Disclaimer: This, by no means, is a review or a critical analysis. My capabilities are too dwarf, plebeian, and limited to be able to comment on or criticize these masterpiece creations. Consider these to be only thoughts arising from reading this literary work, which I wish to share with you all.
Man’s Search for Meaning
By Viktor E. Frankl
Certain books can change your thinking, stimulate you, and leave you spellbound by the sheer beauty of the thoughts woven together. Man’s Search for Meaning is one such book.
The book is divided into two parts. Part one is an autobiographical account of a Viennese psychiatrist and neurologist, Viktor, who spent three years of his life in a Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz and a few other such camps. Part two is an introduction to Logotherapy. Logotherapy is a school of psychiatry founded by Viktor himself based on his experiences in the camp—a journey of suffering, humiliation, pain and meaninglessness of life, and yet a journey of realization and a quest for purpose.
The beauty of the book is not in the vividness of description or painting a picture of sorrow and sympathy at the pitiful fates of the camp inmates. Neither is it the acts of cruelty by nazi soldiers, the depiction of which leaves you aghast and haunting. The real richness of the writing is evident because this is done subtly, only as a mere reflection of his psychological analysis of circumstances and the psyche of himself and his fellow sufferers. While most of the other books on psychiatry generally confuse and complicate the understanding with their complexity of language and sentence structuring. Viktor’s writing, enriched by his own horrific yet reckoning experience, keeps you absorbed until the end of the first part. Moving ahead with the basic understanding of Logotherapy will require a bit more motivation.
As Harold Kushner writes in the preface, Frankl’s concern is less about his travails and what he suffered and lost than the sources of his strength to survive. His concern is less with the question of why most died than it is with the question of why anyone at all survived. According to Frankl, only those who had found their inner spiritual freedom survived, a freedom that comes with the liberty to choose their decision even in the worst possible circumstances. “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. It is this spiritual freedom that makes life meaningful and purposeful.” It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking at the future. Hope steers us away from the sea of despair. In times of emotional turmoil and hopelessness, Frank enjoyed the prospect of seeing his wife at the end of his term as the prisoner and kept himself engaged with her in an imaginary dialogue. Through the absolute uncertainty about the end, he found refuge in Nietzsche’s words–“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
There is so much uncertainty about a man’s fate that any adversity should cease to be considered suffering. Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it. Suffering is an ineradicable part of our existence and should only be considered a task, like any other life task. One can sail through this phase of suffering by performing this task to the best of his capability.
The second part of the book is his theory of realization called Logotherapy, which defines will to purpose as the primary instinct of human beings as opposed to the Freudian theory of will to pleasure or Alfred Adler’s theory of will to power.
According to Frankl, one can discover life’s meaning in three different ways:
- By creating a work or accomplishing some task,
- By experiencing something fully or loving somebody,
- By the attitude that one adopts toward unavoidable suffering.
Well, I am not qualified enough to comment upon the principles and premise of this variant psychiatric philosophy. All I can say is there aren’t always more straightforward answers to the complex array of life’s problems. And this authoritarianism should, in my humble opinion, be restricted only to the psychoanalysis of one’s own circumstances and attitude.
I have attempted only to extract a few of the learning points from Frankl’s vast summation of his scary anecdote and his deliberations thereafter. Anyone who finds this kind of reading interesting will surely have a mesmerizing experience.