Have you ever admired an author or a book through quotes and recommendations you’ve heard, but did not take time to read yourself? I can plead guilty. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) has been an example for me. I heard references to it throughout my life and I admired the viewpoints that filtered through the recommendations from others.
I finally took the time to read it the past two weeks and wish I could go back in time and read it every ten years. Viktor Frankl, M.D., Ph.D. was a Jewish Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist imprisoned by the Nazis first in Theresienstadt Ghetto and later in Auschwitz and Kaufering (Dachau), He worked as a slave laborer in miserable conditions and later as a doctor helping others in the camp. His book does not share the bitterness one might expect from such an experience. He shares the lessons from suffering and the strategies for survival, the search for meaning in life.
Frankl wrote . . . we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.
I first remember hearing Frankl quoted by a psychologist who explained that we are helpless when we lay blame. Then whatever is wrong is someone else’s fault and we feel like we are powerless to do anything but live with the condition. But Frankl suggests we make decisions about how we will endure situations and it is the decisions we make that determine how we respond to what happens to us. We have control of those decisions.
The first half of the book is very much the story of his time in the Nazi ghetto and death camp. Though sad to read about, he brings out the lessons, the humanity and the love he found in those wretched circumstances. Thinking about his wife and their shared love kept him going at the worst of times. Focusing the mind on that which has been good in your life has great power.
The second half of the book goes into Frankl’s approach to psychotherapy, called logotherapy, that he developed from his life experience and training. He suggested that “a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy.” Logo is Greek for “meaning” and Frankl gave both anecdotal and research evidence that people seek meaning in their life. In this existential search for meaning, he developed the idea that “transcendence” is really the objective beyond what Abraham Maslow described as self-actualization, the peak of the motivational triangle. Helping others be the best they can be transcends our needs and gives our lives meaning. He certainly did that throughout his illustrious career.
Great books and great thoughts endure over time. Frankl is recognized as a humanistic psychologist who learned from Freud and Adler but who changed therapeutic approaches toward a more humanistic approach.
Dr. Frankl worked at varied universities in the U.S. in latter years and knew America well. He suggested that a Statue of Responsibility be built on the west coast to complement the Statue of Liberty. In his words . . .
Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.
I will read this book again. I recommend it to anyone interested in what motivates us to overcome limitations of all kinds. It is inspirational and thought provoking from beginning to end, a timeless contribution to world literature and the understanding of humanity.