I have recently finished “Man’s Search for Meaning” – a book that touched me deeply by its fascinating real life story and the perspectives on life discovered and shared by the writer. “Man’s Search for Meaning” is written by the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl and describes his life during the WWII, while he was incarcerated into a few Nazi camps – Auschwitz being one of them. But the part of the book I loved the most is about his observations on life, psychology and what really matters when one human is left with nothing but his life – and even that being in constant danger to be lost.
There are many people today in search for their life’s meaning. Or even worse, people who don’t even know they’re missing a meaning and feel anxious or even depressed for no conscious reason. There is a lot to read online or in libraries about having a purpose and find life’s meaning, but as far as I was able to discover things, I’ve never stumbled upon a better written piece on searching and finding meaning.
Viktor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” takes us through his experience in the concentration camps, and explains how he reached the conclusions he reached. And I believe that the powerful examples he gives are the ones that really matter. During the Nazi camps, EVERYTHING was taken away from the prisoners – their loved ones, their belongings, clothes, dignity, choice, relatives, friends and this besides being taken away from their homes and imprisoned under the worst conditions and hard labor. All their free will and most of their values were cut off. Everything except one thing: their response to what was happening to them, to the environment they were living in. They were only left with the choice to fight for survival and keep their heads and strengths up – or give up, lose their motivation and die.
Finding a meaning – key motivation to live
Frankl notices that the ones who have survived where the ones who managed to keep up their motivation to live – in other words, the ones who have found meaning in their sufferings. For Frankl, the meaning that drove his motivation to survive the concentration camp was the love for his wife. He describes this discovery in one of the most beautiful part of the book:
“.. 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…”
Man’s Search for Meaning: Finding life’s meaning
Reading “Man’s Search for Meaning”, we discover the author’s conclusion that meaning can be found by finding your “why”. There can be multiple ways to do so – resumed below – and it depends on the life’s road you are in.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
- Creating something of your own that is useful or good for yourself or for someone, building something of value to you – can be a career, developing a passion, doing charity work, building something in the community, a home etc.; anything that gives you a feeling of fulfillment and a reason to be excited every morning
“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”.”
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”
- Love: getting to know someone, being attached to someone, experiencing something you enjoy doing or gets you really excited. Can be a hobby, a pet, a lover, a spouse, a child – anything that can give you the feeling of real love and dedication – something or someone to give your all to
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
- Choosing our attitude when faced with a situation or circumstance that we cannot influence or change, especially during unavoidable suffering. If you are unable to adapt to all sorts of situations life puts you through, you lose your motivation to fight and live. The book is a constant example of how survival depended on this motivational factor and how the ones who couldn’t live up to the sufferings in the camps lost their will to live, gave up fighting and eventually died
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“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.”
I really recommend reading “Man’s Search for Meaning”, it is a very good stimulus to reflect deeply at our life and our life’s meaning. It’s definitely a book that can help, in more ways I can even begin to describe. I only hope I could make you at least a little curious, because the book has many more things to offer.
*** The quotes are from the original book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”