Viktor Frankl was a psychologist and holocaust survivor. He lost his family, including his parents, wife, and unborn child, to the concentration camps. The manuscript of his life’s work on psychotherapy was taken from him on his first day at camp. Circumstances that would bend and break the souls of most men, Frankl rose above. He survived three years in Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz, as a physician and physical labourer. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl recalls some of the terrible events he experienced, and how he found purpose in his suffering to overcome his captivity.
The original memoir was published in German in 1946. The 2006 edition by Beacon Press has two parts. Part 1 describes Frankl’s life in the concentration camps, from when he was first taken in 1942, till the Allies liberated Germany in 1945. Part 2 is an introduction to the principles and practice of logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy founded by Frankl.
Frankl’s scholarly intentions are apparent from the start of his memoir. He talks of events as if seeing them through a glass window, an impartial observer to his own story. In some ways, this makes parts of the story more difficult to read. He talks of the Nazi sending sick and old inmates to “rest camps,” like sending sheep to be sheared. He casually explains the psychology of Kapos, Jewish prisoners that were put in charge by Nazi officers to police the camp, and how some degenerated into humiliating and torturing their own kith for pleasure. He talks of how undernourished prisoners fantasized about food for hours, dreaming up banquets and buffets in their head. In a place that lacked all hope and happiness, simple joy was found in thoughts of eating better food one day.
But Frankl the scholar is not without emotion. In parts of the memoir the psychologist steps back, and the husband takes over. I remember Frankl labouring through the cold of winter at night with his inmates, each huddled close to the other to keep warm, wearing bare threads and some with only frost bites to cover their feet. In a moment of utter hopelessness, he sees an image of his wife, Tilly. He talks to her, and she talks back. Frankl the scholar understands that his wife might be dead. He had had no word of her since they were taken to camp. And yet they talk to each other, and she gives him hope and reason to continue living:
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 highest goal to which man can aspire.
Man’s Search for Meaning has sold over 10 million copies, has been translated into 24 languages, and is listed as one of the top 10 most influential books in the United States. No doubt, this is one of the most powerful books I’ve read. There are many things I’ve learned about myself and life in Man’s Search for Meaning. Some are too difficult to eloquently sum up in a review. Some are too intimate to share. Perhaps I will write another post that further explains my thoughts on the book and Frankl’s message.
I will say that this is a book worth picking up and reading. For everyone. It will make you a better human being and, hopefully, give you some peace of mind.
However if you’re hoping to find the “meaning of life” in these pages, you will be disappointed. That answer lies in the real world. But the good news is, there is an answer. I’m not talking about some grand statement which reveals that ALL of life, for everyone, has ONE single meaning. I don’t think there is such a thing. Frankl shows that meaning and purpose can change – should change – with every situation, and is different for each individual. We can give purpose to every act in our life, every season, every day, every hour. Your purpose for getting up today doesn’t have to be the same one tomorrow.
You can find purpose in anything, even in suffering