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Man’s Search For Meaning – Book Review

Man’s Search for Meaning is the story of Viktor Frankl surviving the holocaust, and in the process of him telling that story, he teaches us how to deal with the issues of life from a perspective of Logotherapy – a type of recreational therapy which focuses on the premise that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life1. It’s here where this book finds its greatness.

Author: Viktor Frankl
Print length: 161 pages

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How can you find meaning in the most “meaningless” places of life? Something like the holocaust would cause someone to lose all hope, meaning, and purpose. However, Frankl differs. It is possible to find meaning in the most grieving conditions in life.

Here is a quote that Viktor Frankl continuously uses throughout his book, and it is this quote that sets the stage for what he is going to be saying throughout the entirety of his work:

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche

Based on this premise, he continues his therapy to all of us by telling us his story, and how he found meaning or a why. And it was this why that led him to how he could survive the holocaust.

There are only two chapters or sections in this book, which I will summarize below:

  1. Experiences in a Concentration Camp
  2. Logotherapy in a Nutshell

This summary is only a small and personal description of what I took from this book. All comments and thoughts are mine, and some may reflect how I personally processed them in the context of my life, which primarily desires to seek wisdom for the purposes of growing in my relationship with God, and to become more like Jesus.

1. Experiences in a Concentration Camp

Here, Frankl begins to describe his experiences in the concentration camps. He tells one story after another, and it seems to be progressive and chronological, but at times he tells other stories that doesn’t seem to fit the timeline. But that doesn’t take away from the essence of what he is trying to portray to us.

Immediately we begin to find out what he is trying to tell us — life in the concentration camps was grieving to say the least. Unspeakable. Degrading. Painful. Inhumane. And through these descriptions of unspeakable and unbearable pain, he is setting up a stage to let us know that, in essence, if something can be as broken as it can possibly be, it was life in the holocaust. However, even there and in those situations, it was still possible to find meaning. Life wasn’t over. As long as there is meaning, even in your most broken situations, it’s possible to still live and have your dignity.

How do you even begin to reconcile the idea that it’s still possible to live and have meaning in life in those grieving moments? Frankl reminds us that forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. ”You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”

This reminds me of what one pastor once said, “God chooses what we go through, we choose how we go through it.”

Notice though, how do you know, how to go through something? Unless you know your why, of course.

The first part of this book, even though not expressed in a table of contents —let’s remember that Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist, not a writer— is sectioned in three main parts. At least, I was able to pick this outline from his very words:

When one examines the vast amount of material which has been amassed as the result of many prisoners’ observations and experiences, three phases of the inmate’s mental reactions to camp life become apparent: the period following his admission; the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; and the period following his release and liberation.

  1. The period following his admission
  2. The period when he is well entrenched in camp routine
  3. The period following his release and liberation

Here is where we see what he is about to talk about for the remaining of the first section, and really for his entire book. The second part simply focuses on the study of Logotherapy, and even though you find a lot of useful information, it’s the first section that really gets to the crux of the ideas he wants to present to us.

The period following his admission

In this part, Frankl describes the shock they had on seeing the reality of how bad the camps were. He describes how in this initial phase, some prisoners would commit suicide, and others would just loose hope and all sense of living, and eventually they would die.

One quote that for some reason seems to be, usually, left out of the many reviews I have read, is the following:

When waiting in line to be sent either to the right or to the left —one side would eventually end in the gas chambers— some would tell him to make sure that he would try to be sent to the right, he said this:

I just waited for things to take their course,

I find this to be key. For, at times we find ourselves in situations where we want to make decisions or move things around to try and control our own lives and destinies. And while that, in part only, has its place, it is more often than not, that letting things take their natural course and then trusting in Jesus would be more beneficial in the long run.

I will have to digress on this point since this is not the place to venture on this thought that is so profoundly interesting, and enriching… “let life take its course”

The period when he is well entrenched in camp routine

This section is the largest one for it describes most of the stories of what they did for a little bit over three years before the prisoners experienced freedom.

Frankl goes on to describe, what would be one of my favorite parts of the chapter, especially nowadays that we are finding out what it is to live with the non-essentials.

The medical men among us learned first of all: “Textbooks tell lies!” Somewhere it is said that man cannot exist without sleep for more than a stated number of hours. Quite wrong! I had been convinced that there were certain things I just could not do: I could not sleep without this or I could not live with that or the other…

Right after this, Frankl begins to describe how spirituality is important as it also helps in the survival process. And here is what I think would be my absolute favorite part of the whole book. When he describes his experiences with his wife. Here, I will remain as quiet as possible since I don’t want to do injustice to his words —if for anything else, it is for this part, that the book is worth reading— But it should suffice to say that in his spiritual encounters with his wife, he finds the true meaning of love, which is another absolute necessity for the survival process, as well as a necessity for the finding of meaning in life (which he will describe in more detail in the second section of the book “Logotherapy in a Nutshell”.

Just remembering this section bring me to tears at this very moment.

He finishes his encounters with his wife with the following:

For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

Once more, I will have to sadly digress.

Enduring the camp life, according to Frankl, also has a lot to do with how we choose to endure it. Here is this timeless quote:

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.

After this, Frankl moves onto explain one of my favorite subjects – brokenness and suffering. For suffering is also part of the process of finding meaning. Here is another timeless quote:

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

I guess this is probably the reason why it’s important to know that the opposite of Suffering is Apathy. One who lives with no experience of suffering at all, is apathetic.

The period following his release and liberation

In this last section he talks about how prisoners who survived the holocaust reacted to their liberation.

This part is key as he begins to use a lot of his psychiatric work in Logotherapy.

He begins to talk about how some men, that used to be prisoners, would now mistreat those who used to oppress them. Now the “opresee” became the oppressor. Frankl pens this:

no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.

He talks about other reactions that are very important as well, but two that he puts more time into are the following; bitterness and disillusionment.

The reason why it’s important to know his take on how the prisoners would react once they would experience liberty, is because we can learn from this. It teaches us how to not only go through pain and brokenness, but also how to treat others after we have come out on the other side.

2. Logotherapy in a Nutshell

In this section, Frankl simply exemplifies his recreational therapy which focuses on the premise that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find a meaning in life.

Logos is a Greek word which denotes “meaning.” Logotherapy, or, as it has been called by some authors, “The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy,” focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning. According to logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered, as well as in contrast to the will to power on which Adlerian psychology, using the term “striving for superiority,” is focused.

In a limited way, he tries to answer some very difficult issues by way of Logotherapy, these issues include the meaning of love, suffering, science, etc. But the one that I think it’s worth remembering from this section of the book is the following:

According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

Here, he defines what he believes gives meaning to people. He then goes on to explain every one of those three points.

Here are some additional, memorable quotes from the book worth sharing:

There are some authors who contend that meanings and values are “nothing but defense mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations.” But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my “defense mechanisms,” nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my “reaction formations.” Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values!

To be sure, man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health. There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

To say that this book has not been impactful is an understatement. There is a reason why over 12 million copies have been sold worldwide, and in America it has been labeled as one of the most impactful books ever written. One of the reason why I believe this is true is because this book gets to answer different aspects of our souls’ questions. As well as giving us hope to realize that there is meaning even in the most grieving conditions that we can find ourselves in. Hence, it can be said that you have either gone through brokenness in your life before or it is a fact that at one point you will, but in either case this book will be not only a guide but also a token of inspiration.

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Want to borrow this book?

Author: Viktor Frankl
Print length: 161 pages

Buy:
Amazon | Kindle | Audio Book
Want to borrow this book?

Join our free book club
When you join, you will receive our Reading Schedule template, which you can use to make sure you finish reading this book in just 10-15 days, reading only 30 mins per day.
Join Now


Footnotes

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logotherapy

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