I finally read Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor E. Frankl. I have heard people recommend this book repeatedly over the years, most recently by my therapist.
The first part of this book (a hundred pages) tells the story of Frankl’s experience as a prisoner and forced laborer for years in German concentration camps during World War II. Frankl, a psychiatrist, wanted to understand why some fellow prisoners appeared to transcend their suffering and survive, despite being brutally stripped of their humanity and everything they held dear, while others lost the will to live. His matter-of-fact account of these brutal memories was almost traumatic to even read. His writing is at once human and transcendant.
The remainder of the book (fifty pages) presents a description of his resulting philosophical view, known as logotherapy. Logotherapy is the model he fit to the suffering prisoners who transcended. The distillation includes a brief summary of the core ideas, guidance around life application, common objections and answers, and pitfalls to avoid. He includes practical stories from his clinical experience.
The first thing I need to say is that, no matter how much I read about genocide, I find it hard to accept the reality of evil that leads to this type of horror. The fact that this pattern continues to replicate across time and cultures multiplies the urgency that we should feel. Despite the modern comforts of the West, this evil will one day knock on our door again and history will ask: Have you learned nothing?
I also experienced my other well-worn reaction to accounts of extreme suffering, which goes like: “I will never complain about my life, ever again.” Of course, the shock wears off and I regress to the mean, but I try to hang on to this somehow.
The core idea of Frankl’s philosophy is expressed in its name: logotherapy. Logos means “meaning”. Thus, the fundamental work of logotherapy is to connect to a greater meaning and live within this orientation.
I’m going to try to summarize my personal takeaways briefly.
He’s fond of quoting Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
The three sources of meaning he identifies are: (a) creating a work or doing a deed, (b) experiencing something or encountering someone (i.e. love), and (c) rising above suffering / turning a personal tragedy into a triumph. In another essay, he presents a case for optimism in the face of inevitable tragedy around (a) turning suffering into a human achievement, (b) harnessing guilt as a driver of personal improvement, and (c) embracing life’s transitoriness as a driver of responsible action.
One of the ways you uncover meaning in hard circumstances is by studying the stories of those who have endured similar suffering in order to understand how they found meaning vs. those that did not (biographical approach).
One distinction I liked was that he views struggle caused by mere existential distress (around lack of meaning) as much more common than genuine clinical mental health disorders. And that even in the case of mental illness, the psychosis does not destroy the core personality of the patient, but rather an expression of genuine freedom always remains, along with human dignity. Along these lines, he claims a goal of rehumanizing psychiatry.
One good example of this he talks about are “employment neuroses”, basically the idea that people languish mentally when they are out of work and feel they have no use to society. I will just say that I have seen some friends get lost in this experience and also seen the clouds open up immediately as they reentered the work force. There was no mental illness (or at least related to that), but rather a basic system in their life that was off the rails and needed correction. Seems straightforward.
Frankl and colleagues viewed Americans, even back then, as being overly obsessed with being happy. His advice here: If you make happiness your target, you will fail. If you make meaning your target, you will gain both purpose and happiness. Happiness cannot be gained if directly sought.
In summary, I thought it was a remarkable book and one that I could benefit a lot from internalizing. Every page contains quotable soundbytes or moving accounts of human