Book Review: Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel

by Chris_Leong 15d4th Nov 20194 min readNo comments

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(Oops, I meant this to be a shortform)

"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"

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

The core premise of this book is well-known: that in order to survive the harshest and most terrible of circumstances one must have some kind of purpose to keep them going. This book describes the kind of mindset that one would have to adopt to survive in such circumstances, but the question that kept arising in my mind was, "Would it actually be worth it?". Would it actually be worth it to endure the degrading and inhumane conditions of a concentration camp given that it would almost certainly come to nothing? Perhaps if I knew that I was going to survive then I could find some meaning and growth in the suffering, but to go through all that suffering and for it all to be a waste... Or perhaps one could endure for love, but what would this amount to if you were likely to never be reunited, if they could already be dead? Or if one thought they could achieve the kind of good Victor Frankel did, but that lot falls to very few.

Victor Frankel is religious so he can find purpose in this. If there is a God and he he has a purpose, then one has played a role in this divine plan by bearing their suffering with dignity and could further hope to be rewarded in the afterlife. So he would view his life as having been meaningful even if he had perished, but what about the rest of us? Ultimately, I suspect that I may be asking too much out of him. These techniques could still provide a large amount of value, even if we reject his premise that any life is still worth leading, for a life can still be worth leading even if it involves a great deal of suffering.

His view that life is always worth living is expressed in the following quote: "Life asks you the meaning of life; you don't ask life. You are questioned by life. It's not what you expect from life, but what life expects from you." As noted, I disagree with this in extreme circumstances, but nonetheless, once it has been established that life is worthwhile or at least that you don't want to die, this attitude is on the whole healthy.

Camp life:

I found these descriptions very insightful. Very quickly: The despair when a prisoner wasn't allowed to keep anything, not even a wedding ring or a manuscript containing their lives work. A guard pointing left or right determining whether you live or die. The importance of regularly shaving so that they would appear fit for work. That the prisoner's were allowed some amusement in camp; they often self-organised a cabaret. That smoking a cigarette indicated giving up on life; it could have been traded for a soup. How a prisoner felt lucky when they received a scoop of soup from the bottom as it would contain peas.

Dr Frankel believes that we are often far more capable of adapting than we believe. He found that most prisoners quickly became inured to the crowded conditions and the beatings of the guards. Even the horror of the gas chambers disappear for many as it at least spared them committing suicide. Surprisingly, all of the suffering didn't dull their feeling of indignation when they felt they'd been treated unfairly. For example, Dr Frankel had been working really hard and only paused for a moment, but it happened to be just when a guard turned around. The guard threw a rock at him which missed, but this still triggered a strong emotional reaction in him.

After release:

Dr Frankel noted that release came with some hazards too. He relates an example of a fellow prisoner treading through young crops despite his protests. The prisoner angrily exclaimed, "My wife and child have been gassed, not to mention everything else, you would forbid me the right to tread on a few oats". Dr Frankel was not so worried about a few crops as the long term effects that might result from such an attitude.'

He talks about the bitterness that could often result. That someone could survive all of that and only be met with a shrug of the shoulders or hackneyed phrases like "we have suffered too" as though their suffering had been unimportant. Others suffered horrible disillusionment. During the camps people had held onto the hope of being reunited with their loved ones in order to make it through, but often found that no-one was waiting for them.

Meaning:

Victor Frankel takes an existential view of life. He believes that finding a purpose is overwhelmingly important as, "to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering". He doesn't believe that this meaning is fixed, but that it, "differs from man to man, day to day and hour to hour". He is determined not to allow the patient to make him the judge, but rather to force them to decide for themselves, "whether they are responsible to society or merely their own conscious".

He argues that one can gain meaning from the contemplation of the loved, even if they are no longer present or even alive. The later claim here really struck me. On one level it seems almost absurd to gain meaning from the contemplation of one who no longer exists, as though one is denying reality. However, on another level, what was achieved was achieved and what does being meaningful mean apart from the fact that it is meaningful for you?

He writes that that "someone who is passive will regret the passage of time, but someone who is active can reflect on all the life that they've lived to the fullest". He argues that they wouldn't envy a young person as instead of possibilities they would have concrete realities and achievements in the past. This seems like a really healthy attitude to life.

Societal expectations:

Dr Frankel is critical of the mental hygiene movement that considers unhappiness a defect as he argues that this only makes people more unhappy. He writes: "To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that again and again one is ordered to be happy. But happiness cannot be pursued, one must have a reason to be happy. But once the reason is found, one becomes happy automatically".

He encountered young patients who were neurotic as a result of unemployment. He writes that, "joblessness was equated with being useless and being uselessness with having a meaningless life". Their depression abated when he succeeded in convincing them to fill their time with some kind of volunteering.

Therapy:

One technique he often used was what he called paradoxical intention. The idea was that we are often stuck in a cycle where we fail because we are nervous and we are nervous because we fail. His solution is to intentional fail; sometimes we will find that we cannot any we actually succeed, other times we will, but we'll lose our fear of failure.

Another technique he uses is to ask people to imagine looking back from their death bed. A mother was in great despair because one of her sons had died and the other was disabled. When imagining looking back from her deathbed, she realised that if she had lived an easy life, but had no children she wouldn't have considered it a meaningful life, but that she found that she would consider it to have been meaningful to have made her son's life better. Sometimes intentionally adopting this perspective can make us aware that our life is meaningful in a way that we missed.

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