Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

This really was an excellent book, very insightful and inspiring. It motivated me to view my responses to events as more active than I often was inclined to view them. The author, Viktor Frankl, was a psychotherapist and a prisoner during the Holocaust. He recounts his experiences then draws on them to explain his psychological theories about human life and what gives us meaning. It’s a surprisingly easy read given the subject matter. He deals especially well with the meaning of suffering.

Here are some demonstrative quotations:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task” (105).

So true, right? In school and growing up, we were always promised that there would be this moment of arrival, after graduating college and nabbing that perfect job or getting married, when everything would make sense and be happily ever after. But surprise, we never arrive. Marriage is good; good jobs are good, but nothing is ever settled. We are always striving to be more, to be better. This struggle can wrongly take on the consumerist edge, but it needn’t and shouldn’t. We must strive to be better human beings, to love better, to fulfill our specific task as well as we can. Which leads to…
“Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
“These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to describe the meaning of life in a general way…No man and no destiny can be compared with any other destiny…Sometimes the situation in which a man find’s himself may require to shape his own fate by action. At other times, it may be more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required to simply accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.
“When a man finds it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden” (77-78).
We each have a unique set of circumstances that is always shifting and changing, and we must strive to meet this in the best way possible. Frankl’s account of suffering, to enter into it and bear it instead of to flee from it is, deeply touching coming from his personal experience in the holocaust camps; it simultaneously reminded me of how good I have it while encouraging me to face difficulties and grow through them instead of trying to push the eject button, which says “I shouldn’t have to do this or go through this.”
And finally, I think Frankl’s philosophy is good too, very resonant with virtue ethics.
“Every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to cope with it. The existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism…the contention that being has no meaning” (129).
“One is commanded ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue.” (138).
So what do you think? What have you been reading recently?
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