“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and hour to hour.” – Viktor Frankl
As I was reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, one thought kept crossing my mind – “How have I never read this book before?”
In college, my major was history, with a minor in philosophy. Additionally, my literature courses included books by twentieth-century existentialists like Camus and Sartre. I was assigned to read Freud’s The Future of an Illusion as part of my capstone course in philosophy. But Frankl? I’m not sure he was even mentioned.
A friend told me he had recently re-read Frankl, as part of a discussion about what makes us human. His passion when describing the book was intriguing. A visit to a university bookstore prompted me to look for Frankl’s works. When my search in the philosophy section turned up nothing, I remembered that my friend is a psychologist. Moving over a few sections, my hunt was successful.
The 2006 edition of includes a foreword by Rabbi Harold Kushner and an afterword by William Winslade. Frankl’s sections include a preface written for the 1992 edition, Part I – “Experiences in a Concentration Camp”, Part II – “Logotherapy in a Nutshell”, and a postscript written in 1984. While the sections were written at different times, the author presents a clear, consistent message – while we cannot control the circumstances of our lives, we must take responsibility for our actions.
The section on Frankl’s concentration camp experiences were written in 9 days shortly after the war ended. In many places, his recollections are difficult to read, but it is imperative that they’re read. It’s too easy for us to forget the terrible inhumanity inflicted on so many people. Further, it’s important to understand Frankl’s physical and psychological struggles as he attempted to live according to his own standards – in the worst possible conditions.
In the brief explanation of logotherapy, Frankl explains that the meaning of life changes, but that it never ceases to be. This profound statement challenges us to continue to search for what life means to us today – and that we shouldn’t look for a simple answer from an outside source. We must determine what life means to us.
Frankl’s first two methods to discovering the meaning of life can be traced back to Aristotle. The first way is by what we do – performing deeds and creating works. In other words, our actions define who we are. The second method is through our encounters with others. But the challenge goes beyond marginal experience – we must love the other person.
The third method is perhaps the most challenging – finding meaning through our reaction to unavoidable suffering. Frankl emphasizes that suffering isn’t a requirement to find meaning, and that whenever possible, if we can remove the cause of pain we should. However, there will be inescapable struggles and pain that all of us will face. It’s in these difficult moments when we can discover our true selves.
One of the messages carried throughout the book is the responsibility we carry for our actions. We’re humans; and won’t always live up to the possibility of our best self. This truth doesn’t give us the right to excuse our behavior. We should reflect and find a way to be better for the next challenge.
At first, I thought I’d waited too many years to discover this book. However, I’m not sure if I read it earlier in my life, I would have been prepared to listen to Frankl’s message.