Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl: a review

This is one of the most insightful books I’ve ever read. It details how the author (a psychiatrist), despite his horrid experiences as an inmate of several Nazi concentration camps, found meaning in his life — and urges the reader to do the same.

The book is divided into three major sections:

  • Experiences in a Nazi Concentration Camp:

This is an account of the three psychological phases a prisoner of a concentration camp goes through:
— shock as he enters the camp,
— apathy (emotional deadness: death of emotions such as disgust and pity) as he gets used to the hellish living circumstances around him, and
— depersonalization, bitterness and disillusionment after he’s liberated

Even under such circumstances, and in fact in all kinds of societies, there are two kinds of men: the decent and the indecent.

Too, no matter how tragic one’s circumstances, one still has the last freedom: to choose one’s attitude toward one’s circumstances (and thus, to give meaning to one’s suffering). This is called mental or spiritual freedom. Only those prisoners survived the camp who had such a meaning to live for.

The author lived in anticipation of meeting his beloved wife after release.

  • Logotherapy in a Nutshell:

Logotherapy sees mental health in the tension between what one is and what one could become.

There are three ways to give meaning to one’s life:
— by creating a work or doing a deed (the way of work)
— through interaction with something or encounter with someone (the way of love)
— in the attitude one takes toward unavoidable suffering

(Enduring avoidable suffering, however, is masochistic and not heroic.)

Another small aspect of logotherapy is paradoxical intention, i.e. eliminating a fear by intending exactly what one fears.

  • A Case for Tragic Optimism:

One should always say yes to life, despite the tragic triad of:
— pain: by making of it an achievement through one’s attitude toward it,
— guilt: by realizing the opportunity thereby to change oneself for the better, and
— death: deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action

Some of my favourite quotes from the book are:

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” ~ Victor Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ~ Victor Frankl

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” ~ Nietzsche

“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” ~ Victor Frankl

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.” ~ Victor Frankl

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” ~ Victor Frankl

“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” ~ Victor Frankl

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. 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.” ~ Victor Frankl

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