Sometimes you read books that flood you with emotion and leave you with wonder (and admittedly, a few tears). Honestly, I have not written a lot lately – at least in an expressive and creative way. I have, however, tried to implement more reading into my life to supplement the mechanistic and mathematical coursework I had this semester. It was a serendipitous pleasure to hear about a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. After attempts to read this book over the past month, I finally finished it today, warmly curled up in front of the glowing Christmas tree. While reading Viktor Frankl’s prized writing, I kept thinking to myself how important the message of this book was (and understood why it has been loved for so many years). Man’s Search for Meaning is a recount of the experiences that Viktor Frankl endured during Nazi concentration camp imprisonment. The conditions he describes and the lens he gives on human behavior during the unfathomable life of a camp deeply impacted me. This is not a book purely describing the harsh experiences of Auschwitz though, Dr. Viktor Frankl writes from his psychiatric and neurological training, his philosophical and religious curiosity, and ultimately his desire to help others learn the meaning of their own life.
Undoubtedly, the aim of my own life is to find meaning in my work and in my actions. I believe this looks different for every single person. Despite commonly held truths or life ambitions, every person has unique and individual encounters on a daily basis that shape who they are and who the world interprets them to be. I have come to learn life as continued decision-making; seemingly meaningless, everyday decisions ultimately form the mosaic that our lives become. They form what we look back on and see and the legacy we leave for ourselves. The minute-to-minute decisions that shape our lives are in our control, and I believe that. I don’t think of life as definite determinism or a blind, random outcomes. The culmination of our lives and the efforts we work towards are the products of our own decisions. Instead of just stating my personal opinion, I’ll share some of the meaningful concepts that Viktor Frankl describes in his book. I would love to describe everything that I found to be important, but that would take an entire book itself. Instead, I will focus on what I found to be most applicable in my life right now, and hopefully yours, too.
It is important to note the perspective that Viktor Frankl writes from. A brief biography – Dr. Viktor Frankl is a trained psychiatrist and neurologist. During World War II he was deported from Vienna to the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz and later other camps. He endured the most inhumane forms of torture and neglect; and writes extensively about these. The first half of the book focuses on his experiences. He details the way his physical human identity was stripped from him, and he was subjected to the lifestyle of an animal. He writes of what he observed – the way the human body and brain could be in conflict, the profound way prisoners could unite together on the basis of mere survival, and the intentional and developing mental coping mechanisms he used to survive the years he spent surrounded by death and suffering. The second half of the book focuses on a therapeutic technique that Frankl coined as “logotherapy”. The use of this technique focuses, not on Freudian psychotherapeutic techniques, but on realizing and actualizing the meaning of one’s life.
Frankl explicitly notes that it is impossible to generalize the meaning of life and any attempts at this are pointless. Instead, he focuses on meaning of one’s life in a moment, in a day. He writes,
“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 fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Frankl writes that every person has the potential to lead a meaningful life. Importantly, he writes that the meaning of each life is unique to the individual. I mentioned earlier that my life and its goals, although similar to someone with comparable circumstances or ambitions, is vastly different than the other person’s. Each day, I encounter different circumstances, different people, and different opportunities than that person. I have a way of thinking that is unique to me and that I can use to bring meaning to my life and vice versa for the other person.
Throughout this book, I kept thinking of the grand-scheme meaning I want for my life. Not surprisingly, I want to be a physician and for many reasons. The principal reason of course to alleviate the human suffering and to improve the lives of others through knowledge. This is a noble pursuit, and one that many of my best friends aspire for as well. However, I firmly believe that my pursuit of being a physician is no more noble than the person that aims to improve lives through music or art, literature or physical improvement, through economic and financial freedom, through education and teaching. As a college student, the focus is largely on the impact I (we all) hope to have through our endeavors. The college student is asked what he or she wants to become and the recipient makes a judgement on the utility of that answer, often in terms of monetary or material success. While this is the topic of an entirely different blog post, I think I learned something very valuable from A Man’s Search for Meaning on this very concept.
Although my career ambitions are important to me, Frankl showed me that the meaning of my life is not in the final picture or lasting legacy of my life. Instead, it is in the moments I have now. The incredibly valuable moments I have as a young, free, and responsible individual. The moments I have to give meaning every day, to a friend or family member, to a stranger. The days I can spend devoting my time to a cause that is focused not on myself but on others. It is not my obligation but my responsibility to do what life asks of me, with the talents and time I have been given. I see my friends and peers struggle with the grandeur meaning of life. I struggle with this as well. I think everyone does. There is a commonly accepted belief that we work hard in our twenties to reap the benefits in our thirties. I personally feel that when life is reduced to a series of sacrifices for a future goal, bitterness is likely to ensue. Envisioning and being hopeful for the future was a very successful mechanism that Dr. Frankl used to escape the atrocities of the concentration camp; he spoke daily with his wife, in his mind. He lived for the day he would be reunited with those he loved. This worked for the maintenance of his sanity in the harsh conditions of the concentration camp but is something I feel logotherapy and his theories conflict with.
Life is most meaningful now. A natural message that Frankl writes about is the ability to experience meaning in life despite suffering. He writes from a very personal perspective. He found meaning in life through the famine, filth, and fatigue he experienced. Through the friends he witnessed dying and the patients he had to watch suffer. The meaning of his life was not compromised despite his becoming a number and a body, awaiting an order to the gas chambers. I want to emphasize that Viktor Frankl’s story is indeed heroic, but it is not the exception. Finding meaning in suffering is possible. Suffering doesn’t always look like the inside of a Nazi concentration camp. Sometimes it looks like the loss of a job, the death of a friend, the divorce of parents, the failure at a goal, the anxious thoughts that seem permanent. Sometimes suffering is temporary and sometimes it is chronic. The difference between the person that suffers with overwhelming depression and meaninglessness and the person that suffers with integrity and optimism is simply the refocusing of perspective and attitude. Again, Frankl’s wise words resound,
“The perception of meaning differs from the classical concept of Gestalt perception insofar as the latter implies that the sudden awareness of a ‘figure’ on a ‘ground,’ whereas the perception of meaning, as I see it, more specifically boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words, to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation . . . If, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude.”
I don’t think that Frankl’s theories are simplistic, but I do think they are very pragmatic and applicable. He doesn’t write his recollection of Nazi imprisonment to reinforce lofty philosophical and psychological theories, but to disperse the knowledge he has used to overcome the real threat of a meaningless life. I highly recommend this book. It taught me how to deal with my personal suffering, what it means to lead a meaningful life, and the importance of sharing all of this with others in the way that Dr. Viktor Frankl has.
It feels so good to read and write on break! Next up: a fun read of the Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries. Life is all about balance, right? I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.