Man’s Search for Meaning – by Viktor Frankl
Date read: 12/14/18. Recommendation: 9/10.
Frankl documents his story of survival in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. His experience at Auschwitz reinforced one of his key ideas: life is not a quest for pleasure or power, but a quest for meaning. Throughout the book, he reflects on Nietzsche’s insight that, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Frankl suggests that there are three primary outlets to instill life with meaning: courage during difficult times, relationships, and creativity. I drew strong connections between this and one of my favorite books, Tribe by Sebastian Junger, which spotlights veterans and the struggle to find loyalty, belonging, and meaning in modern society. Man’s Search for Meaning is profound and a catalyst for insightful discussions on the importance of meaning and the role of suffering in our own lives.
See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.
Quest for meaning
Frankl’s experience at Auschwitz reinforced one of his key ideas: life is not a quest for pleasure or power, but a quest for meaning.
Authenticity, meaning, and the proper course of action is unique to the individual: “Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.”
Find harmony in the motion: meaning differs from man to man, day to day. “What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
Stop seeking specific advice: “Everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”
Outlets to discover meaning
-Suffering (courage in difficult times)
-Experiencing something or encountering someone (qualities like goodness, truth, beauty...nature or culture...another person’s uniqueness by loving or caring for them)
-Creating (doing something significant, work or deed)
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.”
Uniqueness and singleness of your own suffering, love, and creative work is as impossible to replicate as it is to replace an individual human being. You are irreplaceable.
Dichotomy of control
Elements of Stoicism and identifying what’s within your control. You can have everything you possess taken from you except one thing, the freedom to choose how you respond to the situation.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Your life depends on decisions, not conditions: “Man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will become in the next moment.”
What attitude do you take towards life’s opportunities and challenges? Positive allows you to overcome inevitable obstacles, endure, and grow. Negative intensifies pain and leaves you in a worse spot.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Nietzsche
Human suffering (and the size of it) is relative. Whether great or little, it expands to fill the mind.
“There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” Dostoevski
How do you know if you’re worthy of your sufferings? The way you handle difficult circumstances allows you to add deeper meaning and depth to your life.
Suffering = a human achievement, indicates existential frustration. Sign that it’s time to recalibrate and reorient towards the meaning in your life. Just as pain in your foot indicates something is wrong or sensitivity to the moods of those around you tells you something about the group dynamic.
Don’t set out for equilibrium: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”
*See Tribe by Sebastian Junger, “Humans don't mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.”
Suffering is only noble and meaningful when it is unavoidable.
When prisoners would give up and decide they had nothing more to expect from life, needed to get them to realize that life was still expecting something from them...a task waiting to be fulfilled. For a father, this meant getting back to his child. For a scientist, this meant finishing his series of books. “His work could not be done by anyone else, any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child’s affections.”
“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”
“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time wrongly as you are about to act now!” Stimulates responsibleness, finiteness, finality of what you make out of yourself and your life.
Self-actualization is a side-effect of self-transcendence (selfless goals).
You are not your work: After having the manuscript of his first book taken when he entered Auschwitz, he was forced to question whether his life was void of meaning at that point.
“I should say having been is the surest kind of being.”
-Young people should envy the old...”Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past–the potentialities they have actualized, the meaning they have fulfilled, the values they have realized.”
Frankl remained in Austria after his liberation. Felt a connection to Vienna and the psychiatric patients there. Believed in reconciliation over revenge.