Man's search for meaning

an introduction to logotherapy
Viktor E. Frankl

Sometimes the cosmos beckons you to read a book. Man's Search for Meaning was mentioned enough times in the articles, books and podcasts I was imbibing that it had slowly shuffled its way to the top of the books I should read list. My father was terminally ill and people had given him books they thought might offer him solace. He beckoned dismissively towards the pile of books and said he wasn't interested in any of them. I'm not sure he was ever much of a reader, certainly not of philosophy. I was travelling so I wasn't keen to take any more things, but this book jumped out at me amid the pile. Indeed I don't even remember any of the other books. The cosmos had taken a step further than placing into my conscious awareness, it had now thrust it into my material world, offered for free and I felt I had little choice but to read it.

My father passed away a little over a week later. At the time I was reading a book ostensibly about philosophy, but the chapter I was reading related how two people had slowly suffered and died. It pained me to read this with my father's death so near and I put it aside and turned instead to Man's Search for Meaning. In hindsight perhaps a book about the Holocaust wasn't the most sensible alternative path, and I soon put it away as well and turned to other things.

When my emotional house was a little more ordered, I returned to Man's Search for Meaning. What may have triggered me in its pages after my father's death was reading about cruel and petty people in the book, the capos and army officers who seemed to revel in their moment of power. Life has so many difficulties anyway, death, sickness, pain, loss and it troubled me to read about people adding to those difficulties for those under their power. Before judging people, I try to understand the context in which their actions take place. Germany had been through war, defeat, starvation and financial collapse. They may now look to us as a wealthy Western nation, but there is no doubt it had fallen from greater heights. Even if we consider this largely the result of their own collective doing, I'm sure its citizens were painfully aware of this fall in their daily lives. Perhaps when so much is taken from a people it is natural for them to become more susceptible to bitterness and selfishness. We might hope that suffering would lead to empathy and compassion, but it seems more random than that.  For every person that suffering inspires to be better at least as many become more cynical about the world and seek to externalise their bitterness. 

Many of those army officers and capos were probably thrown into their situation. Before I judge someone who might have been in survival mode during such difficult teams, I try to keep in mind that I cannot fully understand their place. I would hope but could never be certain that I would act any better than they did. Viktor Frankl however has the authority that he shared this situation and he relates how some people were able to maintain their dignity and compassion. Some of his camp fellows were able to rise above incredibly trying circumstances, to be kind amidst terrible incentives, to give away their last piece of bread when they were hungry. In an existentialist turn of phrase, Frankl says that everything can be taken from a man except for the ability to choose his state of mind. I wondered on reading this if Frankl or Orwell read each other's work. One of the key themes of 1984 is that given difficult enough circumstances, we will say that 2+2=5 or betray those we most love. In 1984, Winston believes that the love he has for Julia is beyond the reach of Big Brother. When he is suffering "the worst thing in the world" in Room 101  he finally breaks down and says "Do it to her", meaning to his beloved Julia. Reason would have me side with Orwell, that at some point all of us would break down. I find it incredibly convincing that Frankl who lived something like what Orwell only wrote about says clearly that there are a "few" of us who cannot be broken. I find it inspiring that in some the human spirit burns so bright that it cannot be extinguished even by the worst of circumstances.

As a psychologist going through such an intense experience, Frankl had a unique frame of reference watching the people around him struggle with life and death. He had worked on his idea of meaning-centred psychology before the war, but it was in the crucible of the camps that he confirmed his belief that it was those who had some sense of meaning, something that their suffering was for, that were the ones who managed to survive such traumatic circumstances. For Frankl, the meaning that helped him survive centred largely around his wife, finding refuge in vivid dreams and imaginings of her. He couldn't know the reality that not only his wife but his entire family excepting his sister perished in the camps. He had also entered the camps with perhaps his most valued material possession, the draft pages of a book about logotherapy stuffed into his pocket. Though this was taken from him, the completion of this work also gave him purpose beyond his suffering.

In respect to the people around him, one of the conclusions that Frankl drew from the camps is something I feel I have come into alignment with as I get older. The most important division of people is not aspects of their identity or what side of politics they place themselves on, but whether they are good or bad people, or in the translation of Frankl's work, decent or indecent. He experienced decent camp guards and indecent prisoners; indeed, he relates the story of prisoners who after their liberation tried to protect a camp guard who had treated them fairly. 

The second half of the book introduces his conception of Logotherapy. I didn't find this as compelling as the first part, but it is definitely worth reading as a distillation of the essential ideas of the book. I do not have enough understanding of the clinical or research basis for logotherapy as a psychological tool to know whether Frankl's positive examples of logotherapy helping clients are representative or anecdotal just so stories. What I do feel is that life must be something more than pleasure-seeking, and Frankl has made an important contribution to a long line of thought in this respect that dates back at least to Socrates. For those who experience suffering, who in a moment ask themselves Camus question of why we should continue to exist, meaning must surely be the thing that helps us transcend that moment. What a person's meaning is can vary of course, but if we accept that most people are good and that perhaps most bad is done out of selfishness or necessity rather than evil intent, we can see that people connecting with more deeply with their meaning will generally be a positive force in our world.    

Ultimately this book will stay with me, and I can see how it has earned its status. The Holocaust is a moment that provides a seemingly inexhaustible well of lessons and cautionary tales in the psychological and political spheres. Sometimes I worry there is almost a pornography to the cultural obsession with such dark moments of our history, but then I think that these exaggerated moments are so pregnant with meaning for our lives, that returning to them to think and learn is rarely wasted. This book prompted a thousand more thoughts than I could relate here, but given it is a relatively short book the best thing for you to do is read it to prompt your own.  

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