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Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Emil Frankl

Man's Search for Meaning

RATING: 8/10…READ: October 16, 2011

A man’s search for meaning during and after life in the concentration camps. A quick, but powerful read on how to find meaning when everything is taken away from you.

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Notes:

To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying. But no man can tell another what this purpose is. Each must find out for himself, and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes. If he succeeds he will continue to grow in spite of all indignities.

“Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going 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 the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.

Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.

“There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.” An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.

The salvation of man is through love and in love.

I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in en­ during his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way— in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.

No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.

The majority of prisoners suffered from a kind of inferiority complex. We all had once been or had fancied ourselves to be “somebody.” Now we were treated like complete nonentities.

The more “prominent” prisoners, the Capos, the cooks, the store-keepers and the camp police­ men, did not, as a rule, feel degraded at all, like the majority of prisoners, but on the contrary—promoted! Some even developed miniature delusions of grandeur.

Since the prisoner continually witnessed scenes of beatings, the impulse toward violence was increased.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.

A man who could not see the end of his “provisional existence” was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living for the future, in contrast to a man in normal life.

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 to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.

Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.

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

–We needed to stop asking 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 in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.

A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.

Thus it can be seen that 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. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.

Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.

In a word, 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.

This emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in the categorical imperative of logotherapy, which is: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

It is, therefore, up to the patient to decide whether he should interpret his life task as being responsible to society or to his own conscience.

By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.”

It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.

What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self- actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.

Nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with. I should say having been is the surest kind of being.

The more a man tries to demonstrate his sexual potency or a woman her ability to experience orgasm, the less they are able to succeed. Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.

Logotherapy bases its technique called “paradoxical intention” on the twofold fact that fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes.

Paradoxical intention can also be applied in cases of sleep disturbance. The fear of sleeplessness results in a hyper-intention to fall asleep, which, in turn, incapacitates the patient to do so. To overcome this particular fear, I usually advise the patient not to try to sleep but rather to try to do just the opposite, that is, to stay awake as long as possible. In other words, the hyper-intention to fall asleep, arising from the anticipatory anxiety of not being able to do so, must be replaced by the paradoxical intention not to fall asleep, which soon will be followed by sleep.

As soon as the patient stops fighting his obsessions and instead tries to ridicule them by dealing with them in an ironical way—by applying paradoxical intention—the vicious circle is cut, the symptom diminishes and finally atrophies.

But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to “be happy.” Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.

Whereas the perception of meaning, as I see it, more specifically boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words, to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.

And how does a human being go about finding meaning? As Charlotte Buhler has stated: “All we can do is study the lives of people who seem to have found their answers to the questions of what ultimately human life is about as against those who have not.”