Living with a chronic illness for most of my adult life has led to Existential questions almost every day: why am I here, why do I continue to suffer, will things ever get better, is there a real reason to keep struggling, and should I compare my situation with that of others? Since it was first published in 1946, millions have turned to Dr. Viktor Frankl’s non-fiction text, Man’s Search for Meaning, in hope of finding an answer to even one of the many mysteries that plague the human race. Viktor Frankl studied psychiatry under Sigmund Freud in Vienna, Austria before he was imprisoned in Auschwitz, among other concentration camps. (p.10) In the text, he writes about the tortures he and his fellow inmates underwent as a way to describe the escape mechanisms humans use to survive the worst possible situations. After his survival, finding his entire family had perished, Frankl sought deeper meaning in life. He also looked for ways to help patients who struggled to find reasons to live from day-to-day, he called this treatment logotherapy. (p.1)
The text is divided in two portions; and, the first consists of stories from the concentration camp, including ways the doctor and others tolerated days, weeks, months, and years of brutality. There is a vast amount of sadness, which often elicit tears from the reader, in the memories of Dr. Frankl’s time spent in Auschwitz. Still, it is the lessons about the strength of the human condition, and how those who are willing can train their minds to transcend difficulties to see love and beauty in the world that stand out most. Men and women were separated in the camps. Thus, during his time spent in the camp, Frankl never knew what had become of the person he cherished most, his wife. He recalls one day, in spite of the scent of burning flesh, the dead, and the dying, another man mentioning what their wives would think if they saw them in that moment. (p.56) As memories of Frankl’s own wife, her image, smile, and the joy she brought to his life came flooding back. Frankl invites the reader to share in the intimacy of not only one his most private of recollections, he teaches the reader how to use the highest of human experiences to surpass the cruelest situations. He writes, “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth- that love is the ultimate and highest goal by which we can aspire.“ (p.57) One thought of love, even in a concentration camp, was able to raise his spirits. Love, which according to Frankl is powerful because it comes from a conscious decision of the inner-self to find meaning, carried him and many others through their deepest travails. In addition to love, Frankl says that recognizing “the beauty of art and nature” aid in the human capacity to rise above agony and sorrow. (p.60) Prisoners, he remembered with sadness, would watch the horizon as they worked in the cold, admiring how beautiful the world could be as they struggled. Depressing a thought though this may be, the reason the author mentions these hurtful parts of his past is to show the way the human mind operates to survive. We constantly strive to find love and beauty, even in the worst of times, because these are the things that mean the most to us.
Frankl concluded that the best way to help his logotherapy patients would be to apply the concepts he learned, both personally, and from others, in his experiences during the war. In his attempts to transfer his theories, treatments, and eventually concepts for both to his text and patients, Frankl’s challenge became the same issue which confronted people in the camps- not every person is the same. Much of logotherapy is designed to address issues people may encounter in life such as pain, guilt, and death. (p. 161) However, we can’t all respond in the same way to these emotions and experiences. Perhaps the best solution Frankl had for his patients was the conclusion he came to cope with the loss of his entire family: “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” (p.135) In other words, if Frankl could have traded places with the person he loved most in this world so that he could have spared her pain, he would have done it in a second. He wouldn’t have felt that he was suffering unjustly, because he had done it for love.
Frankl doesn’t divulge the meaning of life by the end of the book. Yet, unlike so many texts that originate from lessons the author learned during his life, this one has the potential to provide insight and even room for improvement in the life of each reader. No matter how or why, we all feel pain and seek answers. We may not require the outdated logotherapy, but we can still use love, beauty, and art as methods of management. Whether you need help now, know someone who does, or will in the future, this should be in your collection.
Final Rating: 4 out 5 Stars