Finding Meaning in All Things

Having seen excerpts from Viktor Frankl’s writings and a YouTube video of a lecture he gave, I spent the plane ride to and from NY this past weekend reading his Man’s Search For Meaning, the first edition of which was written during a nine-day period within a year after his liberation from three years spent in Nazi concentration camps.

Frankl believes that one’s search for meaning is the primary motivation of one’s life and the message he want to convey is a straightforward one: that life can have meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable. In part he conveys that message by recounting his concentration camp experiences. Having experienced both brutality and kindness, and having watched the various responses of prisoners and captors to life in the camps, he remained convinced that

man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

Watching men who were able to go to their deaths comforting others, having watched people giving away their last bit of bread, provided for Frankl “sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man bit 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.”

Although most of us will never experience something as horrific as life in a concentration camp, we all face difficulties of various sorts…and some face sufferings that are quite severe. I think there is a temptation to believe in such cases that our choices have been taken away for us, that we are completely overcome by circumstances, and to think that our lives can have no meaning.

What Frankl wants us to understand is that there are always choices. We may not be able to avoid suffering (although he point out that if we can, we should – that undergoing unnecessary suffering is masochistic). But we can always choose how we will respond to our circumstances.

The ways in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life…Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forego the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him.

Nothing I can say here will adequately convey the power of this book. It is well worth reading in it’s entirety (even if you are not flying between NY and Minneapolis.