Man’s Search for Meaning

Man’s Search For Meaning — Front Cover
Front Cover

The question intriguing humanity since the dawn of consciousness is, “What is the meaning of life?”. The answer has all along eluded humanity. No one answer is suitable for all. The wonder is that each one of us must find that answer. Thinkers and philosophers with their thoughts and insights can help us in our journey of this discovery. But one has to walk alone on this path.

Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning is a book that may help one in that lonely journey.

Reading a book and reviewing that book are two different things. Just reading a book page to page is not enough to do justice, if proper reviewing is to be done. One needs in-depth knowledge and understanding of the subject on which the book is written to write about it. It is more so for a book like Man’s Search for Meaning, a deeply insightful book on human psychology when the man is in distress. In this sense, this is by no means a review of the book Man’s Search for Meaning.

This piece is a layman’s wonder, admiration, and tribute to the human spirit that induced Frankl to write this deeply spiritual book.

Life is strange. Strange because a lot of bad things happen to good people without any apparent reason. A lot of things that happen to a man is beyond his control. Despite his misfortune, beyond his control, a man is left with a choice. How he reacts to that unfortunate situation is still in his control.

Surviving a concentration camp like Auschwitz and living to tell the tale is strange enough. And if the survivor is a trained neurologist and psychiatrist, he takes the narrative to a different dimension.

This book is valuable not because it is written by a holocaust survivor or by a trained neurologist and psychiatrist. That was an attraction for me to decide to read the book. This book is about the human spirit and what makes one, not only endure but also survive a grueling and inhuman situation.

This is a thin book of 154 pages divided into two distinct parts. The first part of the book is about 100 pages. It is about Frankl’s experience and observations during his stay in various concentration camps which also includes Auschwitz.

The second part of the book is about the theory that Frankl developed which he termed Logo Therapy.

His decision

Despite getting his chance to migrate to the US to avoid being caught by the Nazis, he opted not to go. He took this decision knowing fully well his future predicament if he stayed back. He stayed back because he did not want to leave behind his aging father in Germany.

Ultimately, that he survived the holocaust is a remarkable feat, due more to chance than deliberate intent. He did not shy away from admitting that his survival is a pure chance than any other factor. The question that intrigued him during his captive days was, not why most died but why anyone at all survived. This search, to find a reason, gave birth to his thesis that later he developed as Logo Therapy.

He postulates that a man can endure inhuman situations in his life if he can find a valid reason. He admirably quotes Nietzsche that, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” He observed that living condition was inhuman for all. There was no official discrimination towards the inmates. All were treated equally badly. Yet some survived.

Some survived because according to him they had some hope to hold on to. Most died because they did not have any hope to live for. Frankl could keep himself alive by holding on to the hope of meeting his wife after this is over. His thesis is based on this simple premise. As long as a person has hope burning in his heart, he can survive inhuman situations.

How Frankl differs from Freud and Adler

His experience in Auschwitz reinforced his idea which is far apart from what Freud or Alfred Adler taught. For him, life is not primarily a quest for pleasure as Freud maintained or a quest for power as Adler insisted. His theory is that life is a quest for meaning.

The most enduring insight that Frankl shares are that there are forces in life that are beyond one’s control. This force can take everything from you on its way except one thing; your power to react to that situation. There are a lot of things that you cannot control in your life, but you can control your reaction to the situation.

During his long stay in the concentration camp, he realized the power of love and affirms that despite horrific conditions man can find bliss through love. To quote him, “ …..I understood how a man who has nothing left in the world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”

An insight I got from the book is that human suffering is relative and not based on reality. He drew a poignant analogy to explain. When gas is filled inside an empty chamber, however big is the chamber and however less is the amount of gas, it will fill the chamber uniformly. He concludes that human suffering also fills up human being completely relative to the “size” of suffering. It also follows that small things can impart the greatest of joy while the greatest of misfortune may not overwhelm a person with suffering. How much a person suffers depends on his ability to anchor his thoughts to something beyond his immediate surroundings.

Spirituality gives a person strength to overcome his misery.

He postulates that the spiritual anchoring of individuals is necessary for him to overcome or bear his misfortune with dignity. Spirituality gives a person resilience. That helps him to focus on his inner resources to withstand the difficulties of his life. Spirituality, in reality, has nothing to do with religion or belief in god. It is an inner anchorage that one holds on to during his time of trouble. It is one’s spiritual strength that gives him dignity in midst of misery. It helps him from turning the corner towards utter despair.

His question here is pertinent. He asks that how many free men, let alone a prisoner, possess that spirituality. No wonder there is so much misery even among free men.

Is a man purely a product of his immediate environment? There is a theory that man is a product of many conditional and environmental factors. That could be psychological, biological, or social. He contradicts this theory. To him, “Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress”. There may be a few who can show that spiritual resilience. But this is proof that one can decide what he will become during his time of distress.

Envy is a strong human emotion. Frankl realized during his stay in the concentration camp that it does not depend on absolute position. This emotion has no bearing on the realities of life. A suffering person may feel a sense of envy towards those in a less disadvantageous position. In reality, all of them may be in an equally bad situation.

Logotherapy — what is it?

Frankl explains logotherapy with an anecdote. An American journalist wanted to know the difference between psychoanalysis and logotherapy. Frankl answered, “In psychoanalysis, patients must lie down on a couch and tell things which sometimes are very disagreeable to tell”. On the other hand, in logotherapy, “the patient may remain sitting erect but he must hear things which sometimes are very disagreeable to hear.” Though he admits that these kinds of statements are highly oversimplification of the actual concept. He describes the logotherapist’s job as the job of an eye specialist’s who enables a man to see the world as it is against a painter who paints the world around him the way he sees it. “Logotherapy is neither teaching nor preaching. It is far removed from logical reasoning as it is from moral exhortation.”

Irrespective of culture, man is concerned about the same issue

His life experiences convinced him that there are greater powers at play beyond human understanding. He describes an incident where a person tries his best to avoid the gas chamber. The person uses all the tricks known to him to be in the group that he feels will not be chosen. Yet all his subterfuges go to waste when his group was chosen to be sent to death first. In this context, Frankl narrates a Persian mythological story. In the story a man leaves a place to avoid death, as he thinks, death will catch him there. Only after arriving at his new place, where he thinks death will not catch up with him, he encounters death.

There is a similar story in Indian mythology as well. The story is of a sparrow going to meet Garuda in the Kailash mountains. As the sparrow and Garuda were chatting, Yam Raj, the god of death arrives to meet Mahadev. And seeing the sparrow, Yam Raj looks surprised but did not say anything. But the sparrow was concerned and became nervous. Learning his uneasiness, Garuda decides to take the sparrow to the Vinda mountains to keep him away from Yam Raj. On his way out, Yam Raj, not seeing the sparrow, asked Garuda. Garuda reveals that he left the sparrow in the Vinda mountains to avoid death. Yam Raj feels relieved. He said,” I was a bit surprised to see the sparrow here in Kailash. He is supposed to die today in the hands of an eagle in the Vinda mountain.” Death is inevitable. When one will encounter death is beyond his control.

This story also suggests another intriguing fact; that most cultures are connected. It is the same story, but two different cultures and two different mythologies. The stories prove that man is concerned with the same issues.

What then is the meaning of life?

Can a chess grandmaster answer when asked what would be the best chess movie in the world? Frankl suggests, instead of asking the meaning of life, man must assume that he is being asked the same question by life. It is our calling to find the answer with our actions in life. To life, we can only respond by being responsible. It is meaningless to search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone must find his calling from which he can not be replaced.

Conclusion

I am not sure if I have succeeded in making you understand the deep concept promulgated in this thin book. The shortcoming is entirely mine.

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Happy reading.

Originally published at https://barun.substack.com.

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Barun Ray

Barun Ray

I am a writer and digital marketer. My first passion is reading, followed by writing on various topics. I have 30+ years of corporate working experience.