Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor E. Frankl
Rating : 8.8

A book to read, to cherish, to debate, and one that will ultimately keep the memories of the victims alive
-John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

The meaning of life is to make life meaningful. Since meaning varies from day to day and hour to hour, it’s up to you and me to constantly search for meaning in our lives and generate a feeling of meaning. This takes work but if we succeed, we activate the single greatest source of productive energy human beings possess; If we fail, however, we’ll slowly fall into darkness and lose the will to live.

Frankl was a professor and psychiatrist from Vienna. His personal story is pretty tragic as his family was Jewish and suffered a great deal in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Viktor Frankl himself was lucky and survived but sadly most of his family did not make it through the war including his parents and his beloved wife.

During his time in the concentration camps, Frankl witnessed the absolute worst sides of humankind.

Frankl saw with his own eyes the impact these circumstances had on him and his fellow male inmates. The constant humiliations, the unbearable hunger and the imminent threat of death had a huge impact on the prisoners and many of his fellow inmates simply lost all sense of decency as they fought to endure. With the loss of identity followed a complete loss of morals and principles. Frankl himself was kept alive by a combination of sheer luck, hope to see his family again and his decision to let fate take its course. He simply gave up trying to change his fate as any active decision could potentially make death come sooner.

As horrible as the circumstances were Frankl realized that he was free because he could decide how he would think and react. Frankl didn’t have the power to walk away from the camp but he had the power to master it.

He discovered that even in the most horrible of circumstances human beings have a choice and with choice comes the power to control a situation even when everything seems out of your control you can choose your own attitude and thereby establish meaning in every situation even when things seem hopeless and full of despair. Or to quote Frankl himself:

“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.”

Viktor E. Frankl

Frankl also discovered that those prisoners who had something to live for or believed in, were the ones who survived. The ones that lost their hopes and sense of direction and gave up searching for meaning didn’t live long.

Here is one more quote:

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

Viktor E. Frankl

After World War II, Frankl continued to see how critical meaning was in people’s lives as a psychiatrist. Frankl witnessed patients who lacked meaning to be quickly consumed with addiction, anger, and depression. the loss of meaning had created an existential void in their life that was quickly filled with despair like a poisonous gas filling up a room. But by helping patients through a form of therapy called logotherapy, he helped his patients fill their internal emptiness, eliminate despair and activate an unlimited source of productive energy while being forced to find meaning.

Based on his observations in the camps, Frankl founded a new therapeutic direction called Logotherapy. Logotherapy guides patients to find purpose and meaning in their lives. What provides meaning is different from person to person, so each man/woman must choose his or her own path. Furthermore, meaning can change from day to day or from hour to hour. It can be found in even the smallest of things. So don’t spend all of your waking hours searching for an overall meaning of life instead look for meaning in everyday tasks and in the relationships you have with your friends and your family.

Whatever life throws at you what really truly matters is how you choose to respond to it. Everyone must find unique meaning in their lives and then go out and fulfill it.

The Three Wells of Meaning

During Frankl’s time in concentration camps and time as a psychiatrist, he discovered three rich sources of meaning; three ‘wells of meaning’ you can turn to when you lose hope and require motivation to get through a difficult period in your life:

1) Pursue a Life Task

When Frankl entered the Auschwitz concentration camp, Nazi guards stripped him of his possessions and confiscated a manuscript he’d been working on his entire adult life. After a period of shock and disbelief, Frankl vowed to survive his time at Auschwitz to rewrite and publish the manuscript.

While suffering from typhus and on the brink of death, Frankl wrote notes for his manuscript on scrap paper he’d collected around the camp. Frankl felt the manuscript was a valuable piece of work only he could do because he had the unique collection of experience, knowledge, and skills to do it. If he died, the world would miss his contribution.

If you died today, there would be a task that you and only you could have completed. A piece of work that required your unique collection of experiences, knowledge, and strengths. Maybe there was a lecture you were meant to give in the future, a project you were meant to contribute to, a team you were meant to lead or a book you were meant to write.

“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

– Viktor E. Frankl

“In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.”

– Viktor Frankl

What task awaits you? If you don’t know, seek out new experiences, acquire new knowledge, and develop a rare combination of valuable skills. Then look for opportunities to leverage your unique collection of experience, knowledge, and skill. When you feel like your life is one long apprenticeship preparing you for a task you believe you were born to do, life feels meaningful.

2) Love

Before the war, Frankl met a distraught woman who had lost a son and had another son who was severely handicapped. Prior to meeting Franko, she had tried to commit suicide with her disabled son, but her son stopped her. To help her regain a sense of meaning in her life and activate her will to live, he asked her to imagine herself at 80 years old, looking back in the life that was full of pleasure and free of the burden of taking care of her disabled son. After some reflection she told Frankl looking back as an old woman, I cannot see what it was all for. Actually, I must say my life was a failure. Then Frankl asked her to imagine a life dedicated to taking care of her handicapped son. After some reflection, she told Frankl I have made a fuller life possible for him, I have made a better human being of my son, I can look back peacefully on my life and I can say my life was full of meaning.

Frankl’s definition of love is different than most. It has little to do with the feeling of being in love and more about struggling to help others succeed.

To Frankl, “love” is the act of seeing the potential in others and helping them actualize that potential. Love is creating opportunities for your child; love is mentoring a junior member of your team; love is introducing your friend to someone who can get them a more rewarding job; love is comforting a sick parent, so they can find the strength to live another day. When you lack meaning, find someone you can elevate; aim to make someone else’s life a little bit better. Get so busy helping others you forget yourself in the process.

“The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”

– Viktor E. Frankl

3) Suffer Bravely

Frankl endured unimaginable amounts of suffering inside Nazi concentration camps, but he found a way to transcend his suffering by imagining himself standing in front of a group of students in a well‐lit, warm lecture room.

“I imagined myself giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method, I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past.”

Viktor E. Frankl

When Nelson Mandela was thrown in prison for an unjust amount of time, he saw and later used his suffering as a way to inspire millions around South Africa to forgive their enemies and work together to rebuild a nation. His suffering had a purpose.

As Frankl says suffering ceases to be suffering, at the moment it finds a meaning.

Whenever an unexpected, uncontrollable setback happens in your life, find a use for it. Look at the suffering objectively and ask yourself,

“How might this be valuable?”

Often the primary value of suffering is the chance to strengthen your beliefs and values. Think of your favorite movie character. At some point, that character suffered, and while watching him/her suffer, you discovered who they were and what they stood for. Now, imagine you’re a character in a movie. When you encounter suffering, use it as an opportunity to display and strengthen your beliefs, values, and ideals, and inspire others in the process.

“(By) accepting the challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.”

– Viktor Frankl

The most important task every day is to find meaning and make life meaningful. We can make life meaningful by preparing and searching for our life’s task, by elevating others and by choosing to see suffering as a valuable opportunity to learn and strengthen our character. The more you’re able to find meaning from hour to hour and day to day, the more likely you’ll get to the end of your life and be proud of the life you lived.

Similar Posts

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.