The world observed Holocaust Memorial Day this week. A day chosen, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.
As the world reflects on this savage event in history, I recalled “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. It is one of my all time favourite books, a deeply personal and profound exploration of the human experience of suffering and the search for purpose and meaning in life.
In a nutshell: A psychologist is a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, through his barbaric experiences he learns that man’s deepest drive is to find meaning and purpose.
Premise: He who has a reason to live can bear almost any how. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can control how you react to it.
I first discovered this book in my early twenties, I remember feeling relieved to identify a name for the restlessness I’d been feeling prior to following my calling: as Frankl describes it – “Existential Angst”. Frankl describes how there is no inherent meaning or purpose to life, existential angst is a feeling of being overwhelmed by the freedom and responsibility of being human and not knowing what you are supposed to do with that freedom.
Frankl states that Existential Angst manifests itself as boredom and coined the term “Sunday Neurosis” to describe the feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction that many people experience on Sunday evenings. Frankl observed that many people, after a weekend of leisure and relaxation, feel a sense of letdown and unhappiness as they anticipate the upcoming workweek. He theorised that this feeling is due to a lack of purpose or meaning in their lives, and that it is a symptom of an underlying existential vacuum or “existential void”.
Frankl suggests that this void is a result of the lack of a self-transcendent goals or values that goes beyond the individual’s own pleasure, and that this can be overcome by finding a sense of purpose or meaning in one’s life, such as through work, relationships, or a sense of personal mission.
Man’s Search for Meaning is also an introduction to Frankl’s form of psychotherapy; Logotherapy. His book was first published in the 1940’s and is a distinct departure from other psychologists at the time. Freud believed man’s quest was for pleasure, Adler believed it was power, in contrast Frankl believed it was for meaning.
“Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.”
Logotherapy focuses on helping individuals find meaning in their suffering and in the challenges they face, and encourages them to take responsibility for their own lives and choices. This is achieved through a variety of techniques, including self-reflection, self-expression, and the identification of personal values and goals.
You can take everything from me, except my thoughts
Perhaps the most stark takeaway from this book and Frankl’s experiences in concentration camps is his description of how different people reacted to the barbaric treatment by the prison guards. The premise of Frankl’s work is that you have the freedom to choose how you respond to a situation. In the face of such brutality and starvation, the guards could take everything away from you – your clothes, comforts, freedom, dignity – but not how you were thinking. Frankl argues that prisoners with a sense of hope for the future were able to endure horrific conditions, yet once this was lost, their defences broke.
“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the 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, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life-daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
A North star, A calling
My final takeaway from this great book is how Frankl describes a person’s ideal mental state regarding direction. He suggests not a harmonious relaxed state but rather striving towards a worthwhile goal:
“It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis,” i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
In the absence of this direction and purpose, Frankl suggests a person might end up doing what others do (Conformism), or doing what other people say (Totalitarianism).
This book has made a real impact on me and my interest in this topic and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone.