In September of 1942, a young psychiatrist found himself standing in line just outside of a Nazi concentration camp. At the time, nobody knew the extent of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. Prisoners, who at first thought they were entering a temporary holding camp, quickly realized the hopelessness of their situation. Their personal items were taken, their heads shaved, their arms tattooed with a serial number—everything about their previous life became irrelevant and seemingly lost. The young psychiatrist, despite his condition of hopelessness and misery, managed to find meaning in the suffering.
This is the story we have the privilege of reading in Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl. Throughout the book, Frankl takes the reader on a journey of what life was like for the average prisoner during the Holocaust and adds his own existential analysis. Frankl found himself in one of the most horrific experiences in human history. Though, this didn’t keep him from writing a memoir about his experiences and developing a new kind of therapy called Logotherapy. If life is suffering, Frankl’s Logotherapy and analysis of meaning is the antidote we all need. Since the book was published in 1947, it has sold over 10 million copies and been translated into over 24 languages. Here are our favorite key takeaways, examples, and quotes from the perennial classic, Man’s Search For Meaning.
3 Key Takeaways From Man’s Search For Meaning
Man’s Search For Meaning is an exploration of how one may find meaning in the most unusual places, even in the horrendous environment that was characteristic of Nazi-Germany concentration camps. Frankl describes his lessons learned as a holocaust survivor, and how his experiences shaped his understanding of meaning. The will to meaning, his iconic Logotherapy, and the true meaning of life are all masterfully explained by Frankl. Here are our three favorite takeaways from Man’s Search For Meaning.
The Will To Meaning
Throughout his three year imprisonment, Frankl found there were three ways in which one could find meaning in their life: Through work, through love, or through suffering. He called this concept The Will To Meaning.
In thinking about the work he wanted to do after he was free, Frankl would get lost in fantasies about publishing his book, developing his theories related to Logotherapy and further contributing to the field of psychology. For example, when Frankl first arrived at Auschwitz, his nearly complete manuscript was taken from him. He would often visualize what this manuscript looked like, and write it over and over again in his head. This was just one way in which he found some meaning despite his circumstances.
One of the most heartbreaking examples that Frankl mentions is the significance of his wife. Frankl was separated from his wife when they reached the camp. He had no idea where she was, or when he would see her again. The thought of being reunited with his wife preoccupied his mind constantly. In some moments, he swore he physically felt her presence. He would come to find out that his wife had died in Auschwitz, likely less than a few miles from where his own barracks laid. Even so, Frankl persevered.
Frankl’s thought process gave him meaning and helped him push through the adversity of everyday life at the camps he was imprisoned at, Auschwitz and Dachau. Instead of thinking about the life he left behind, he focused on finding meaning in every little moment. Whether it was the thought of being reunited with his wife or his constant reflection on the ideas of Logotherapy, Frankl passed time by pondering what was meaningful to him. He found meaning in his condition of suffering, which is the human condition itself.
One can argue that Man’s Search For Meaning is almost entirely about Frankl’s Logotherapy, first in showing the application and later in the book, explaining the true science behind it. Logotherapy is a school of psychology that is centered around helping people find meaning in their life. The concept was also referred to as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy” after Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler’s previous contributions. Unlike Freud and Adler, Frankl believed that the search for existential meaning is the major motivating force in a person’s life.
As such, Frankl argued that we need therapy which focuses on existentialism, primarily because we suffer greatly when our meaning is entirely unknown to us. Frankl referred to this as existential frustration—a kind of anxiety that causes us great mental anguish. This then leads to, according to Frankl, existential despair, which is a depressed state where we question the meaning of life altogether. Frankl supports this theory with his own experiences at the concentration camp, reiterating how often he saw those who lived without meaning struggle to survive.
Frankl’s aim in developing Logotherapy was to expand upon the psychoanalytical and individualistic ideas that were brought forth by Freud and Adler. Frankl noticed that there was a central force that drives all of us, and neither psychologists before him had truly touched upon it. Since the book was published in 1947, Logotherapy has helped thousands of people overcome various forms of psychological suffering. The school of thought eventually contributed to the founding of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is still used by psychologists today.
The Meaning Of Life
Conventional thinking about the meaning of life usually involves a life-long task that is unchanging. If one finds meaning in becoming a musician, it’s assumed that they practice day in, and day out. The same goes for writers, artists, and entrepreneurs alike. But Frankl’s idea of meaning is a bit different. Rather than sticking to one objective meaning, Frankl argues that meaning is not only subjective but ever-changing. In order to live a meaningful life, we have to identify what is meaningful to us in every moment. There is a kind of mindfulness to meaning—a level of focused attention where we must focus on identifying what we find meaningful.
So how do we find meaning? According to Frankl, it’s simply a shift in perspective. When pondering our meaning, Frankl says, we often ask ourselves the question of meaning. The problem of meaning is far easier solved when we reverse the question as if it’s being asked of us instead. Frank writes in the latter chapters of Man’s Search For Meaning “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is being 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. Thus, Logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.”
Our goals and aspirations tend to change over time, and thats ok. If life is truly suffering, we must embrace those goals that are worth suffering for. And as we struggle to meet them, and wrestle with the inherent difficulty of life, we find the meaning we seek. Frankl enhances this exact idea as he writes, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.”
If the condition of life is to suffer, the meaning of life is to do what is meaningful to us despite this condition. It’s that simple.
3 Favorite Examples From Man’s Search For Meaning
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Frankl’s work is the amount of detail he utilizes to recall his time in the camps. As one can imagine, Frankl underwent a great deal of hardship in the three years that he was a prisoner. Yet, in that time, Frankl managed to make the best of this situation and use the horror he witnessed to find something greater within himself. Here are a few of our favorite examples from Man’s Search For Meaning.
Choose Your Own Way
When Viktor Frankl arrived at Auschwitz, he had no clue what was going on or what was to be done with him. He wasn’t alone in his confusion, as many of the prisoners also failed to realize that they were no longer free to do as they please. Frankl even recalls people asking if they can bring their personal belongings with them as if they were traveling on vacation rather than being held prisoner. It wasn’t until they were ordered to line up that people began to realize the horror of their situation.
The SS officers began barking orders, shouting at everyone to form two lines: Women in one line, men in the other. At the front of each line was an SS officer, pointing left and right after briefly looking over each person. What was he doing? Judging every prisoner’s fitness to work. To be sent to the left meant one’s personal items would be confiscated, their hair shaved, and they would begin work immediately. To be sent to the right meant one was unfit for work and would be put to death in a gas chamber. As Frankl writes this, one can imagine the sheer helplessness of the situation. Throughout it all, though, Frankl remained composed. He chose to keep a composed demeanor—his response to his circumstances being the only thing within his power to control. Frankl summarizes this brilliantly when he writes “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.”
When it was Frankl’s turn at the front of the line, he did everything he could do to look strong and resilient. It worked, and he was sent to work. His willingness to accept his situation is not just something to be admired, but also adopted. Beyond that first day, not knowing whether he’d be sent to the right or left, whether he would be killed or forced into hard labor, Frankl learned to remain indifferent to his circumstances. He chose his attitude and moved forward in his own way. As one pictures Frankl in such an impossible position, the words of Epictetus come to mind:
“Circumstance does not make the man, it reveals him to himself.”
The Power Of Spirituality
Despite the physical and mental torment that each prisoner endured, it was still possible for them to experience a deep sense of spirituality. Overly sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life suffered greatly on the outside, as they were typically less hardy. Their inner selves though, according to Frankl, were far less damaged. There’s a reason why prisoners who were smaller in stature were still able to survive in the camps. That reason being, they were able to retreat within themselves to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.
Frankl himself did this in order to survive, and it was the only thing that kept him alive during a particularly difficult march in the snow. Frankl describes to the reader the pure agony of that day, marching in the freezing cold, constantly being shouted at by the Nazi soldiers who were beating people for moving slowly, or for pulling their caps over their ears to stay warm. In this moment, a man who was marching next to Frankl whispered “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
The comment immediately sent Frankl retreating into his imagination. He pictured his wife, the way she would talk to him and smile at him. Such a thought was a mere distraction from his reality, but it was a beautiful distraction. One that led him to discover it was love which truly allowed those who suffer to persevere despite their circumstances. Even then, on that dreadful march in the dead of winter, Frankl pushed on because he was able to retreat within himself. He quickly learned that while the body may be beaten, broken, and forced to kneel, one’s spirit remained unconquerable. This was the only reason why Frankl and few others were able to survive.
Liberation Waits For Us All
For three years, Viktor Frankl remained a prisoner of the holocaust. Shortly after his camp had been liberated, Frankl tells the story of walking through the campgrounds just days after his liberation. The countryside around the camp he was imprisoned at was free and open—a kind of sight that once seemed hopeless to him. In this state of gratitude, Frankl broke down and fell to his knees. He would recite over and over again the following line:
“I called to the lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.”
This final scene in Man’s Search For Meaning is not only heartwarming, but also illustrates a powerful point. In each and every life, there is suffering. In our careers, in our home life, in our interactions with others—in everything there is suffering. There comes a time in each person’s life, just as Frankl found himself on his knees, staring at the camp that once threatened to take his life, where we become liberated from our suffering. Frankl falling to his knees was this moment in his life where he ceased to suffer both physically and mentally. He had survived the worst thing that life could throw at him, and in surviving it he set himself free.
Man’s Search For Meaning is a book about many things. Beyond its historical significance, the book is a meditation on meaning, and how one finds meaning in the most desolate places. When Frankl stepped off of that train and into the camp, he made a choice. It was Frankl himself who beautifully said “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
We are our choices, and the amount in which we suffer is entirely dependent on our response to the innate condition of suffering. We may choose to suffer, or we may choose to thrive despite the condition of suffering. The choice, as Frankl says, is up to us.
12 Best Quotes From Man’s Search For Meaning
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“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.”
“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 personal 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. 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”
“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather 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.”
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
“What is to give light must endure burning.”
“So 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!”
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
“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 to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”