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Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
“How much could you endure for your loved one?” a young man dressed in white vestment asked the congregation. Hearers are silent on their seats.
For there are people who suffer and still hold their heads high not that they love hardships but because they find reasons to survive them day after day. It could be because of a promise made before a dying man breathed his last, a longing for home and family, a memory of a loved one, the future of their kids, or a dream of a lifetime perhaps. As long as they have the strength to believe and will to keep going, life continues.
But when circumstances stretch human beings to their mental, physical, emotional limits, and only the certainty of death looms every day, how can they carry on?
"The animal-like treatment of humans by fellow humans bespeaks the human tragedy Frankl addresses with heart and understanding in this short memoir."
The Man Who Survived
Frankl makes it clear earlier in the book that it matters in so far as his experiences and observations were concerned, and the theory presented based on these accounts. He writes equipped with knowledge and training in describing what they were experiencing, and what should be done in such circumstances. He establishes credibility having witness firsthand how human beings ceased to be persons with dignity, without names, origin, possessions, and families.Only the prisoners can best describe what it is like – what hell is like on earth. He acts as a loudspeaker for ordinary camp prisoners who struggled for existence despite heavy blows, hard labor, starvation, and exhaustion.
Now, the question lingers: what made him survive? He has what he calls inborn optimism. He keeps the memory of his wife alive in his most troubled times, at the moment when he loses a reason for his suffering. He volunteers for medical duties thinking that by helping his friends despite his already weak stature would give him purpose before his death. All these as part of his coping mechanisms he chooses to do but obviously not without struggles.
Above all these, there is one he values the most.On the first day in Auschwitz, he surrenders his finished manuscript, but starts making speeches in his head and rewrites it on scraps of paper later on. A particular instant draws him to a vision of a future, what he can become and what he can do when the war is over and he survives it all. This vision gives him the perspective once and for all, and the rest is history.
He finds meaning in his suffering and gives it purpose for the benefit of many.
It is written in 1945 after liberation for nine consecutive days by author, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl. He initially intended its publication without his name. It is an account of his experiences inside Auschwitz concentration camps known to most as the killer zones where mass murders, gas poisoning, tortures, and human experiments took place.
What has become of the book being a bestseller for years is an unexpected success. His sole purpose is to make readers understand that life holds significant value and meaning and can be actualized even under harsh conditions. In doing so, it may shed some light especially to those who are on the verge of giving up in the face of difficulties; who are, what he says, prone to despair. The book does not solicit pity, but maturity, awareness, and above all, sense of purpose among readers and “outsiders” to camp life.
I. Meaning Orientation
encounter with someone or something
Labor camp prisoners had nothing else save their numbers and worn out bodies. It was their priced and only possession they could call their own. There were alive and yet slowly dying in mind, body, and spirit. However, they had to make some sense out of their predicaments even when they could only trust that fate would save them, little what may the chances were. Some let fate takes its course to their own safety, as for others, it led them to the grave. How uncertain and unpredictable the results of their swift decisions were. What else was there to hold on to?
It is here that man can find meaning and purpose if he wills it. In his search for meaning, he is given the choice of action and attitude day after day. This choice – the last of the human freedoms – cannot be ruled out or controlled by anyone else regardless of the circumstances. In his search for meaning, it is not a matter of questioning what life means in principle, but it is more on asking what life, the present moment, demands from him and what he can offer. Man constructs his meaning this way. It is deciding on what can be done in a given moment.
Meaning is found in responsible action expressed in three ways: 1) creative work; 2) experience or encounter with someone or something; and 3) suffering. The third way – suffering – is central in the camp life experience. It is not entirely devoid of meaning as Frankl puts it. There is little to live for and much to suffer. Here is an opportunity to make something constructive out of a cruel environment and to not let the circumstances completely dictate one’s fate. This is where man’s inner hold is put to the test, squeezed like a lemon to the last drop. Being worthy of this suffering is a breakthrough of the human spirit, and it is possible.
Each man has a specific mission wherein his role in fulfilling it cannot be replaced, and when he looks back he can say he has lived life with sense and purpose. He loses meaning when he no longer sees the importance of his struggles toward himself and to others. They do not make sense anymore to him and gives up.
Man has to find meaning at any instant, act upon it on his own, and strive not to lose it along the way, or rather store the meanings he has actualized in the past. This search for meaning more often involves self-giving directed to another person cause, or thing. Meaning manifests outside of that space man limits himself.
Man, therefore, lives out his meaning and so long as his “meaning orientation” is intact, he carries on.
It has both objective and subjective stance. Objective it is from the standpoint of a psychiatrist. It is subjective as far as Frankl, being an observer-insider, made sense of his experiences. A prisoner himself, he is the man inside who knows.
It is mainly divided into two parts. First part documents how life was inside the camps particularly the psychological stages underwent by fellow prisoners upon admission, during, and after imprisonment: shock, curiosity, surprise, apathy, insensitivity, and detachment to name a few. The animal-like treatment of humans by fellow humans bespeaks the human tragedy he addresses with heart and understanding in this short memoir. He recounts the injustice, mental anguish, hunger, lack of sleep, sickness, death, even humor, optimism, kindness, and sudden twists of fate in his favor.
Second part briefly describes the origin and tenets behind his theory called logotheraphy. Important to note here is the will to meaning as opposed to the will to pleasure and will to power. The will to meaning touches on the realms of existence, suffering, frustration, emptiness, optimism, love, and life. Interestingly, Frankl connects it with a super-meaning and self-transcendence.
It is the objective that both parts support each other for readers to generally grasp where logotherapy gains inspiration.
A postscript introduces readers to the concept of tragic optimism.
I cannot explain how exactly, but deep inside, the book’s message has added weight to my being, or should I say, existence, learning from someone who experienced the worst imaginable. I owe it to this book my increased sensitivity to the passing hours in my life with greater sense of responsibility or else remain just another floating soul in the crowd.
Holocaust survivors must have had a strong fighting spirit and will to survive. I must not forget those who died without mercy. Most of them must have had faced death bravely with thoughts of their loved ones and for the sake of their beloved. This brings me to Frankl’s understanding of love that goes beyond the grave and pierces through space and time; that love gives man his true value and dignity.
Its impact has given me depth enough to rethink what I have gone through in the past years in the light of logotherapy. What has become of me since then? It has oriented me, then, to think forward, say when I turn 80 years old and already catching my breath on my deathbed, and to look back if these years make sense at all, if I have spent it as responsibly as I can. Have I contributed something noble and made my presence felt in the grand scheme of things, in my circle of influence?
Well, it is not always that I am mindful of a meaning in my actions. It is not a one way street. There are detours and curves in this long search of purpose. There are times I cannot find some sense at all, and this is a bit of a struggle. When this happens, the trust and confidence of a friend or the example given by others is enough reason to make me want to go on and live “my meaning.”
I finished this book with few words in mind: I choose what I become each moment.