“He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how.” Nietzsche
As a continuation of this search for life’s meaning and the discovery of how controlling our minds and thoughts can lead to true, lasting happiness under any circumstance, Viktor Frankl‘s stunning book came to me as a gift on this journey. Rarely have I read something so profound, upsetting and ultimately, insightful as Man’s Search For Meaning.
The story is one of the Holocaust. From a survivor’s perspective. The conditions described are beyond comprehension. It’s a hard read from that perspective, to try and comprehend the descriptions of daily life of what these innocents were subjected to.
But the book’s focus and central theme is not merely to describe the horrors of what happened at the several concentration camps Frankl was imprisoned at, but HOW some of these prisoners were able to control their minds in order to find hope, meaning and enlightenment in the worst possible conditions perhaps ever exposed to man. That is Frankl’s teaching, and his gift to all of us.
The central meaning of the book is described as, “…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.”
In Wikipedia, the book is described as follows: “Man’s Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome. According to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity. The book intends to answer the question ‘How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?'”
I read that according to a survey conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man’s Search For Meaning belongs to a list of “The ten most influential books in the United States. At the time of the author’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.”
Frankl, a psychiatrist, concludes that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. That ability to find meaning in the worst imaginable conditions, blew my mind. How can one find meaning in his situation? How can you just simply not give up? How can you not be tormented every second of every minute of every day with the thoughts of ‘why me’?!?!
His own words provide insights:
“We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “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.
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. 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….”
He continues, “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.
And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or sought not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom, which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.”
The central teaching of Frankl is that suffering provides the opportunity to actually achieve something meaningful in your own journey through life. Amazing. How this man could come to such realizations without food in his belly, a warm place to sleep, decent clothes on his back or functioning shoes on his feet, no knowledge of his loved one’s status and with death and suffering all around him is beyond my comprehension.
The big lesson he describes…”often it is such an exceptional difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, some did not take their life seriously (sic) and they preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.”
He spends a great deal of the book devoted to how those that gave up, that surrendered their soul and found no meaning in their suffering, were often the quickest to perish. How your emotional and mental outlook not only determines your life conditions, but more harshly, your survival.
Frankl expounds on this thought…”The prisoner who has lost faith in the future-his future was doomed. With the loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”
A couple of more quotes from the book to further shed light on Frankl’s insights and discoveries that had a profound impact on me:
“After all, man is that being that invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer on his lips.”
“…even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and in doing so change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”
For me, the main takeaways from the book that can be applied to my own journey are that even in the most horrific, unimaginable suffering, ‘hope and positive energy’ can turn challenges into triumphs. And if Frankl can do that, then what obstacles can get in the way of realizing my own full potential and state of unbreakable happiness?
His teaching shows us that our own beliefs and how we approach life’s challenges, no matter how small or how severe, shape the meaning of our lives. And that there is nothing more meaningful, more purposeful in our lives than love. Simply, beautifully just that.
And the book ends with these thoughts that stay will me forever in my own narrative…
“Man is ultimately self determining. What he becomes – he has made of himself.”
And equally as powerful…
“Ultimately, the meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs.”
And that’s exactly what this incredible man did with his own life.
Thank you Viktor Frankl.