🐦 Man’s Search for Meaning
Author: VIctor Frankl
Date Finished: Oct 24, 2020
🎭 Author Background
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychotherapist and neurologist, inventor and pioneer of logotherapy. Exceptionally extinguished worldwide for his literary and academic works, his most famous book is this one. It’s been a staple of religious, philosophical and psychological curriculums worldwide for years, and continues to provide a life changing read to many people who pick it up.
Viktor Frankl was a Jew during WWII Vienna, and so was arrested and deported to concentration camps. He managed to survive and attributes his search for the meaning of life in the face of such horrors. As he put it, the meaning for his life was to help others find theirs.
This book was written in 9 days in the months following the liberation of people from concentration camps in 1945. It is written in two parts, the first a description of life for the average prisoner in some of the worst concentration camps, and the psychology of that experience. The second is an introduction into logotherapy and an argument for “tragic optimism”.
📜 Thesis of Book
It’s pretty well laid out in four main points:
- The primary motivational force in man is the striving to find a meaning in one’s life.
- What matters is not the meaning of life in general, but the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.
- Discovery of the meaning in life can be achieved in three ways:
- Creating work or doing deeds.
- Experiencing something or someone.
- Choosing our attitude to unavoidable suffering.
- Everyone has the potential to transcend evil or insanity by making responsible choices.
🔎 My Thesis
I’m finding myself leaning towards existentialist philosophy recently. Finding meaning in life that is not tied to something that can be so easily taken away is difficult. Finding meaning of life is easy though, we all know the answer is 42. I don’t know what to really make of Frankl’s logotherapy as I’ve never experienced it and never applied it. In my studies of psychiatry and my work in the hospital as a junior doctor psychologist, logotherapy has never come up. It’s as if this amazing secret has been kept from our toolbox in Ireland, and the rest of the world is benefiting from it. Of course, Frankl has not suggested logotherapy as the one true psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic answer to all mental health problems. I do find it strange, and I wish I had the opportunity back then to discuss this point with my tutors and work colleagues.
I agree with Frankl that finding a distinct and unique point in the future helps bear suffering. Something I do quite often when working on a difficult or painful task, is to find an anchor that is close-by. If it is running, then I just need to make it to the next tree, the next goal can come after that. You break up the task into small manageable pieces and tackle them one at a time. The same could be applied to one’s intrinsic meaning in life, to take care of their elderly parents, to finish their thesis, to write a book, to raise their child. Life becomes a unique and rich tapestry of meanings, some with overarching themes and interactions with other meanings, but all manageable.
🔬 Analysis and Evaluation
My recent foray in Albert Camus and his argument that we should rebel against lack of intrinsic metaphysical meaning to life left me feeling that Frankl was making the exact opposite suggestion. One argument came from a man that grew up poor in French Algiers, the other from someone who survived the holocaust. While both men lived, my instincts were to side with the one who had a “stronger” experience, who’s life was challenged multiple times a day, someone who was offered suicide as an easier way out all the time.
Meaning in Life vs Absurdism
The convergence of their arguments started with both of them suggesting that suicide is not the correct thing to do. This is the foundation of Camus' philosophy, and Frankl mentions this multiple times in his writing. What appeared to me as a divergence of “meaning of life” started to become quite similar in fact. It started with Frankl’s brief discussion of the overarching meaning of life, where he said that if there is an overarching meaning of all life on earth, it is most likely outside our realm of understanding and comprehension.
Frankl postulates that it is within our power to provide meaning in the moment. We need to create small patches of meaning in our life, and time will join them together into the completely unique quilt of our lives. It is our responsibility to actualise and try to make that patch as large as possible.
The impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.
While Camus urges us to rebel against the absurdity of knowing there is no meaning of life, that does not mean we can’t create our own meaning, which is what Frankl says. In fact, that is the ultimate rebellion to the absurdity of existence, not only can you take pleasure in the physicality but also create memories (which according to Frankl is the only true reality, the past is the only certainty of life, the other certainty is death).
Having been is the surest kind of being.
Change the world, change ourselves to find meaning. We must live in the world and be a part of it. Isolation and reclusion can be almost like a mini-death, we detach ourselves from the things that can give life meaning. That is partly why solitary confinement is such a drastic punishment, and why it can cause severe psychological issues.
I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.
Suffering is living. Suffering is a strength.
To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities—I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures.
Frankl confirms this in his writing, adding that suffering can have meaning, and that it is as integral to life as water and food. It is often up to us to find meaning in suffering, however it is not necessary to suffer to find meaning. Suffering needlessly is masochism.
Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.
This reminded me of Marsault in prison, after realising that one of the punishments was not allowing the prisoners to smoke. By the time he realises this, it stops being a punishment as his craving stops. Inadvertently, the punishment meant to cause suffering, resulted in Marsault’s cessation of smoking. If he were to become a free man, his life would be much improved due to the health benefits. It’s possible to find meaning in almost anything, but that doesn’t mean there is meaning in everything.
A man can get used to anything, don’t ask us how.
From a medical and scientific standpoint, I don’t know enough about the success of logotherapy as a therapeutic technique to make much of a judgement to its worth. The anecdotal evidence Frankl provided, along with the very certain history of him as a very successful and revered neurologist and psychiatrist, provides some confidence in those methods. However, when working with human health, it is always important to adhere to the science and evidence based medical principles. The highest level of evidence that we can currently achieve in the medical field is via a systematic review and meta-analysis. This form of research takes into account every study in history that is focused on your topic of interest, and uses statistical evaluation to assess whether the intervention works, and whether there is a bias in the literature towards a positive or negative outcome. I’ve only begun to look for some of these reviews relating to logotherapy, and will leave judgement until I can gather more information.
The brief glimpse into the horrors that man can create left me nauseated, and the hope kindness and love man can bring despite such horrors soothed my soul. I’m finding it worrying that those who experienced the war first or second hand are all dying off. We are left with second/third hand accounts of humanity’s deepest lows, and years of relative peace and prosperity are eroding at the herd-immunity the world received against incredible evil. I’m hopeful that history is maintained in a visceral enough form that we can keep it’s lessons fresh in those that are tasked with maintaining peace and dignity for humanity.
The world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.