Man’s search for meaning

„Man’s Search for Meaning“ by Viktor Frankl opens our eyes to the potential that lies in man to develop even in the most precarious conditions.

The man behind the book

Viktor Frankl is a professor of Neurology and Psychology at the University of Wien Medical School. Viktor is also a distinguished Professor of Logotherapy at the U.S. International University.

He is the founder of the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, after Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology. His school is the School of Logotherapy.

Viktor was a prisoner of four concentration camps, among Auschwitz and Dachau and he managed to outlive them all.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor gives an account of the ordeals everybody had to go inside of the camps. Some managed to overcome the endeavors. Some gave up before they arrived.

The meaning of camp life stages

Camp life consisted of three phases. The period:

  • Following the admission to camp
  • When the prisoner is well entrenched in camp routine
  • After his release
  1. In the first phase, the prisoner couldn’t stand to see other people suffer. He isn’t initiated in the meanings of signs and symbols. He walks around, not knowing how to behave and he is outraged at everything he sees.

The first phase doesn’t last long because the prisoner has to adapt and learn quickly in order to adapt and prevent bad things from happening to him.

2. Once the shock of admission wears out, the prisoner is well entrenched in the camp routine.

He learns what he can and cannot do. He gets to know the inside-out of the camp, which is vital for his survival. If in the first phase, the prisoner averted his look from injustice treatment of other prisoners, now he doesn’t even register it as being out of the ordinary. The prisoner is so accustomed to the suffering of those around him that he doesn’t react anymore.

Suffering, the dead and the dying became common sights for the eyes and awake no feelings anymore.

By slipping into apathy, the prisoner surrounded himself with a shell of emotional protection.

3. The period after his relief is different for each one. Some turned into a bad version of themselves, believing they are entitled to be bad given the ordeal they had gone through. Others became the defenders of humanity and injustice. There were also some who seemed to continue into a state of numbness, indifferent to the world around them.

Humanity among the “dead”

Not everything was dark and bad inside the camp. It may be hard to believe it, but there were humanitarians even among the guards. Viktor was at first assigned to the building site. He tells us that some foremen were sympathetic to their condition and tried to ease their duties. Others were the exact opposite, pushing the limits of cruelty to a maximum.

The one thing that enraged the prisoners and was the injustice. Some of them were picked on just because their guard was in a mood to punish somebody. He would then pick a random victim and pound on him until there was nothing left. It’s not that the prisoners did something they weren’t supposed to. It was just because the guard felt like it.

Even after their senses were numb after witnessing so much injustice and cruelty, the prisoners were still protective as far as their fellow inmates were concerned.

A spirit of humanity was manifested in various ways.

Viktor Frankl remembers a night when one prisoner was having a nightmare. Seeing his fellow inmate struggling in his sleep, he felt the urge to help him end the suffering. But, while he was reaching his hand to touch his colleague, he stopped midway. He realized there was no reason to wake his colleague up. What was he supposed to wake up to? At that moment he realized that dreams, even nightmares are preferable to the cruel reality.

Inner life was the salvation

Among all the despair, there was a type of person whose endurance seemed greater than that of his fellow men who were much fitter physically. These were the people who had a rich intellectual life prior to entering the camps.

For Viktor Frankl, the image of his wife was the only comfort that helped him pull through the day. He didn’t even know that his wife was already dead. However, that wouldn’t have made any difference. One needs a reason to live whatever that reason is or whether is a realistic one or not.

That brought him a new perspective on the expression of human longing.

A lot of times we need different experiences in our lives to appreciate things we once took for granted. It was after that moment of despair when the image of his wife gave him the comfort, he needed that Viktor saw poetry with different eyes.

“The salvation of man is through love and in love”.

A meaning to life

The meaning of life is different from man to man, from year to year, from day today. However, no matter what man’s meaning might be, it has to be placed within the outer world, outside himself.

Man is not alone in society. This means that he can only discover his meaning in the context of community, in something greater than himself.

The more we see our roles in a bigger context outside ourselves, the more we uncover our true nature.

Just as Jay Shetty pointed out in his “Think like a monk”, inner peace is easy to be achieved in solitude. However, the true test is to practice it in the middle of the “Madding crowd”. Evy Pompouras teaches us to always push the boundaries of our limits to achieve greater endurance every day, both mentally and physically.

Finding meaning

There are three ways to finding meaning. By:

  • Creating a work or doing a deed
  • Experiencing something or encounter someone
  • The attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

Work gives us meaning. It helps us discover ourselves by placing us in front of different situations. No matter how we come out of those experiences, whether victorious or in defeat, it’s part of our growth as individuals.

Viktor paints love as seeing the potential in the other and helping them bring it to light. It’s not that the person who loves provides potential and capability in the loved person, but he brings it to light through belief and unconditional love. Love helps us see the loved person stripped from all social convention, in a true and natural light. It helps us transcend to another dimension. It’s exactly the opposite of what Martin Eden felt when he idolized his beloved and places traits that weren’t there. 

As far as suffering is concerned:

A doctor came to Viktor Frankl’s practice in despair. He told Viktor he had lost his wife to cancer and although that happened two years before, he was still having difficulty coping. Viktor asked him if he believed his wife would have coped better if he were the one who died. The desperate doctor said his wife wouldn’t have been able to handle his death. Viktor helped him understand that through his suffering he spared his wife the suffering.

This doesn’t mean that we have to suffer in order to find meaning. It means that, when we go through suffering, attaching it a meaning, makes it bearable.

Meaning as a whole

It would be easy to place a label and say that man finds one meaning, one time in his life and then he’s done.

Nevertheless, just as we live our lives through moments, so we attach meaning to those moments. Therefore, we should seek the meaning in all those small instances of life and not just one meaning which is universally valid for our entire life.

Searching for meaning in suffering helps us better get through those hard times. Finding meaning in our loved ones helps us discover the true potential in ourselves.

A man should never stop searching for meaning in everything he does. It makes life’s moments more precious and sometimes easier to get through.

We can get through anything as long as we have a meaning.

After all, it was Nietzsche who said it best “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”.

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