Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning
June 02, 2021
Book cover Man's search for meaning

Man’s Search For Meaning

By

Viktor E. Frankl

There are books that are to be read and reviewed, and some that are to be read, mulled over, revisited multiple times, until you can get to some semblance of understanding.

Viktor E. Frankl’s bestselling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, falls in the latter category.

A memoir, a meditation, a motivational manifesto

Victor E. Frankl’s account of his years in Nazi concentration camps is a stunning and unselfconscious examination of what it means to be human in the most degrading circumstances. Not surprisingly, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide in multiple languages and reprints.  Although classified as a memoir of his years as a prisoner, it is a deeply considered meditation on human existence and a reminder that man’s will to meaning serves as a primary motivator for his life.

I picked up a 2006 reprint of the book, a slim volume, and also borrowed the audiobook from the library. I listened to the audio version on my daily walks, pausing frequently to go over important ideas explained in the simplest of terms, deep insightful explorations of the peculiar condition of being human while being held captive with no hope of a future. After returning home, I opened the print copy and tried to locate the exact page where those ideas resided in static form. I allowed my eyes to repeatedly sweep over the words to solidify them in memory. 

I didn’t want to just read this book. I wanted to savour and digest it, to incorporate it into my DNA so that I could redesign my understanding of life. 

Frankl quotes other philosophers but expands their ideas in light of his own experiences.

Quoting Nietzsche – “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” – Frankl reminds us the value of having a purpose in life.

Yet, how does one find it when imprisoned in inhuman conditions? It will take me many more readings to get to a coherent compact summary of Frankl’s teachings. 

Until then, here are some thought-provoking ideas and observations that I found extremely invaluable.

Some striking quotes and passages that make you think

  • The salvation of man is through love and in love. Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire 
  • As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances
  • What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life…. It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us
  • Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual
  • For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself
  • 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 own way
  • 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
  • In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice
  • Live as if you were living a second time and as though you had acted wrongly the first time

 

Logotherapy as a way to understand life and find meaning

Even before his imprisonment, Frankl had been working on a novel therapeutic approach that was different from the will to pleasure principle (of Freudian psychoanalsys) and will to power principle (of Adlerian psychology) but on the will to meaning. His precious manuscript was destroyed upon his arrival at Auschwitz but he returned to his work after being liberated, writing down bits and pieces of his ideas on scraps of paper during his time as a p.

Logotherapy does not operate from an intense focus on the past but uses techniques like dereflection, paradoxical intention and Socratic dialogue to facilitate a person’s understanding of themselves by uncovering patterns.

Logotherapy is believed to improve resilience, the ability to withstand adversity, stress, and hardship, by helping people develop skills like acceptance, optimism, humor, altruism, courage, responsibility and a values-based lifestyle.

How memoirs can help us understand ourselves 

This was the first book I read after completion of my long-pending project of writing my memoir. The timing seemed apt since I was grappling with feelings of inadequacy. 

Why would my story of going through divorce after many years of marriage be of interest to a reader?

Were there lessons from my suffering that I needed to state overtly?

Should I write a self-help book instead of a personal story?

My doubts overwhelmed me. I knew that my suffering had been for a purpose and by sharing my story with others, I was only on the first step of uncovering its full impact.

Frankl’s words allowed me to radically reframe the question I had been toying with for years.

What is it I want from my life?

While I had a vague idea, I was still confused.

After reading this book, I have chosen to reframe the question itself – what does life want of me?

Turning the question around has freed me from working myself up in a frenzy, trying too many things, and knocking on doors that are not relevant. 

The ease of surrendering, of being open to the answer that life will present to me has removed a huge burden.

I still write. I still refine my thoughts. I still make plans.

But now I do it with a sense of wonder and freedom. 

Having a reason to document my story and share it with others in order to help them find their way brings meaning to my life. 

With the firm conviction that memoirs can be powerful tools of transformation, I can plough through – full steam ahead

My opinion: A must-read book that must be made mandatory reading reading for young adults entering into a world of uncertainty and for bonafide adults seeking to understand the meaning of life.

Have you read other inspiring memoirs that have made you think differently about your own life?

Photo credit: Ranjani Rao‘s personal archives

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