Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) is a truly remarkable book in all senses. It is a story about hidden human strength, irrepressible will for survival, and ability to find hope even in the darkest moments of life. The book had a powerful impact on many peoples’ lives and was one of the ten most prominent in the United States. Since it was published, the book had been translated into twenty-four languages and sold millions of copies all around the world.
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Viktor Frankl was an outstanding neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna when the Holocaust came and destroyed his life as well as the lives of millions of others. Frankl’s family was killed, and he was imprisoned in different concentration camps, including Auschwitz. As he was trying to cope with the horrifying reality of the camps, Frankl started to develop his own philosophical views regarding the meaning of life, which eventually formed into the new type of existential psychotherapy called logotherapy. The key idea was his belief that a person can overcome all the challenges if he or she can see the meaning behind them.
The first part of the book is devoted to the author’s reminiscences about his experience as a prisoner in Nazi camps. He used to observe the other confined and their way of dealing with the terrible conditions. The author describes the daily routine of the prisoners and analyzes how the difference in the mindset may affect a person’s ability to endure the most difficult challenges. They worked hard from dawn to dusk, suffered from exhaustion and hunger, and dwelled in a constant fear of the unknown. However, the most horrible kind of torture was not a physical, but a psychological one. One of the purposes of the guards was to destroy the prisoners morally, to kill the every bit of human inside and turn them into will-less primitive creatures, something the Nazis used to call “Untermensch.”
Frankl was trying to determine why some of the prisoners could find strength to bear all the humiliation and physical suffering when the others gave up and often committed suicide. He discovered that the ability to resist depended on whether or not a person could find the meaning and the high purpose of the existing situation.
Some of them, including Frankl, believed that such demoralizing treatment is just another reason to do one’s best to stay and behave like a human being. He was actively promoting his views among his fellow-prisoners. Frankl used to say: “Every freedom may be taken away from a man but one; the freedom to choose what attitude he will take towards his conditions” (97). The focus on the meaning of life as a key to survival eventually brought Frankl to creating a new therapeutic approach called logotherapy.
The next part of the book is devoted to the thorough description of logotherapy. Even before the war and concentration camps, Frankl as a psychiatrist started to question the principles of Sigmund Freud that were based solely on physical experience and excluded the transcendent one. As a Holocaust survivor, he strengthened his convictions concerning the importance of existential sense. Frankl claimed that there are three options to determine the meaning of life. They are creation, new experiences, and new people, and finding a sense in unavoidable suffering. He meant that if the suffering cannot be avoided, the only solution is to make the use of it by giving it a particular meaning.
According to Frankl, logotherapy is based on three fundamental principles. The first claims that even in the most unbearable conditions life has a meaning. The second suggests that the main inspiration to live lies in our drive to find the meaning of our existence. Finally, and the most importantly, the last principle asserts that people have the freedom to find meaning in everything they do and all challenges they face.
Individuals who suffer from the existential crisis are predisposed to various kinds of psychological disorders. They tend to fight the crisis with alcohol, drugs, or other harmful habits to distract themselves from thinking of life. Frankl believes that logotherapy is an effective tool to cope with anxiety, neurosis, depression and more severe cases such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia. The purpose of the logotherapist is to help the individual to find the lost meaning in life or create a new one.
The book by Viktor Frankl became one of the greatest works about the human’s desire to survive by all means and could be compared to such prominent Holocaust works as Schindler’s Ark and Ann Frank’s diary.
The book cannot be considered a light reading. The reality of concentration camps described by Frankl is shocking and hardly imaginable. It is impossible to believe and understand how such an atrocious ideology could have been created by human beings. At the same time, it is even more shocking that some people managed to survive the terror and keep their dignity and humanness. Frankl reminds that we all possess enough power to create our own attitude towards every obstacle we are facing. All the challenges we overcome shape our personality and cultivate our skills. What does not kill us, makes us stronger. If one discovers a purpose of suffering, he or she will find a way to cope with it.
These days existential crisis is quite a common phenomenon, especially among the young people. Some prefer to deny it and engage in hard work, routine, or meaningless relationships. So often many of us feel as if we are not in the right place as if our goals and beliefs have proven wrong. During this process of reconsideration, we sometimes wish that someone or something would help us to find the way out. Eventually, we all realize that this special someone is ourselves and only we are responsible for making the decisions. A person has a happier life when he or she has clear objectives and is devoted to something or someone. It can be religion, occupation, hobby, or beloved people. The book is not religious, yet the very idea of logotherapy correlates well with a concept of Islam, that is to be the best version of yourself, however, horrible the circumstances may be. Indeed, only we decide who we are and what our life is going to be.
Man’s Search for Meaning is a book worth reading both for professional therapists and those with a common interest. It does not reveal what the meaning of life is, but it tells the story of Viktor Frankl who managed to develop his own framework that might help to reveal it. A psychiatrist who talks from his own tragic experience deserves to be trusted. The book would be of great use for those studying psychology and of great inspiration for those who suffer from depression or feel lost and disoriented in life.
Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, 2004.