Man's Search for Meaning

* My reading notes on this classic of classics. If you haven’t read this book, now is the time. Do not sell yourself short of humanity’s memory. This book, if there is such a thing, is on the list of “human memory records.” If you die without having read this book, you’ll have to come back to read it. It's just good dharma.

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” - Viktor Frankl

When in Poland, I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. It didn’t figure on my list of “fun things to do for a 20-year-old backpacking across Europe,” but rather on my list of human responsibility towards the past generations, and the future ones too. I didn’t want to go alone, and I was lucky to team up with a no-nonsense British backpacker for this voyage into time. We didn’t know each other, yet we were both grateful to have each other to lean on in moments of existential nausea. 

This visit made a great impression on me. I imagine I was Jewish in a past life… or weren’t we all? And the irony of my current lifetime as a direct descendant of German settlers isn’t wasted on me. Given the right set of circumstances, you and I could have been on any side of the war that was raging then. As I stood by the wall where prisoners were shot dead by rows of Nazis, I understood that neither of them thought they had a choice. They had been assigned a role in history by a birth roulette, and they were just playing out their part. Back then, I cried for the Jewish man or woman standing at that wall fully aware of his or her last breaths. Now I also cry for the loss of humanity, the caged and crushed soul of the shooter. At the time of my pilgrimage, I figured the shooter to be the lucky one, but now I feel that I would much prefer be at the receiving end of that gun. Who wants to live with the image of falling hands-tied defenceless corpses? I wouldn’t call that living a life anymore. But then again, what do I know?

My obsession with both Jewish and Holocaust writings and stories predates this visit. I don’t know if it was Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel who first opened the gates. I do however remember my uncle, historian of war by training and vocation, telling me about antisemitism (and my grade 4 teacher being completely at a loss on what to say about my dissertation on the plight of jewish people in Medieval Europe). 

In reading Man’s Search for Meaning, I was reminded that we are all Jewish, we are all survivors, we are all the guardians of lineages of women and men who did their best and fed their young. We are all inhabitants of a planet that has seen it all, we are both the hunter and the prey. In the end, all we really want is meaning. We want to know that our life is meaningful. Once we have that, all the rest falls into place. We want dharma. 

This book, although firmly rooted in its author’s experience in the concentration camps, is destined for all of humanity. The first part was fascinating, yet what really drilled it in for me what the second part.  

Without further ado, here are my reading notes on Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, published in German in 1946, and in English translation in 1959.


Foreword by Harold S. Kushner

“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.”


Part I - Experiences in a Concentration Camp

Viktor Frankl’s account of life in the concentration camps. 

“It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds… The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yes it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.” 

“… Everything can be taken away 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… Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him - mentally and spiritually… It is this spiritual freedom - which cannot be taken away - that makes life meaningful and purposeful.” 

“… Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzche’s words, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”

“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.”


Part II - Logotherapy

Suffering isn’t always bad. It points towards the sources of dissatisfaction in our lives, it points towards the road that our soul longs to take. 

Logotherapy is the approach to healing that Viktor Frankl devised as a psychiatrist. He explains it succinctly in this part. 

“… Suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon; rather than being a symptom of neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration… Any analysis make the patient aware of what he actually longs for in the depth of his being.”

“It can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being… What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” This reminds me of Kelly McGonigal’s stance on stress: it’s good for us. It’s how we engage with it that matters. 

“What matters is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

“The logotherapist’s role consists of widening and broadening the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum meaning becomes conscious and visible to him.” 

“Thus far we have shown that the meaning of life always changes, but that it never ceases to be… We can discover this meaning in life in three different way: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”

The first (1) is self-explanatory.

The second (2) may seem foreign to many of us, but comes naturally to some: “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.”

The third (3) addresses suffering that cannot be avoided, and requires a change in attitude: “When we are no longer able to change a situation - just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer - we are challenged to change ourselves.” It is made clear however that suffering is in no way necessary to find meaning.

I love it when scientists admit to the possibility of a consciousness or order or dimension of human existence that isn’t within our reach, or cognition spectrum. Here, Frankl talks about super-meaning:  “Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer? What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.”

As a “treatment” to anxiety, Frankl offers what he calls paradoxical intention. In essence, this approach invites the anxious person to intend “precisely that which he fears.” He gives the example of a man who was afraid of sweating in public, which caused much anxiety and led him to avoid professional opportunities. Once he set his intention on showing people how much he could sweat instead, his anxiety was resolved. He mentions this practice can also help people who suffer from insomnia. 


From the Postscript (1984)

“Life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable.” If you find yourself wanting to argue against that, remember that Viktor Frankl survived four years in concentration camps, and found meaning in the everyday there. He attributes his survival to this very strategy, and to the fact that he found meaning in helping his fellow prisoners find meaning in their own life which gave them the will to survive. 

From the “tragic triad” of human suffering of (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death, he derives “tragic optimism” which “allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.”

“Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” 

In this section, Frankl, in a few words, addresses the vacuum I fell into when I did admit that I was sick and I needed to rest. It felt as though I had deliberately decided to throw myself out of the wagon and everyone else continued on without me. The guilt I experienced at the thought of being “useless” was possibly the biggest hurdle I had to overcome to heal. About the unconditional quality of the dignity of man: “Just as life remains potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable, so too does the value of each and every person stay with him or her, and it does so because it is based on the values that he or she has realized in the past, and is not contingent on the usefulness that he or she may or may not retain in the present.” 


Afterword by William Winslade 

William Winslade reflects that “There may be such a thing as autobibliotherapy - healing through reading.” I agree. Reading, just like walking or breathing purposefully, can bring about healing. 

Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy approach focuses on “a person’s future and his or her conscious decisions and actions.” Humans are self-determining. 

“The world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.” - Viktor Frankl