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

Desire

but you need to have a taste of desire
to know what kind of power it has
all one’s senses go for a toss,
all reasoning goes down the drain,
all relations are forgotten in an instant.
all that is seen is pleasure, momentary pleasure.
and it makes one giddy then and there.
it’s the hardest thing to resist,
this i’ve learnt the hard way.

The two kinds of writing…

… are idea and stream-of-consciousness.

Idea: The more vivid the vision of the title (i.e. the idea), the more precise, effective, natural and appealing the work. One need not worry about words or sentence formations. The vision must remain forever clear.

Stream-of-consciousness: This is a difficult task, not because one can’t capture what one is thinking as one thinks it, but because it is often meaningless and unappealing babble. It’s natural to ask whether it’s possible to control the nature of such a work. Careful reflection, however, reveals that the effectiveness of this kind of work, like that of the previous kind, depends on vision, although this time subtle and implicit, rather than being explicitly defined in the idea.

It turns out, however, the two kinds of vision being discussed are of the same essence, in that both need clarity in thought, a certain direction (even though the thought-stream might superficially seem to be without direction), one which results from a stillness within — when thoughts, even if random and fish-like, float about in a stream which is steady and uniform.

In other words, the effectiveness of either kind of work depends on a solid realisation of what one wants to say, not in the head but in the heart. This is what they mean by, “One must write not merely because one wants to write, but because one knows what one has to say.”

Two greetings

One:

hi Terry, i hope it’s airy,
have a berry, or a cherry,
and you’ll be hairy fairy!
you wanna ask, “how dare he?”
i’d say, “keep it merry”
i’m not being scary
just making my day, good very

Two:

come on dear,
don’t get me to tear
wanna have a beer?
you know, the pub’s near
or is there too much fear?
to even be here?
i hope i’m being clear
cheer!

A note on the initial portion of ‘The Burrow’ by Franz Kafka

First attempt:

He tries to conceal his fear that he’ll fail to survive, by claiming the reason he built the burrow is that he enjoyed to. It isn’t hard, however, to see through his pretense, especially given his own later descriptions of the kinds of imagination he harbours, of being attacked and devoured while in the very burrow.

Second attempt:

At first, he says he built the burrow because he enjoyed it. Later he gives an account of various ways he would be eaten while in the same burrow. He has thus defied his own initial attempt to conceal his fear of dying.

Third attempt:

He built a borrow, for joy he sought,
Or this was rightly what he thought.
But he’ll be chewed by a bigger fellow,
As he goes to sleep with dreams mellow.
Thus he’s scared,
He’s not prepared.
Indeed, a moron is he.
An oxymoron this be.

(More attempts probably on the way, stay tuned…)

Crush

“This is not done,” she said. “I believe I had better report this to U– now.”
“Oh! Why?”
“How else will you learn your lesson?” she said.
“You seem to believe I’ve tried to put you down.”
“If you hadn’t needed me to sign off your code, why did you ask me to review it?”
“Please let me explain. It was urgent to send the code through. And you weren’t answering the phone.”
“Right.” She looked sideways. He felt the earth move under his feet.
“Pardon me this once. I’ve got the lesson, I suppose.” His eyes were shimmering.
“Have you?” she said, looking straight into his eye.
“Yes.” He tried to look squarely at her for a moment, but couldn’t help looking at his feet right after, instead.
“Alright. This is strike one, though.”
“I understand.”
“Coffee?” she suggested.
“What? Pardon me, I mean.”
She grinned.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t get you.”
“Let’s go down for a coffee.”
“Is this a dream?” he thought to himself.
“Shall we?” she repeated. He had never seen such a big grin before.
“Sure, why not?” he said after hesitating for a moment.

“This must be how it feels to lose one’s heart to someone”, he thought. His mind was ecstatic. His face, however, had contorted into a strange mix of exhilaration and anxiety.

He thought it best to savour the moment while it lasted.