“Viktor E. Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” shows you that forces beyond one’s control can take away everything except one’s freedom to choose how to react or respond to the situation,” writes Anjana Satpathy.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” It is this quest for meaning in life which forms the crux of Viktor E. Frankl’s book aptly titled “Man’s Search for Meaning”.
I picked up this book when I saw it in Susan Cain’s (the author of the book “Power of Introverts”) list of favourites and I was not disappointed. Truth be told, I found it a bit too intense and hard to understand when I read it the first time. And, there were mixed reviews of the book online which further jumbled up my mind. So I read it again and I discovered the true beauty of the book.
It is a book on survival and focuses on the sources of strength to survive, no matter how hard the circumstances. It begins with the story of everyday life in a concentration camp being reflected in the minds of the prisoners, in the words of one of the prisoners who survived.
It takes you through the journey of a prisoner’s mind, starting from clinging on to the last shreds of hope, believing till the last moment that it will be not so bad, to being unable to grasp the fact that everything you believed to be yours is no longer yours, to being in a state of apathy, devoid of any feelings and emotion.
It shows you that forces beyond one’s control can take away everything except one’s freedom to choose how to react or respond to the situation. It talks about the importance of a spiritual life in such situations and the value of our inner riches and how that helps one say yes to life in spite of all the bad things because as the author rightly points out “It did not really matter what we expected from life; but rather what life expected from us.” It teaches us that we need to take responsibility to find the right answer to life’s problems and fulfill the tasks set. It enforces the importance of faith in future even when there is no clarity in life or its end.
The author talks about small but significant incidents during his stay in various concentration camps during WW II and how he survived the camps by believing in his inner self and loving his wife (even though he had not had the chance to know about her whereabouts or whether she was alive or dead since the day they we put in the camp) and his desire to complete his work even during the lowest phases in his life. He rightly points out that the salvation of man is through love and in love, which goes far beyond the physical person of the beloved and finds its deepest meaning in the spiritual self.
The first part of the book ends with the author’s release from the concentration camp and the bitterness and disillusionment that followed once the initial euphoria of surviving the camp fades away and one realizes that all those thoughts of going back to one’s family are never going to materialize as they are no longer there.
The second part of the book talks about logotherapy, a psychotherapeutic approach developed by the author, which revolves around the importance of meaning or purpose in our lives. That was the part that I found to be of utmost importance in our daily lives.
With technological advances we have higher exposure to events happening globally and have started evaluating our success or failure by comparing ourselves to people who we might not have even known existed, in a different world. In our achievement oriented society, it has become even more difficult to believe that what we are doing is worthwhile and deserves being pursued which might lead us to feel disillusioned and worthless.
The author talks about existential vacuum in people’s lives which is true even after decades of this book being published. Lots of people still do not know what they wish to do even today and find out that they are not passionate about anything. At least that is what they believe because the definition of a meaningful life differs from person to person, day to day. So they end up either doing what other people do or doing what other people wish them to do which leads to a state of existential vacuum and perpetual boredom.
I really enjoyed reading the part of the book where the author points out that our life is like a film made up of 1000 pictures, each with a meaning of its own. But we need to wait till the last picture and weave together all the pictures to realise the true meaning of the film. It is the same with our lives.
The author says, “Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue.” and points out that hyper intention to do a thing can be self defeating. If we place too much importance to something, we might end up ruining it. What is important is to give in to the cause or love, self transcending instead of self actualizing. Happiness will ensue by doing our deeds, savouring experiences, loving people and behaving courageously in a dignified manner in the face of unavoidable sufferings.
As rightly pointed out by the author, we do not simply exist. In fact, we decide what our existence will be every second in our life. What we will be in the next moment is a result of this decision and this realization that we have the sole right to decide what can be done about any situation (no matter how out of control that particular situation might be) is what adds meaning to our life.
Anjana Satpathy is an avid reader, and a financial services professional based out of Bengaluru.
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