Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived three years in German concentration camps during the second world war. In Man’s Search For Meaning he analyses his experiences in the camps and provides a template for finding meaning in life, even under the most difficult of circumstances.
Frankl believed that life is not a quest for pleasure or power, but a quest for meaning. However this is not a search for an abstract meaning of life, but for a specific meaning of our particular life at a given moment in time. Meaning may vary from person to person and from day to day. Moreover, not only must we create this meaning, we have a responsibility to do so:
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked…
Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
How might we do this?
“The perception of meaning… boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words, to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.”
Where might we look for meaning? Frankl saw three possible sources:
The most obvious source of meaning is by achieving or accomplishing something: by creating a work or doing a deed.
The meaning of love is about helping another human being realise their potential:
“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 actualised but yet ought to be actualised. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualise these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
The attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering can also be a source of meaning. The suffering must, however, be unavoidable – seeking meaning in avoidable suffering is merely masochistic.
Frankl describes how many prisoners in the camps occupied themselves with thoughts of happier times to make the horrors of the present less real. But:
“In robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist.”
Or, as others have said, “lean into the sharp points”. There is value in fully experiencing the difficult things in life, rather than running away from them.
Not everyone gave up, however:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.”
That insight forms the foundation of Stephen Covey’s hugely successful book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
We can find meaning in suffering by changing the way we look at it:
“Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how could I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering – to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office.”
In addition, we cannot be sure that a given situation is good or bad. Frankl recounts an instance when a transport of sick inmates to a “rest camp” was being organised. His name was on the list, supposedly because a few doctors were needed too. Despite the stated purpose of the transport, all the inmates believed it was actually destined for the gas chambers. However, when given the opportunity to have his name removed from the list, Frankl refused, an earlier incident having convinced him that it was better to let fate take its course.
“The next morning I departed with the transport. This time it was not a ruse. We were not heading for the gas chambers, and we actually did go to a rest camp. Those who had pitied me remained in a camp where famine was to rage even more fiercely than in our new camp.
Months later, after liberation, I met a friend from the old camp. He related to me how he, as camp policeman, had searched for a piece of human flesh that was missing from a pile of corpses. He confiscated it from a pot in which he found it cooking. Cannibalism had broken out. I had left just in time.”
The transitoriness of life should not deter us from searching for meaning:
“The only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualised… they are are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved”
It’s for this reason that we should not envy the young:
“What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? “No, thank you,” he will think. “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.”
Man’s Search For Meaning is an incredible story of survival and an invaluable guide to dealing with the difficult times in our own lives.