On the bus this afternoon, I finished reading Viktor Frankl‘s nonfiction classic, Man’s Search for Meaning. It is a short, two-part memoir, detailing first his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp survivor, and second, his own system of psychotherapy, logotherapy. This latter is based on his belief that the driving force in human life is the search for life’s meaning, as opposed to more materialistic or Freudian motives. Frankl stresses the relationship between meaning and survival, as well as his assertion that a human being is not solely shaped by his or her surroundings. On the contrary, a person in the worst of conditions is still left one liberty, and that is to choose the way they react to what is happening to them.
For such a short work, this was a fascinating read. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars and would actually recommend it to anyone, whether you are into psychology or not. There were several points that particularly stood out to me:
- The meaning of life differs from person to person. Meaning cannot be described in abstract, “one size fits all” terms.
- My sister also read the book, and we debated on what this point entailed. We both agreed that, as Christians, we can see meaning in the abstract, as God’s Will. However, perhaps there is another level of “meaning,” insofar as different situations call for different reactions, and everyone has their own specific part to play.
- Every situation has a reason in your life. There is meaning in the past and in the future, but also in the present, no matter the circumstances.
- I was intrigued to read this, because this has been on my mind before picking up this book. I’ve become increasingly convinced of living in the moment, in the sense that I believe even day-to-day routine life is for some definite purpose, every day or scenario being in itself something complete. It is reassuring to read similar thoughts in someone else’s words.
- You can find meaning in suffering, though suffering is not requisite for it.
- This impressed me greatly, because I’ve often heard the idea that maybe, say, great artists could not have created great art without living unhappy lives. Personally, I don’t like the idea of defining art, meaning, or goodness in terms of adversity. I think it is like Frankl implies, that great art can exist in spite of suffering. But suffering is not the key ingredient.
There was much more that struck me at the time; these are just a few of the themes.
More specific to Part I, Frankl’s account of his enslavement was unlike any I’ve read before. As doctor in neurology and psychiatry, he had the ability to analyze his life in the camp from a medical perspective. He describes the mental changes a prisoner underwent, as well as touching upon the psychology of the camp guards. I was very much moved by his description of how he dealt with and escaped from reality, both through thoughts of his wife and new strength stemming from an inner, spiritual development.
I feel obligated to explain why I didn’t give it 5 stars. It is hard to pinpoint, and maybe a little pedantic, but I felt the chain of reasoning could have been more concrete in places. There was also an example or two he cited in which I thought logotherapy might have been misapplied. I would like to read his book The Doctor and the Soul which goes into more detail. For now, I would still recommend this one. It is an excellent perspective to add to your reading on Stoics, existentialism, and the like.