Review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

(Please read my page on “but of sufferings bravely suffered” for the sixth thing.)

I was thinking about what makes a good book review. Is it the encompassing of all the main points of the book, or what I learned from the book? What are the good book reviews that I would like to read?

Man’s Search for Meaning is a rather short read that can be completed in one sitting. It is an autobiographical work, which means that every experience in that book involved real life humans, nameless beings in concentration camps as they lived and then died. I value such anecdotes of human history because it is not fictional. Lading out soup from the bottom, with peas and mashed vegetables, for the prisoners whom you are closer to, and ladling watery soup from the top for prisoners you don’t know reveals how principles like treating all humans fairly can’t be put into practice under trying conditions. I don’t have to extrapolate what it could possibly mean in my life. It just is.

It is in stories that I find my humanity- how else can one record what has happened, if not through videos and writing? Stories of how the foremen treated the prisoners badly, throwing stones at them and calling them names and using whips against bare skin. Or how the prisoners had to tear off strips from their blankets to use as shoelaces because their feet were swollen and had to be resized in order to be of any use. “Yes, a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.”

Not all stories are negative experiences. There was the story of how three young Hungarian Jews hid the camp commander in the Bavarian woods and refused to reveal his location until the American commander promised that absolutely no harm would come to that man. The camp commander paid money out of his own pocket in order to purchase medicines for his prisoners. While the camp wardens were cruel men, the commander himself never once lifted his hand against any of the prisoners. He had money and power and he did not have to inconvenience himself to help prisoners who were not seen as anything more than disposable resources. But he did.

Dr Frankl writes, “I remember one day a foreman secretly gave me a piece of bread which I knew he must have saved from his breakfast ration. It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at that time. It was the human “something” which this man also gave to me- the word and look which accompanied the gift.”

I do not claim to understand even a fraction of a percent of what happened in concentration camps. I can imagine, but I cannot feel as they did. I did not have to endure winters without heating or warm food at every meal. But I will remember what I read. If there is an opportunity in the future to be under similar conditions, I will remember the process of how Dr Frankl found meaning in his life, and apply it to my life as well.

The first lesson- understanding the preciousness of daily life. A few days after Dr Frankl was released from camp (he spent three years in four camps), he walked through the country and near flowering meadows. There, he knelt on the ground and repeated one sentence to himself. “I called to the Lord from my narrow space and He answered me in the freedom of space.” Freedom was there, finally. The end of marches and work units and building railway tracks and unkind guards. The end of the period when he would hesitate to awake a fellow prisoner, because the nightmares were better than reality.

When the prisoners were released they said that they “had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly”. But even through all that trauma, he found that if he concentrated on thoughts of his wife and parents and how he would lecture on his brainchild, logotherapy, after he was released, he was able to maintain a semblance of inner peace and courage. It is not the marks of external accomplishments that he thought of- publishing his first essay at 16, or working as a specialist before he was called into camp. It was the small things- the smell of warm bread, his unwritten manuscript, lifting up the telephone to speak- that sustained him.

It got me thinking about the things I do in daily life that I really enjoy. Warm baths, roasted seaweed, chicken bites, talking to my friends on MRT rides, being able to contribute my thoughts to projects, cuddling with my yellow dog pillow in bed. It reminds me of an article I read a few days ago, I think it was about an artist with ovarian cancer- she wrote an essay about how she died for one day and then came back, and she missed the cracks in the wooden table and the flipping of the light switches. I too, will miss all these things when I’m dead.

The second lesson- finding the why to live in hard times. “One morning I heard someone, whom I knew to be brave and dignified, cry like a child because he finally had to go to the snowy marching grounds in his bare feet, as his shoes were too shrunken for him to wear.” Which also meant that that prisoner might have suffered from gangrene and then have this toes taken off with tweezers, and finally be deemed unfit for work and then sent to the gas chambers. Humans are individual beings with a mind, inner freedom and personal values. But under such tough times, it is difficult to remain as that. Far easier to survive camp life by degrading other people, and then be selected to be a Capo, a prisoner of elevated status.

He also writes of a time where a prisoner stole a few pounds of potatoes, and the guards told the block to either give that person up for punishment or starve for a day. The thief was recognised by fellow prisoners. Under such dire circumstances, going without food for a day might mean life or death. But the block of 2500 people chose to fast. In the evening when everyone’s moods were low, Dr Frankl had the opportunity to encourage fellow men to keep their moods up. “What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you. Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being.” That is meaning in their suffering- they might not own anything on their backs or hold anything of value in their hands, but their raw naked selves are enough.

He wrote this: “I told them of a comrade who on his arrival at camp had tried to make a pact with Heaven that his suffering and death should save the human being he loved from a painful end. For this man, suffering and death were meaningful; his was a sacrifice of the deepest significance. He did not want to die for nothing. None of us wanted that.” Love holds meaning for the people who have received it and are able to give it. It connects a human to another human being. “I said that someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours- a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God- and he would not expect us to disappoint him. He would hope to find us suffering proudly- not miserably- knowing how to die.”

The third lesson, how can we find meaning in current times of economic wealth and social freedom. This is the lesson that is the most important to me, because it grapples with the issues of finding a good career and choosing to make friends. Dr Frankl writes that we are currently in an existential vacuum, where we have the means to do things but we do not understand the meaning of things. “Now can we understand Schopenhauer when he said that mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom.”

In secondary three, when I was in China on a bus trip to Tian Jin, the tour guide asked a classmate of mine how much pocket money she received per month. My classmate replied 5000RMB, which works out to be about 1000SGD. In China tour guides do not make more than 3000RMB if they are lucky, and that is not even disposable income. To that tour guide we were immensely privileged students from Singapore, but I knew my classmate to be someone who was rather unhappy with her life due to family situations. I do not think that she valued the money much, because it did not open up new opportunities for her, and it provided no sense of meaning.

The question is, so how does one start finding meaning in his life? Dr Frankl answers by stating something that has worried me for a while now- that there is no abstract meaning to life that everyone should strive for. It is not one thing that everyone has to attain or their life would have been wasted. Instead, it is recognizing that it is our ‘self’ who is being asked that question. That life is presenting a set of innate characteristics and external circumstances to us, and the meaning of life lies in how we respond to that situation. We are being questioned by life, and we can only answer by practicing responsibility for our actions. Whatever results from it- spending our lives reading a book a day, or selling a bouquet of flowers on the streets from dawn to dusk five days a week, it is our life. “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.”

The fourth lesson- our past and making choices in the present. Think of the past as a rich field where you have sown your seeds and crops are growing there now. Your relationships, your work and school accomplishments, the small routines that you do every day which builds up to who you are now. Our choices in the present connect us to the world- these are all potential roads that we can take. Should we eat at the Korean place, or Macs? Should we wave hi to the person we sat with last week? Each minute which passes becomes a reality and is irrevocably stored in the past. How then, are we spending our time?

“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.” Learning that the past is precious and the present is a maze of choices that we make, with each choice allowing us, once again, to step into the process of discovering the meaning of life in this world.

The last lesson- human as the being who creates, destroys, and hopes. I studied HR in university because it was the easiest subject to score in, I didn’t think very deeply into my career choices and I was telling my mentors that I would not be pursuing HR as a career. The thought process in my head was that if I do not value my own life, if I am prone to bouts of anxiety and unhappiness, then why do I feel fit to advise other people on how to manage their people and influence their lives? But I do believe in something strongly (which might or might not be good enough to save me in the future), which is that as humans with limited sight, we are unable to see who we might become in the future. “Weeks, months, years later, they told me, it turned out that there was a solution to their problem, an answer to their question, a meaning to their life.” “But in the first place, you have to live to see the day on which it may happen, so you have to survive in order to see that day dawn, and from now on the responsibility for survival does not leave you.”

Logically, I know that I might find a partner in the long-term, after all I am only 23 and I am not descended from the ugliest of dinosaurs. Logically, I also know that I will find career happiness, and be able to achieve most of the things on my bucket list. They require time and commitment but it is not of such gargantuan proportions that it is unimaginable. However, I am not talking about reality or external circumstances. I am talking about mental health, the feelings that wrap around my head and leave very little space for other considerations. Such things are not real, but they are always true. And it is balancing whatever I am feeling in the current moment with the belief that humans have the capacity to create great works of art like Dr Frankl. This is the paragraph that made me understand that man has the ability for both indecent and decent behaviour.

Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

This marks the end of my review on Man’s Search for Meaning. I don’t know if it is a good book review, I think it rather reads as a personal essay on what I felt was the most impactful. I would like to end off with a quote- “but everything great is just as difficult to realize as it is rare to find.” I don’t know what lies in store ahead, but I hope that I will have the courage to put forward my humanity, even as I make my peace with being somewhat neurotic.