Viktor Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, strikes me as fresh and stimulating, nearly 70 years after it was written. I missed it before because I thought it was a depressing story of the Nazi death camps. I didn’t realize it’s a compelling case for a whole approach to psychology and philosophy, one that I buy into completely. Unlike his mentor Freud, who believed the driving force for human life is the search for pleasure, Frankl showed that what keeps us moving forward is the search for meaning.
To me, this concept is at the core of wisdom.
A brilliant psychologist and neurologist in Vienna, Frankl advocated an approach he called logotherapy. He treated depressed and suicidal patients by helping them to find the meaning in their own lives. Once people embrace their personal meaning, they have something to live for. It worked in the death camps, and it works in normal lives as well.
How do you find your meaning? Three ways, Frankl said.
- In your work.
- In your love relationships or something you experienced.
- If you are facing unavoidable suffering, you can find it in your suffering.
He gave two examples of men in the camps who were considering suicide. One was a scientist who had written a series of books that needed to be finished. Another was a father who had a child he adored, waiting for him in a foreign country. Neither man could be replaced, and once they were aware of the responsibility they bore, they found a reason to keep living.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Frankl wrote. “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails . . . gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
This seems equally true today for a woman going blind with macular degeneration or man whose child has been killed in a car accident. Frankl cited studies reporting that 80% of alcoholics and 100% of drug addicts say they feel their life has no meaning. Imagine how different their lives would be if they could create or comprehend the meaning of their lives.
I’m currently listening to the wildly popular podcast, “Serial,” and found an example there. Adnan Syed, serving a life sentence in prison for a murder he claims he did not do, tells the reporter “I have a life” in prison. He is trying to live as a good Muslim and he has cultivated a set of friends. Yes, he is appealing his case, but he also found a way to live on.
My copy of Frankl’s book has passages underlined throughout. It often kept me awake at night, thinking of my own meaning and that of my friends. Frankl died in 1997 at the age of 92, but his ideas live on. They have changed the way I think.