Man’s search for meaning summary – a tribute to hope
“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Victor Frankl’s memoir Man’s Search For Meaning, is a story about a man’s struggle for physical and spiritual survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. It’s one of the most influential books in America and has sold over 10 million copies.
The quote by Nietzsche at the top is taken from the book and somewhat highlights Frank’s argument, that humans cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope, how to find meaning in the suffering.
The narrative is gripping and spell-binding and provides the reader with inspiration, hope and a profound insight into the mind of the average prisoner in a concentration camp.
What do you do when everything that you once knew or owned, including your family, your home, your identity and your clothes..has been stripped away from you? What is left to live for? Surviving the Holocaust experience taught Frankl, that a human being has “nothing to lose except his so ridiculously naked life”.
When life’s all goals, aspirations and familiarities are snatched away, what remains is “the last of human freedoms – the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances”.
Part 1: Experiences in a concentration camp
“This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough…but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” (p. 17)
This is the main question that this book is trying to answer.
In part 1, Frankl identifies and describes three psychological phases experienced by all inmates to different degrees:
1: Shock, during the admission phase of the camp.
2: Apathy, after becoming accustomed to the existence at the camp.
3: Reactions of bitterness and disillusionment, during the liberation phase.
Frankl concludes that meaning can be found in every moment of living, even in severe suffering like for the prisoners at the concentration camp. Below is an example of one of Frankl’s personal experiences, page 48-49:
“… 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 neighbour’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage us to 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 fulfilment. 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…”
Part 2: Logotherapy in a Nutshell
At the heart of Frankl’s theory, logotherapy, is the belief that the primary motivation in a person’s life is man’s search for meaning.
“… There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life…” (p. 109).
Throughout the second part of the book, Frankl shares a few of his interactions with patients.
In one of his interactions, he tells the story about an elderly general practitioner who consulted Frankl because of his severe depression. The patient’s wife had died two years ago, a loss that he hadn’t been able to overcome. Frankl succeeded in helping this patient. Not by changing his fate, but by changing his attitude toward his fate so that he at least could see a meaning in his suffering.
The meaning of love
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 actualised but yet ought to be actualised.
Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualise these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true. – Frankl (p. 116)
The meaning of suffering
A bit later, I remember, it seemed to me that I would die in the near future. In this critical situation, however, my concern was different from that of most of my comrades. Their question was, “Will we survive the camp? For if not, all this suffering has no meaning.”
The question which beset me was, “Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance – as whether one escapes or not – ultimately would not be worth living at all.” – Frankl (p. 119)
I like this book a lot. I’ve read it three times and this is a book that you cannot read too many times. In fact, the more times you read it, the more you will learn new things and the more you will remind yourself of your own life’s purpose.
What Victor Frankl reminds us, the readers, throughout the book, is that even in the midst of severe suffering, one has the freedom to choose – the will to live.
“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how” – this is so profound and so true.
Each and every person must find out for themselves what their purpose is, to find the WHY.
People may think that this book is about the cruelty of the Holocaust, which might induce pity, sadness or anger within the reader and therefor they may choose not to read the book.
However, this is not what it is about.
Once you start reading the book you will soon realise that the story about the prisoner’s fight for existence and the daily struggle for life itself, is more hopeful than sad, as it proves the “man’s capacity to rise above his outward fate”.
I highly recommend Man’s Search For Meaning!
It’s a must have for those who seek inspiration, hope and a general reminder of life itself, that it’s not dependent on what clothes we wear or what careers and professions we choose to pursue. It’s about our mindset, our attitude towards our “unalterable fate”.
For me, life is also about learning. Learning about ourselves, our mind, our bodies and about the world.
When we learn more about ourselves and our mind, the more we will understand about the world.