Throwback Thursday Books: Man’s Search for Meaning

I bought a copy of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, my sophomore year at Central College. It was for one of my history classes taught by Dr. Mike Schrier. I don’t remember the class, but I am grateful for the book. I still have that copy and have read it at least a dozen times over the years. I have often wished I could have learned something from Frankl the first time I read it rather than merely studying the book because it was assigned. I continue to learn from Frankl each time I read his words.

Frankl wrote before inclusive language was a consideration. I apologize in advance for the quotes which use masculine terms to describe human realities. It is true that he dealt almost exclusively with men in the camps, but he wrote with all human beings in view. I will amend some of the quotes where that is practical, and humbly suggest that Frankl did in fact value all human beings as ends in themselves regardless of the terminology.

Frankl, as I’m sure you know, wrote as a survivor of the Nazi death camps. He was a practicing psychotherapist before his enslavement, and he brought his clinical and theoretical insights to bear as part of his struggle to survive. He tried to understand how it was that he survived when so many others did not.

He confessed with no false humility that the survivors know that the best of them did not make it out alive. Those who did, Frankl suggested, did so because they found reasons to continue living. He saw the workings of chance, of history, and of (for lack of a better word) fate in the the realities of survival. But this search for and discovery of meaning in the midst of a massive and unspeakably cruel absurdity was, in his view, one of the most significant factors in his survival.

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Frankl wrote, “any attempt to restore a [person’s] inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing [that person] some future goal.” More than once Frankl quoted a line from Nietzsche to the effect that the one who has a “why” to live can endure almost any “how.” This fundamental orientation toward the future was central, in Frankl’s view, to survival in the camps. He saw it as “the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners” (page 121).

Frankl saw links between this future orientation and physical health outcomes in the camps. He noted that it was essential to enduring the torture and abuse handed out by the guards and between the enslaved inmates. It was central to maintaining one’s sanity and stability in a radically insane and unstable environment. This insistence on hope for the future gave him power to survive in the present.

But this future orientation required more than wishful thinking or fantasies. Frankl put it this way, and I quote at length. “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and furthermore, we had to teach despairing men that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life,” he concludes, “and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly” (page 122).

In hindsight, that was what I needed to learn from Frankl in that first reading — and what I missed altogether. Had I caught even a part of what Frankl intended, I might have been spared some unnecessary pain and suffering. I know my dear professor hoped that some of us might catch a glimpse of Frankl’s insights into a life well-lived, but I’ve often been a bit slow on the draw in that regard. “Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems,” Frankl argues, “and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual” (page 122).

The Nietzsche quote was one anchor for Frankl’s reflections. The other was a quote from Dostoevsky — “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” A relentless battle for meaning had to be coupled, in his experience with an acceptance of the reality of suffering. “If there is a meaning in life at all,” he wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death,” he asserted, “human life cannot be complete” (page 106).

Frankl did not advocate either martyrdom or the passivity of the victim. Instead, he pointed to the power we have no matter what circumstances we must endure. “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread,” he wrote. “They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a [person] 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” (page 104, my emphasis).

During his enslavement, Frankl often thought of his wife. They had been separated as they were herded off the cattle cars, and he never saw her again. She died in the camps. But Frankl maintained an image of her in his mind and a relationship with that image which was often quite vivid. That relationship brought home to him “the truth that is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers…that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which [the human] can aspire.”

Many times over the years I have recalled this “greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart:” that the salvation of human beings and of humanity “is through love and in love.” (pages 58-59). When I remember that this insight settled on Frankl’s mind, heart, and spirit in the midst of some of the most developed machinery of hate in human history, I am stunned into silence. And I tremble in gratitude for the gifts of love I receive.

Frankl anticipated nearly every trend and topic in what is now called “Positive Psychology.” For example, he noted and explored the power of humor in the battle for survival. “Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation,” he wrote. “It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human makeup, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds” (page 68). In our time, the witty scalpel employed by Trevor Noah on the rotting corpse of Trump administration has demonstrated the truth of Frankl’s assertion.

I have returned numerous times over the years to Frankl for both inspiration and pithy quotes. But his work was most powerful for me as I struggled to come to terms with the sudden and untimely death of my first spouse, Anne, ten years ago this past November. Only two books spoke to me for months — Frankl’s little book, and C. S. Lewis’ searing words in A Grief Observed (I’ll come to that one on some other Thursday). At first, it was my memory of Frankl’s thoughts about his wife and the power of love. But over the weeks and months, it was the words about suffering and meaning that sustained me.

Frankl teaches us how to choose hope. He has no interest in the power of positive thinking as a discipline of denial or a placebo of platitudes. But he leads us to see what many wisdom traditions (including positive psychology) say to us. We can indeed choose hope, and must choose hope, especially in the most desperate of situations. Pessimists may have the most accurate descriptions of reality, but optimists have the best survival rates.

There’s much to gain from Frankl in our own times of being locked in and locked down. There is no comparison between our current limitations and life in the death camps. But we can learn much from such an extremity of human experience to sustain us in our own times of pain and despair. We can, indeed, find ways to choose hope. We can indeed take responsibility for the future.

My copy is the paperback revised and expanded edition from 1976, published as a Pocket Book by Simon and Schuster.

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