Man’s Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl. This book describes his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The book’s focus is on how he derived meaning even during these desperate times. Frankl explains the importance of logotherapy, which aims to find an individual’s meaning in life. Your meaning can be derived from small tasks or a deeper meaning. According to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity.
About Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist. He is a survivor of Nazi concentration camps and the founder of logotherapy. Logotherapy is widely recognized as the third school of Viennese psychotherapy. Frankl argues that the primary motivation of an individual is the search for meaning in life. Therefore, the primary purpose of psychotherapy should be to help the individual find that meaning. Frankl earned a doctorate in medicine before the Nazi regime and headed up a female suicide prevention program.
Frankl’s Traumatic Life
The Trauma of Concentration Camps
Frankl was a professor and psychiatrist from Vienna. His personal story is filled with tragedy. He and his family were persecuted as Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Viktor Frankl himself was lucky as he was one of few to survive. However, most of his family did not make it through the war. The tragedies included his parents and his beloved wife.
During his time in the concentration camps, Frankl witnessed the absolute worst side of humankind. Frankl saw with his own eyes the impact these circumstances can have on people. The constant humiliations, the unbearable hunger, and the imminent threat of death had a significant impact on the prisoners. Many of his fellow inmates simply lost any self-confidence as they fought for their lives. With their loss of identity followed a complete loss of meaning. Frankl himself was kept alive by a combination of factors. These factors were sheer luck, hoping to see his family again, and his decision to let fate take its course. Frankl simply decided to accept his fate. He understood that making an active decision to change his fate could potentially lead to death coming sooner.
Frankl Found Freedom Despite Suffering
“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
As horrible as the circumstances were, Frankl realized he was free. Despite the persecution, 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. Frankl discovered that, even in the most horrible of circumstances, human beings have a choice. 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.
Frankl also discovered that those prisoners who had something to live for or believed in were the ones who survived. The ones that lost hope and gave up searching for meaning didn’t live long.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”– Viktor E. Frankl
Logotherapy Allowed Frankl to Spread Freedom
After World War II, Frankl continued to understand the importance of meaning in people’s lives. This understanding was complemented by the people he observed as a psychiatrist. Frankl witnessed patients who lacked meaning and were quickly consumed by addiction, anger, and depression. The loss of meaning had created an existential void in their life. This void was quickly filled with despair. However, by helping patients through a form of therapy called logotherapy, he helped his patients fill their internal emptiness. Additionally, these patients could eliminate despair and activate an unlimited source of productive energy while being forced to find meaning. Frankl developed logotherapy during his time in the concentration camps.
Logotherapy guides patients to find individual purpose and meaning in their lives. This meaning differs by individual and can change from day to day or from hour to hour. Meaning can be found in even the smallest of details. So, don’t spend all your waking hours searching for an all-encompassing meaning of life. Instead, search for meaning in everyday tasks and in the relationships you have with your friends and family. It does not matter what life throws at you. What truly matters is how you choose to handle these circumstances. Everyone must find unique meaning in their lives and then go out and fulfill it.
The Meaning of Life
Frankl states that we always question ourselves on the meaning of life. When we reverse the issue, the dilemma of interpretation is simpler to solve. He breaks your search for meaning into three steps.
The Three Wells of Meaning
During Frankl’s time in concentration camps and as a psychiatrist, he discovered three rich sources of meaning. These are the three ‘wells of meaning.’ You can turn to these wells when you lose hope and require motivation to get through a difficult period in your life.
Pursue a Life Task
“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 E. Frankl
Frankl Was Stripped of His Life’s Work
When Frankl entered the Auschwitz concentration camp, Nazi guards stripped him of his possessions. They 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 believed the manuscript was a valuable piece of work that only he could complete. He had a unique collection of experiences, knowledge, and skills to write this piece. Therefore, Frankl had convinced himself that his death would lead to the world missing his contribution. This became Frankl’s life task.
Find Your Life’s Task to Obtain Meaning
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, a project you were meant to contribute to, or a book you were meant to write. You can derive meaning from this task. However, you must first identify this task. If you are unaware of it, seek new experiences, acquire knowledge, and develop a rare combination of valuable skills. Then, look for opportunities to leverage your unique collection of experiences, knowledge, and skill. Live like your life is one long apprenticeship preparing you for a task you believe you were born to do. If you follow this instruction, life should become meaningful.
“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
Frankl Helps Others Find Meaning in Despair
Before the war, Frankl met a distraught woman who had lost a son and had another son who was disabled. Before meeting Frankl, she had tried to commit suicide with her disabled son. However, her son stopped her. To help her regain a sense of meaning in her life, Frankl asked her to imagine herself at 80 years old. He wanted her to imagine looking back on a life full of pleasure and free of the burden of caring for a disabled son. After some reflection, she told Frankl that she couldn’t see what this life would have been worth. She even described that imaginary life as a failure. Subsequently, Frankl asked her to imagine a life dedicated to caring for her disabled son. After some reflection, she told Frankl that she had obtained a fuller life for her son. She now understood that she had made a better human being of her son. This achievement offered meaning for this woman. Now, she can look back peacefully on her life and see meaning in the love she gave to her son.
Frankl’s Unique Definition of Love
Frankl’s definition of love is different from 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 recognizing the potential in others and helping them actualize that potential. Love is creating opportunities for your child or introducing your friend to someone who can get them a more rewarding job. When you lack meaning, find someone you can elevate. Aim to make someone else’s life a little 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
“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
Similarities Between Frankl and Mandela’s Approaches
Frankl endured unimaginable amounts of suffering inside Nazi concentration camps. Still, he found a way to transcend his suffering. Frankl imagined himself standing in front of a group of students in a well‐lit, warm lecture room.
When Nelson Mandela was thrown in prison, he envisioned and later used his suffering to inspire millions around South Africa. He inspired them to forgive their enemies and work together to rebuild a nation. His suffering had a purpose. Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning. Whenever an unexpected, uncontrollable setback happens in your life, find a use for it. Look at the suffering objectively and ask yourself how you can derive value from the suffering. 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. While watching him/her suffer, you discover who they are and what they stand 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. In doing so, you can 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 E. Frankl
Change Your Daily Approach to Life
The most important daily task is to find meaning and make life meaningful. We can make life meaningful by preparing and searching for tasks that can define our lives. Also, elevate others as a way of deriving your meaning. Finally, choose to see suffering as a valuable opportunity to learn and strengthen your character. The more you’re able to find meaning from small moments, the more likely you’ll be proud of the life you live.
Use Your Imagination to Overcome Suffering
Frankl describes to the reader the pure agony of walking in the cold while being beaten by a Nazi guard. He recalls a man whispering to him, “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.” Instead of worrying about the man’s comment, this prompted Frankl to retreat into his imagination. He pictured his wife and her smile.
Positive thoughts can act as a distraction from a horrible reality. Even then, on that dreadful march in the dead of winter, Frankl pushed on because he was able to retreat within himself. His body was beaten, but his spirit remained unconquerable. A strong spirit was the only reason why Frankl and few others were able to survive.
Suffering Is Always Followed By Liberation
For three years, Viktor Frankl remained a prisoner of the holocaust. Shortly after his camp had been liberated, Frankl tells the story of walking through the campgrounds just days after his liberation. The countryside around the camp he was imprisoned at was free and open. In this state of gratitude, Frankl broke down and fell to his knees. There comes a time in each person’s life where we become liberated from our suffering.
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