A few weeks ago, I realized that several of the books I review are deep, dark, and depressing. I’ve chosen books that discuss homelessness, random deadly diseases, attempted suicide, child molestation, dystopia government, murderous crime, and ones with morbid titles like As I Lay Dying. I figured I’d change it up and pick something on the lighter side: Man’s Search for Meaning* by Viktor Frankl. Because who isn’t down for a casual existential reflection on whether your life is worth anything at all.
Exciting news for all of you readers: Frankl thinks that your life can be meaningful! Frankl, a Jewish, Austrian boy born in 1905, practiced as an esteemed psychologist and neurologist until he and his wife were deported to Auschwitz in 1944. He spent three years in concentration camps thereafter. Unlike many of the camp’s prisoners, Frankl was interested in his deplorable environment from a professional standpoint. As he suffered, he studied his own mind and the responses of his fellow men and women, hoping that he’d eventually be freed and have the chance to share his observations. He believed that looking to the future gave him something to live for, which contributed to his health both mentally and physically. “In the words of Nietzsche: ‘He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How’” (Frankl, ix).
Upon liberation—an event that he poignantly described—Frankl shared a new kind of psychotherapy: logotherapy. Logotherapy derives from the belief that “the striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man” (Frankl, 99). Frankl claims that when ask ourselves-- Lyndsay, what is the meaning of life? —we’re asking the wrong question. (When we say – Lyndsay, it obviously involves watching Breaking Bad while snuggling your dachshunds – we’re giving the wrong answer). Instead of framing the question in a vague, all encompassing way, we should be looking at minute moments. Each individual moment is an opportunity to find meaning in life. Consequently, “meaning” means different things for different people. Frankl explains, “To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: ‘Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?’ There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence” (Frankl, 108). My move is different than your move. Checkmate, bitches.
Of course, there’s this whole predestination debacle. Not in the religious sense, but in the nature-nurture sense-- the notion that how you’re biologically built + what your upbringing is like = who you are as a person. Frankl says that based on his experiences at the hands of the Nazis, he can confidently assert that men are able to act freely in response to their conditions. Condemnation to a concentration camp does not automatically necessitate pessimism, death, or meaninglessness. Namely, prisoners can triumph over their suffering, and in doing so discover a deep inner value and sense of achievement. According to Frankl, suffering is inevitable. By viewing that suffering as a challenge and an opportunity to rise above, your life is rendered meaningful. As Frankl saw all of the horrific agony around him, he trusted that those who were dying and suffering were still capable of leading meaningful lives.
In addition to responding to suffering, logotherapy holds that we can experience meaning in life through creating/doing and experiencing/encountering others (Frankl, 111). Thus, his psychotherapy applies to all humans at all points in time. As such, he imbues even the most mundane choices with great import. In logotherapy, we have the freedom to act in certain ways. Similar to Spiderman, with great freedom comes great responsibility; you have a responsibility towards yourself to act in a way that dignifies your life.
The first portion of the book chronicles his time at the hands of Hitler and the second half introduces a cohesive ideology that he hopes to relate to the masses. In the former, I was intrigued in a way that felt almost sadistic. Because I cannot possibly imagine the awfulness that Frankl and millions of others endured, I am curious, sympathetic, despondent, and astounded all in one. Truthfully, I have not read much literature about the Holocaust, and most of my knowledge stems from museums and history textbooks. I was shocked to learn about the terror of the Capos—prisoners who were entrusted by SS guards to reign over other prisoners (Frankl, 4). They were among their own people and yet so many of them exercised their privilege in the form of immense cruelty. How is this not blatantly evident and advertised in history books? If it is… how have I not taken that to heart and remembered it? Man’s Search for Meaning enlightened me on historical facts of the Holocaust from a first-hand perspective, and for that I am grateful.
The latter half was existentially interesting. I have the utmost respect for Frankl; he was a remarkable man (he passed in 1997 at age 92!) who did a lot of good for a lot of people, reassuring them of their value in the world. He was an incredibly smart man with an incredibly impressive moral compass. When speaking of his liberation and his fellow prisoner’s difficulty in accepting their own fate and the fate of their tormenters, he states, “no one has the right to do wrong, even if wrong has been done to them” (Frankl, 91). And I’m over here ready to bitch slap someone if they stand on the wrong side of the escalator in the city. The man behind the book deserves 5 out of 5 camel humps. The book itself, admittedly, deserves 3 out of 5 camel humps. As an absurdist, I’m biased. I think that the pursuit of meaning in life is fundamentally impossible (uplifting, I know). So, I take what he says with a grain of salt, acknowledging that while I don’t buy what he’s selling, he still has thought provoking ideas that help me further articulate what I personally espouse.
*Frankl, Victor. Man's Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006. Print.