Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl, pub. Rider, 2004
Is it possible, that when faced with experiencing the utmost suffering and deprivation that we could conceivably endure as human beings, we could still find within us the will to live and the purpose to carry on? Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist Dr. Viktor E. Frankl said yes, and he spoke with the authority of someone who had survived just such an ordeal.
Frankl’s classic memoir, ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’, is a personal account of his experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and a brief treatise on logotherapy, the model of analytical psychology that he subsequently developed. At the heart of the book lie Frankl’s essential insights: that the purpose of life is to discover a personal meaning and we alone are responsible for finding and aligning ourselves to it. As long as we are creating meaning in our lives, he claims, we can weather the worst storms of human suffering and even die with dignity and purpose. It is, after all, how he himself survived first-hand some of the worst deprivations and indignities it is possible for a human to undergo.
Originally published in German in 1948, Dr. Frankl’s concentration camp memoir is not an account of the atrocities as such, although many heartbreaking instances are described. Rather, the author’s intention is to explore the psychological reactions of the prisoners to their surroundings, to ascertain what mental attitudes allowed some of them, including himself, to maintain their humanity, dignity and hope whilst existing in such brutal and inhumane conditions. He describes how the typical inmate passed from an initial state of shock into a period of hopelessness characterized by apathy and emotional numbing, before finally breaking through to a redeeming ‘intensification of the inner life’: fervently reliving cherished memories, appreciating beauty (a view of mountains, a vivid sunset), and discovering joy in the most trivial events and small moments of gratitude.
What Frankl observed was that some prisoners were not simply responding to the physiological and environmental conditions of life in the camps, but were able to transcend their impoverished circumstances by finding meaning and purpose wherever they could. What distinguished these prisoners from those who gave up hope and succumbed to fatal ennui and nihilism was the exercising of a choice to embody a radical inner freedom, what Frankl termed “a will to meaning’:
‘The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. 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.’
Descriptions of meaningful experiences and encounters are littered throughout Frankl’s narrative, giving concrete examples alongside the psychological insights. The author has experienced human life stripped down to its most primitive state and has returned to tell us what it is that is most essentially us. It is that central to human existence is not the search for happiness but the search for meaning: something which gives our life purpose and is held to be of such value that we can survive just about any hardship by holding on to it. It is not simply that the search for meaning made a useful survival strategy in the internment camps of WWII. It is, according to Frankl, an existential need and the central purpose of human life. It is also the core tenet of his logotherapy: we must find meaning and purpose in our lives to thrive as human beings. Then perhaps, when it is our turn to experience tragedy and suffering, as is inevitable, we may be better placed to find the resilience needed to overcome it.
In our current social and cultural climate, Frankl’s short and powerful book is a valuable reminder that exercising our ‘will to power’, taking responsibility for creating and sustaining the meaning of our lives, is essential to our wellbeing. Without a central purpose we risk slipping into nihilism and may lack the resilience required to manage the inevitable hardships of life. In our own search for meaning, Frankl’s book is both map and guide. And whilst he may not have all the answers (of course no one thinker does), his classic psychological study continues to inspire and inform 60 years after its initial printing. That he undertook such a study during his incarceration, endeavoring to as much objectivity as he could muster given the most challenging of circumstances, is itself testament to Frankl’s extraordinary resilience and presence of mind. Perhaps his legacy can inspire us to cultivate our own.