Man’s Search For Meaning By Viktor E. Frankl : Reading Notes

A very powerful read indeed. The book in itself is very concise and is divided in to two parts. The first part is about the authors experience in the Nazi concentration camp and the second part is an introduction to Logotherapy.

Part 1 : Experiences in a Concentration Camp

  • The writing in this part is just amazing as it takes you the World War 2 era and the infamous and inhumane Nazi concentration camps. The author describes his day to day experiences in the camp and the only way to survive the camp was to find a meaning and purpose to survive.
  • As you read on, you ponder that it’s in fact the adversities of life which shape us into who we are today. Suffering in life is inescapable, searching for a meaning in those suffering is the true meaning of life.
  • Even in such hostile extreme conditions, does the man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances.
  • In the camps, there were enough examples often of a heroic nature that proves that apathy can be overcome. Starving prisoners sharing food with the sick, trying to motivate the ones who have lost hope.
  • Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
  • There may be a few such men, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedom:
    To choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
  • An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realise values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfilment in experiencing
    beauty and nature.
  • But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of only one thing:
    Man’s attitude towards his own existence.
  • Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worse is still to come, but yet it is over already.
  • We had to learn ourselves and furthermore we had to teach the despairing men that it did not really matter what we expected from life but rather what life expected from us.
  • Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements.
    “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny which is different and unique for each individual.
  • He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in his suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his sufferings or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.
  • What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.
  • Final chapter touches the part where prisoners after much agony and wait, are finally liberated from the camps.
  • Pressure released suddenly is dangerous. Many were indignant towards what has happened.
    They had imagined and dreamed about liberation so many times that it almost felt impossible to grasp the reality of it.
  • There were many men who found out that there was no one left to await their return.
  • The crowning experience of all for the homecoming man is the wonderful feeling, that after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more – except his god.

Part 2: Logotherapy In a Nutshell

  • Logotherapy focuses on the future instead of the past like the more traditional psychotherapy. That is to say on the meanings to be fulfilled by patient in his future.
  • Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a secondary realisation of instinctual drives.
  • Man’s will to find meaning can also be frustrated in which case logotherapy speaks of “existential frustration”.
  • The terms existential frustration can be used in 3 ways:
    1. Existence itself.
    2. Meaning of existence.
    3. The striving to find concrete meaning in personal existence, the will to meaning.

Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish.

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freshly chosen task.

The Existential Vaccum:
In modern times, it has become very common for the man to get caught up in an existential vaccum (sheer meaninglessness of life itself).

At the beginning of the human history, man lost some of the basic human instincts in which are animal behaviours embedded.
In more recent developments, man lost traditions which buttressed his behaviour.

No instincts tells him what to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do.
Sometimes he doesn’t even know what we wishes to do.

Instead he tried to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism) .

The existential vaccum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. In actual fact, boredom is now causing more problems than distress in patients that go to psychiatrists. And those problem are growing increasingly crucial, for progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in leisure hours available.
The pity is that many will not know what to do with all this newly acquired time.

The Meaning Of Life
One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life, to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment. Therein he can’t be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.

The Essence Of Existence
Logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of logotherapy.
This emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in categorical imperative of logotherapy:

Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first as wrongly as you are about to act now.

Such a precept confronts him with life’s finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of both his life and himself.

Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past Not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered.

When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.

A human being is not one thing among others: things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.
What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment – he has made out of himself.

In the concentration camps for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave life swine while others behaved like saints.
Man has both personalities within himself, which one is actualised depends on decisions but not on conditions.

The End

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