“Man’s Search for Meaning”by Viktor E. Frankl
review by MEREDITH MCKINNIE
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Viktor Frankl’s groundbreaking book, originally published in 1959, details his experience as a prisoner of war during World War II, his post-war development of a school of psychotherapy called logotherapy, and his imagining of the transformative power of the practice on the human mind for future generations. At its core, Man’s Search for Meaning explores suffering – not how to prevent suffering, but how one may find meaning in it, and the necessity of discovering meaning for surviving the impossible. Frankl explores spiritual survival, articulating the mind’s control over the body, the importance of perspective. Unlike many books of the Holocaust genre, Frankl’s first-person account of the horrors of Nazi occupation do not lean on or into emotion – this most shocked me about this book. I definitely felt while reading it, but its telling resonates from the psychiatric perspective. The author almost comes across detached from the experience, as if having watched himself endure torture from outside of his own body.
In the preface, Frankl stresses the Nietzsche saying, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Frankl’s book meditates on the why and how. Frankl spent three years in the camps, first Auschwitz and then Dachau. His prior training as a doctor afforded him insight into his fellow prisoners’ physical conditions, recognizing when someone’s days were numbered. Unless outright targeted for execution or succumbing to disease, many perished when they lost hope. Frankl learned to identify the signs, trying to intervene and shift one’s perspective toward what might be waiting once the war was over.
Frankl’s matter-of-fact style of writing focuses the reader on the mental tensions rather than the physical atrocities. He writes, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” Though intently focused on seeing his family again, Frankl wanted to finish his book on the meaning of life – the prior draft having been lost in the occupation. The second section of the book focuses on a clinical, though readable, defining of logotherapy – eschewing a focus on pleasure for a search for meaning. Frankl emphasizes personal responsibility and the psychiatrist’s role in centering the patient’s wherewithal to determine his/her own life – not what happens to a person, but how one responds to it.
I started this book with deep breaths, preparing myself for a disturbing, unsettling read. And while Frankl does account for those realities, the text rises above them, allowing the readers to ponder the meaning in our own lives. He stresses that one’s degree of suffering is relative to an individual’s experience. He does not believe he has suffered more than others, though most of us would disagree. If you find yourself pulled toward the Holocaust genre, this book provides a unique meditation on suffering – sustaining purpose within and beyond the experience. If you find yourself avoiding this type of memoir but remain Holocaust curious, Frankl’s dispassionate telling is a comfortable place to start.
“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.”