Man’s Search for Meaning


Man’s Search for Meaning

Author       Viktor E Frankl

Publisher   Washington Square Press, 1959; 1984

Rating 5 Star


“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who endured years of unspeakable horror as a Jew in the Nazi death camps during World War II.  His mother, father, brother and wife died in the camps or were sent to the gas chambers.  His entire family perished in these camps except for his sister.  Frankl was “stripped naked’.  He lost every possession.  Every human value he held close was denigrated by his captors who were callous and brutal, and he constantly lived in fear for his life not knowing when he might face extermination.

Frankl writes about his experience in the concentration camps to provide an extreme example of degradation where “every circumstance conspires to make the prisoner lose his hold.  All the familiar goals in life are snatched away”.  Within this tortured environment what alone remains is “the last of human freedoms – the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances”.

It was during this time that he found meaning in his apparent senseless suffering.  From this, Frankl developed the central theme of existentialism: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering”.  He proposed that if there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying.  “But no man [sic] can tell another what this purpose is.  Each must find out for himself, and must accept responsibility that his answer prescribes”.

He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how – Nietzsche

After Frankl was released from the camp following the surrender of Nazi Germany he created a form of psychotherapy called logotherapy.  Logos is Greek for “meaning”.  Logotherapy focuses on the “will to meaning” for the future (rather than having patients introspectively and retrospectively dialoguing their history).  The meaning the patient gets is then used to move forward to fulfill their future in a positive way.  It is “meaning-centred psychotherapy” which “defocuses all the vicious cycle formations and feedback mechanisms which play such a great role in the development [and maintenance] of neuroses”.

Frankl states that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a secondary rationalization of instinctional drives.  Finding our purpose and meaning to our life is the most important thing for us”.

“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation”.  “We who lived in the 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 away 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”.

“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment- he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions”.

Our greatest freedom is to choose our attitude.

Posted in Book reviews