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"Man's Search For Meaning" by Viktor Frankl

[One of my earlier posts referred to 'the will to meaning' here. I intended to expand upon it later, but other more intense interests sprouted to which I dedicated much of my writing energies. Later I somehow lost interest. However when I recently saw The Shawshank Redemption, I was vaguely aware of having seen another work with similar theme. Some travel in my mind-palace brought me to that rusted corner where memories of 'Man's Search for Meaning' lay. As I was wishing to break the ice here since long, can one ask for a better topic to rekindle this blog? ]

What if you were deprived of your possessions and freedom? What if you found yourself in a concentration camp stripped of every semblance of human dignity, working like a beast of burden?

Viktor Frankl's 'Man's Search For Meaning' is not a brainchild of mental speculation, but based on personal experiences in the school of sorrow where the earthy lessons of life are taught. Frankl’s life and observations at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp of Nazi Germany before he was liberated at the end of World War II forms the crux of our book.

“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how, said Nietzsche and Frankl’s work is a corollary of this quote to a large extent. [Nietzsche wasn't vain-glorious after all when he said, “What I write in one line, others can't in whole book.”]

What troubles man, according to Frankl, is not suffering itself but the fact that he finds this experience empty.A soldier, for example, is prepared to accept suffering unwaveringly as he knows why he needs to suffer. Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

The Book

The first part of the book concerns the life at concentration camp and how people quickly degenerated to apathetic sub-humane consciousness to protect themselves mentally. But few minds, even in those conditions, rose superior to the gloom around, and exercised the last of human freedoms, the ability to choose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances.

Frankl contends that despite external worldly influences affecting all universally, the kind of person one eventually becomes depends on his inner decision. And he makes this point in connection with the prisoners at a concentration camp!

Where his experiences end and his observations begin is hard to decipher given the seamless flow of the narrative. Instances of successful counseling against suicide are included.To a middle-aged man, it was the expectation of seeing his son, presently abroad, and spending some time with him that lifted the dark veil. To a professor, the need to complete his unfinished work which he alone was capable of did the trick.

Once people are convinced about the uniqueness of their responsibility, that life still expects something for them, that there is still something worthwhile to look forward to, they find meaning even in the present suffering. If we conclude that life has a meaning, then suffering too, being part and parcel of life should have a meaning.

Frankl enunciates his point through the following case. An old man, much devoted to his wife, found her death few months before excruciating painful and his suffering was too deep to heal. Frankl finally asked the person if it would have been better had he died before his wife, to which the man promptly retorts that the role-reversal could have been infinitely more painful to her. Wasn't his present suffering then, Frankl suggested, the price he has to pay to spare his beloved wife the pain if the situation was the exact opposite. The suggestion appears to have had its effect, for the old man no longer complained and bore his cross ungrudgingly.

Not only are people’s responsibilities unique, even their sufferings are so. The suffering apparently is dovetailed to one’s individual life and our duty lies harnessing it to shape one’s life, feels Frankl. This irreplaceability of a man, because of his unique situation and position in world, if properly understood helps him develop a sense of responsibility towards fellow-humans or to an unfinished task that await him and no such man will throw away his life.

Implications

Living in the present may be desirable, but man essentially lives by looking to the future. The moment one loses faith in future, he automatically lets go his inner hold and resigns himself from activity of any kind. “Strong hope”, as Nietzsche points,”is a much greater stimulant of life than any realized joy could be”.

In modern times, with most people no longer in the dire necessity of desperately keeping themselves afloat in quagmire of material existence, what actually motivates them?

Most people from the earlier generation had lesser mental complexities to deal with primarily because they had responsibilities thrust on them. Most ordinary men hadn't the luxury of free time and sufficient means which are the prerequisites of thoughtful contemplation. Also in support of the central theme of the book in question, they had a 'why' to their life, however trivial or selfish. With families going nuclear, relations shallower and friendships business-like, men in absence of personal glory have no relations or values to cling upon in event of failure.

Boredom, as opposed to distress, is causing more psychological problems today. Ideally, the improved material conditions present an opportunity for inner growth and evolution. What however seems to be happening is that the mind, long used to dash ahead like a racing engine seeking material advancement cannot come in terms with the grinding halt forced upon it, and tears itself apart in absence of higher purpose.

The Will to Meaning

Frankl calls his method 'logotheraphy' ['logos' stands for 'meaning' in Greek] officially defined as that which focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man's search for such a meaningThis is a departure from Schopenhauer’s 'will to live', Adler's 'will to pleasure' or even Nietzsche's 'will to power'. 

Further, it attempts to see suffering not as something to be endured as deserved punishment but embraced because it is pregnant with opportunity of self-growth via helping one find meaning of life. Unlike the retrospective perspective on suffering, it is forward-looking, rooted not in artificial optimism but in purposeful existence where pain and pleasure are accepted with equipoise.

One is inclined to view the will to power as a zero-sum game, as one's profit in terms of power often comes from depriving another of it. The will to pleasure can become hedonistic. However, the will to 'live' is more tolerating of other beings. But just ‘living’ isn't sufficient, to live with meaning is a moreworthygoal to have.

The book couldn't have had my complete attention and admiration had it not come from a person who had personally suffered the most inhuman torture of body and soul. Yet, the book lifts itself from the shadows of its author and springs to life on its own by the end. [Surprising, considering its autobiographical nature.]

Googling for the book, I found an eBook here. At 69 pages, the book is a quick-read, even 20 minutes a day will take no longer than a week. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to everybody if only to appreciate the author’s reconciliatory approach to life after enduring a tormenting stay at concentration camp (not prison) even if his theory doesn't appear 'meaningful' to you. 


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