cannot control what happens to us in life, but we can always control what we feel and do about it. We are never left with nothing as long as we retain the freedom to choose how we will respond. There are so many galvanizing perspectives here:
The advice that one should not aim for success, but rather realize that success like happiness must ensue and always does ensue as the unintended side effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the bi-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.
I was captured by Frankl’s revealing of a thought which transfixed him in the concentration camp – that for the first time in his life he saw the truth that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Surely “the salvation of man is through love and in love.” At these moments he thought of his wife. He didn’t even know if she was still alive, but he knew that “love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meanings in a spiritual being, his inner self.” He said there was no need for him to know (if she was alive). “Nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying.” Isn’t this how we can recall and do recall those whom we have loved who have passed away in death?
Frankl reflects on the choice that the concentration inmates faced. And he does not suggest that many, let alone all, faced it successfully. The choice revolved around whether the individual would struggle against the situation to save his self-respect, being an individual with a mind with inner freedom and personal value. He had the choice of thinking of himself as only part of an enormous mass of people, his existence descended to the level of animal life. He did not fault those who succumbed to this. But he celebrated those who maintained their individual dignity, who recognized that finding meaning at that moment involved determining what they could do to make the most of every moment, to capture the view of a living tree or a sunrise, to do something for a fellow inmate.
Others, “instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of inner strength, preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless … it is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future and this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.”
Frankl returns to the thought expressed above many times. He turns to another thought later in the book which I think has equal merit and, in fact, seems to co-exist with his admonishment of looking to the future. Here he points out that “instead of possibilities in the future, we can view realities of the past – the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized – and nothing, nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.” He says eloquently that “people tend to see only the stubble in fields of transitory-ness, but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives; the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.”
This is a wonderful thought which I and all of us should take heart from. We must remember our victories, our blessings, and draw strength from them even as we at the same time identify our purpose and the meaning of our lives as we go forward.
There’s another aspect of this book which bears deep thought. And that is the emphasis Frankl brings to the value of not only being what would be described as “useful,” but being valuable in the “sense of dignity” that one displays in living one’s life. This certainly applies to how one handles setbacks and suffering. It is important to note that Frankl insists that he’s talking about bearing with suffering which cannot be avoided. If suffering can be avoided, the first command is to avoid it, but there is other suffering, such as an incurable illness, which cannot be avoided, and it is the dignity and courage with which one handles this, the amount that one still takes from every day, that not only represents living life as well as one can, but represents a model for others to emulate.
Frankl has perspective on “freedom” with which I agree entirely. He regards freedom as only part of the story. Freedom is a negative aspect of the whole phenomena within which responsible-ness is the positive aspect. “In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrary-ness unless it is lived in terms of responsible-ness.”
Frankl ended his book by noting that rather than talk about “saints,” why not just talk about “decent people.” “It is true that they form a minority. More than that, they will always remain a minority.” Our challenge is to join the minority. “For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.” Words to sign on to.
[Frankl was once asked to express in one sentence the meaning of his own life. He wrote the response on paper and asked his students to guess what he had written. One student surprised Frankl by saying “the meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs.” “That was it, exactly,” Frankl said. “Those are the very words I had written.”]
Again, this is a book of less than 170 pages. It contains enormous wisdom. I hope that I can internalize the best of it and live it.