Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is such an incredible book! I can’t believe it wasn’t required reading at some point during my academic career. I think this book should be read by everyone, no matter where you are in life. I will definitely read this book over and over again throughout the course of my own life.
Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna in 1905 and knew from childhood that he wanted to help people. As a teenager interested in psychology, philosophy and psychoanalysis, he began a correspondence with Sigmund Freud which lead to the publication of a manuscript written by Frankl. By 1939, Frankl worked at Rothschild Hospital as the head of the neurology department.
In 1942, Frankl was given the opportunity to flee Austria on a U.S. immigration visa. He decided to let the visa lapse to stay with his family. Shortly after, Frankl and his family were arrested and deported. Over the next three years, Frankl was imprisoned in four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau. After liberation, Frankl learned that he lost his entire family, including his wife and unborn child.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl dives into the mindsets of the World War II concentration camp prisoners … and the Capos, the prisoner trustees with special privileges. He discussed the men who worked in the crematoriums and gas chambers, knowing one day they would have to leave their role as executioner and become victims themselves. Our impulse is to hate these men. To be disgusted by the depths of their depravity but Frankl writes, “No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”
This reminded me of a Jordan Peterson interview I saw once. He said that the biggest lesson to take away from World War II was that, “You’re the Nazi.” We all want to believe we would be Schindler, rescuer of the Jews but all we need to do is look back in history to see how few Schindlers there really were. What lengths would you go to to protect yourself and your family? Would you turn in your neighbors? Would you be a concentration camp guard? Would you be silent and do nothing?
During his time in the camps, Frankl watched many men give up hope and wither away. He wrote, “A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts.” Frankl saw his future goal as the reconstruction and completion of the manuscript that was taken from him on his first day in the camps. Striving for this goal gave his life meaning, a reason to live for. Frankl often quotes Nietzsche, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”
Frankl goes on to write, “Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” In this way, the meaning of life is different for each person. It is up to the individual to find their personal meaning and pursue it. He claimed, “No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny.”
Frankl survived the Nazi concentration camps and fulfilled his destiny. He completed his work on Logotherapy, which focuses on the future, the meanings each person is to fulfill. These meanings can change over time. Frankl writes, “What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
What I found especially interesting about Frankl was that he didn’t let regret get the best of him. I think for many, including myself, the regret of not leaving when given the chance would have eaten them up. How did he sit in camp night after night and not wonder what kind of life his wife and unborn child would have had if they had only immigrated to the United States when given the opportunity? This shows just how powerful Frankl’s logotherapy really is. He didn’t dwell on the past, on the what ifs. He found meaning in his life each and every day. He kept moving forward even when most felt there was no where else to go but the grave.
Frankl wrote, “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.”
Rating: 5/5 Stars
If I could give this book more stars I would. Viktor Frankl was an amazing human being and we all have so much to learn from him.
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