Come for the story, walk away with the meaning of life
I've been putting away reading this work for a while. It was one of those big things you respect too much to just dare to dive right in. And it is a book which I regarded as the one deserving to be read in the paper form, not as an ebook. As we entered the second year of this global pandemic in April 2021, it was time to dive into it.
It is as tough and raw a story as you'd expect, but I was surprised at how brutally honest the author is with himself and his fellow prisoners, never refraining from labeling their actions in the direst moments as if he was not the victim himself.
Frankl looked at the whole gruesome Holocaust experience as a study and wrote about it almost too objectively. While reading the concentration camp part I was both proud and ashamed of being human. I couldn't highlight anything as it felt disrespectful to do so.
But this quote summarizes how Frankl wrote it:
We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chance or miracles—whatever one may choose to call them—we know: the best of us did not return.
"The best of us did not return." I can't believe the author's humility and refusal to portrait himself as a victim.
His concern was less with why most died than it was with the question of why anyone at all survived.
What really surprised me about this book is that the first part — Experiences in a Concentration Camp — is merely but a preamble to Frankl's School of Logotherapy. He was the founder of what has come to be called the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy (after Freud's psychoanalysis and Adler's individual psychology).
Frankl's idea was that life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.
One of the ideas was again popularized by our rediscovering of the Stoics — the notion that we cannot control what happens to us in life, but we can always control what we will feel and how we will respond to what happens to us.
Selected highlights from Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning:
And we, the sheep, thought of two things only—how to evade the bad dogs and how to get a little food.
Man's search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a "secondary rationalization" of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone, only then does it achieve a significance that will satisfy his own will to meaning.
Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values!
Logotherapy regards its assignment as that of assisting the patient to find meaning in his life.
To be sure, man's search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium.
... the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives. They lack the awareness of a meaning worth living for. They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves; they are caught in that situation which I have called the "existential vacuum".
The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century.
The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.
... The most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money.
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.
... we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
... the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation— ... —we are challenged to change ourselves.
In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.
If the first part of the book beats you down, the second part is as uplifting as the most motivating speech you've ever been entertained by.
It helps you Finding your enough.