A blog about non-fiction books that address societal issues and problems
Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is known for the following quote:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way (p. 66).
Although I had heard of the book (and of the quote), it was not until recently that I actually read the book. It is one of the most profound books that I have ever read, so I am not sure that anything I write about it will do it justice. Born in 1905, Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist living in Austria during World War II. Although he received an immigration visa to come to the United States, he knew that the concentration camps would be the ultimate fate for his parents, and he was unable to leave them behind to face that alone. Frankl spent three years in concentration camps during World War II. Although he survived, his parents, his pregnant wife, and his brother all died. After his release, he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days.
In a preface to a later edition of the book, Frankl said that he wanted to write the book in order to help people who are prone to despair. The book aims to address how concentration camp prisoners were able to cope with suffering on a daily basis. It seems that making use of his academic background in order to analyze his surroundings was one of the coping mechanisms that Frankl used. The first half of the book is organized around the three psychological phases or reactions that prisoners tended to experience: (1) shock; (2) apathy (e.g., feeling unmoved by the violence within the concentration camps); and (3) the psychological reaction to freedom after being released from the concentration camps. The second half of the book focuses on a discussion of logotherapy, which is a type of psychotherapy that Frankl developed. It’s based in the belief that meaning-making is a primary psychological task that people face.
Throughout the first half of the book, Frankl depicts the stark realities of daily life in the concentration camps:
While we were waiting for the shower, our nakedness was brought home to us; we really had nothing now except our bare bodies — even minus hair; all we possessed, literally, was our naked existence (p. 15).
Prisoners who were considered fit for hard labor were more likely to escape the gas chamber. The following haunting scene is one of the aspects of the book that stands out most to me:
The most ghastly moment of the twenty-four hours of camp life was the awakening, when, at a still nocturnal hour, the three shrill blows of a whistle tore us pitilessly from our exhausted sleep and from the longings in our dreams. We then began the tussle with our wet shoes, into which we could scarcely force our feet, which were sore and swollen with edema. And there were the usual moans and groans about petty troubles, such as the snapping of wires which replaced shoelaces. One morning I heard someone, whom I knew to be brave and dignified, cry like a child because he finally had to go to the snowy marching grounds in his bare feet, as his shoes were too shrunken for him to wear (p. 32).
Another memorable aspect of the book is Frankl’s discussion of spirituality. While in the concentration camps, he observed that people who possessed a sense of spirituality were more able to survive than those who were in better physical condition.
He tries to help people find meaning in life despite unavoidable suffering that they may be experiencing. In spite of suffering, people do not lose their inner freedom. He says:
In the final analysis, it became clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful…
If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete…
Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him (p. 66 – 67).
Overall, Man’s Search for Meaning provides readers with many memorable and valuable tools to utilize when facing life’s difficulties. Frankl died in 1997, and I am looking forward to reading his autobiography, Recollections, which was published two years before he died.