Monday, October 29, 2012

Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl

I had been searching high and low for this book and found it on one of the online stores. Its a slim book, 154 pages in all, but packed with the kind of content that makes you think, chew on it and come back. Being that, it was a rather slow read but a highly impactful one for me. Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor from the World War II, was a Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School and was considered the founder of what has come to be called as the Third Viennese school of Psychotherapy. His writing has been considered the most important since Freud, Adler and Jung. He published 30 books in all, translated into 23 languages, with the first being published in 1924. This book has sold over 12 million copies.

Frankl's book and his thoughts on the meaning of life bear great significance since he spent three years of his life at the concentration camps in Aushwitz, Dachau and others and survived. He rewrote the book that he had been working on, the manuscript of which he was carrying when he was herded into the concentration camp, and which was seized and destroyed by the Nazis.

'Man's Search for Meaning' is in two parts mainly - one about his experiences in a concentration camp and two about logotherapy. Logotherapy (logos is meaning in Greek) is a meaning-centred psychotherapy, that focuses on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in the future. It is about man's search for meaning which is according to Frankl, the purpose of his existence (as opposed to Freud's pleasure principle and Adler's power principle).

The chapter about Frankl's concentration camp experiences deals with all the human emotions that we all deal with, and in extreme conditions. But his insights still work for us. We can take those lessons to a life that is not as hopeless and meaningless as that of a concentration camp inmate and find meaning in it as Frankl did. Viktor Frankl narrates the concentration camp stories as a dispassionate witness, without dramatising any of them, through the illness, loss of dignity, starvation, death and decay, cruelty, injury, hopelessness, trauma, tragedy. Through all this Frankl stays focused on the job of understanding why certain inmates died and why certain survived. Frankl's book is about the attitude you can choose to carry while dealing with the taking away of your identity, your dignity, with injustice and unfairness and the sheer hopelessness of living.

Some lines and quotes in the book that impacted me.

On our attitude when things go wrong
'You cannot control what happens to you in life but you can always control what you will feel and do, and what happens to you.'

'He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how." - Nietzsche

On success
'Don't aim at success - the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are gong to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued - it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as a by product of one's surrender to a person other than himself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success. You have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run - in the long run, I say - success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.' - Frankl to his students in Europe and America

'There is only one thing that I dread, not to be worthy of my sufferings.' - Dostoevsky

Importance of a goal, of something in the future to add meaning to life
'A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts. In a different connection, we have already spoken of the tendency there was to look into the past, to help make the present with all its horrors less real. But in robbing the present of its reality, there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of  camp life, opportunities which really did exist.'
'...everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp's difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.'

Frankl quotes Bismark while at the above thought - 'Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.'

Using difficulty to grow
'...we could say  that most men in the concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. yet in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.'

'It is the peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking at the future.'

Being the witness - rising above stress and suffering
',,,disgusted with the state of affairs which compelled me, daily and hourly to think of only such trivial things (like bread and ration). I forced myself to turn to another subject. Suddenly I saw myself standing on  platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me became objective, seen and described from a remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them a if they were already of the past.'

Importance of faith in surviving
'..who had lost faith in the future, his future was doomed.'

Thoughts and human immunity
'Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man - his courage and hope, or lack of them - and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.'

Inner strength and its connection to Future goal
'..any attempt to restore a man's inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him a future goal.'

'...did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.'

On doing the tasks assigned to us
'Life does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life's tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man's destiny, which is different and unique for each individual.'

Uniqueness of every moment
'No situation ever repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response.'

'That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.' - Nietzsche

'What you have experienced, no power on earth can take away from you.' - Anon poet

Right action, right conduct, right answer  
What we needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We needed to stop thinking about the meaning of life and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly. Our answer must consist not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.'

Of the key to mental health
'..mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.'

Of responsibility

'..each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.'

3 ways to discover the meaning of life
'..we can discover the meaning of life in three different ways; 1) by creating a work or deed 2) by experiencing something or encountering someone and 3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.'

Viktor Frankl's work is wonderful and I completely identify with his views. Some of them give me greater courage and focus and the assurance that by listening to your conscience and doing the best you can indeed adds meaning to your life and brings success along with it. Also the fact that life is after all about being responsible for what we do with the questions and situations life presents us with. A must-read.

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