Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning

Man's Search for Meaning cover image

This week’s book was Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. This book has been on my list for quite some time – I believe I read a review of it a couple of years back and it intrigued me. In the book, Frankl describes his life in four different Nazi concentrations camps, including Auschwitz, from 1942 to 1945 and his subsequent theories of logotherapy that resulted from his experiences at the camps.

In the first part of the book, Frankl relates some of his own experiences at the camps. While many of his descriptions of day to day life depicted a horrifying existence, Frankl, a psychiatrist, often approached the narration from a psychological perspective. He demonstrates that even though one’s comrades were dying all around them, one could still find hope and peace amidst all the horror.

At times, his anecdotes were so vivid and so disturbing (but not gruesome), that I had to put the book down for a bit and digest what I had read. However, while there were certainly scenes of unspeakable suffering, there was also hope and inspiration, as Frankl describes how he found the emotional strength to survive the camps. In the book, he looks more at how the prisoners respond to the events rather than looking at the events themselves – how some of them coped and subsequently survived while staring death in the face on a daily basis, while others did not.

The main thrust of the book was how people strive to make meaning of their lives above all else. He also demonstrated by example how those who felt life did not have meaning, simply did not survive the camps. That above all else, one must strive to make meaning out of the suffering, to believe that life does have meaning. He recounted an excellent and moving anecdote of a fellow prisoner who had a dream that they would be freed on a certain date. He awaited the date with anticipation – the hope of being freed kept him going. When the date finally came and went, the man lost all hope. He was dead within a week.

Through his writing, Frank demonstrates the courage and strength that people are capable of when faced with a seemingly hopeless situation. It is when we surrender to nihilism and despair in dire circumstances that we lose. Even though the prisoners were stripped of their very identity and relegated to a status no higher than that cattle, many of them rose above the situation by focusing on the the deeper meaning of their life. Though they had lost everything – their freedom, their spouse, their family, their very identity – they themselves chose how to respond to the horrendous situation and by doing so gave meaning to their suffering. They believed that they existed for something – a spouse, a child, a future dream, or future plans. Frankl states in the book that the one thing that cannot be taken away from us is our attitude, the way we respond:

“We who lived in 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 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.”

In the second part of the book, Frankl discusses his theories of logotherapy. Here, he talks about what he believes drives man to survive, even in the most grim of circumstances. This part of the book moves from the anecdotal to the psychological. The basis of logotherapy is that man’s primary motivating force is a search for meaning and this search for meaning even ranks above our pursuit of happiness. In this way, much of the depression and despair we experience is a result of a lack of meaning in our life. When we find our higher purpose for living, we will be able to overcome insurmountable obstacles and make it through nearly anything. I will say that the second part of the book is more technical than the first but is easily readable even if you do not have a scientific background.

The life lessons on the human condition contained in this small book are too numerous to identify here. This extraordinary book is moving, fascinating, powerful and inspiring – and can cause the reader to ponder the meaning in his or her own life. At the most, this book has the potential to be life-changing. Recommended!

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