This is actually one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Despite being published in 1946, this timeless classic grows increasingly relevant.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl presents a somewhat twisted perspective on suffering. This excerpt sums it up best:
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”
Most of the book is a grueling first person account of life in a Nazi concentration camp. It reveals the psychological journey of a dehumanized prisoner. Along the way, it sheds light on what it means to be human, and how one should live a meaningful life.
I’ve compiled the best quotes that I took away and share them here.
This will be something I’ll keep coming back to whenever I encounter darker days.
A prisoner’s psychological reactions come in three stages.
First stage is shock. This includes what psychologists call “delusion of reprieve” – a false sense of hope that a miracle will save them at the very last minute. Prisoners do not fear death in the first phase of shock.
Second stage is apathy:
“…job was to clean the latrines and remove sewage… some of the excrement splashed into his face… any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would only be punished with a blow…
And thus the mortification of normal reactions was hastened.”
It’s a self-defense mechanism:
“Apathy, the blunting of emotions and the feeling that one could not care anymore, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings.”
The third stage, relating to life after liberation, could be called “depersonalization.” We’ll get back to this later.
Food deprivation is an age-old tool to force total physical and mental submission:
“When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished… the organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no powers of resistance left.”
As is dehumanization:
“The majority of prisoners suffered from a kind of inferiority complex… we were treated like complete nonentities.”
Mental agony is more painful than physical agony. Guards would beat up prisoners for the most trivial reasons. For instance, when one prisoner stood slightly out of line, bending it out of its straight form, all prisoners in line were beaten up.
“At such a moment it is not the physical pain which hurts the most; it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.”
Despite agonizing circumstances, it’s possible for spiritual life to deepen:
“In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.
Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less.
They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.”
We always have the freedom to choose one’s attitude to circumstances:
“…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…”
Suffering is always relative. Even the smallest things can cause the greatest of joys. Such as when the prisoners learned they were heading to Dachau concentration camp instead of the more brutal Mauthausen concentration camp.
“A man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas.
If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber.
Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.”
Perhaps humor is an innate human condition:
“Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.
It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”
A good life is about creating value and experiencing beauty:
“An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature.”
But a meaningful life transcends creativeness and enjoyment, to nurture meaning in suffering:
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be suffering.
Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.
Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”
Suffering offers a chance to add a deeper meaning to life:
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all of the suffering it entails… gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
This resonates with the antifragile mindset of living:
“One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”
Face suffering head on and embrace it:
“Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism.”
But do not lose hope as it can be deadly:
“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and become subject to mental and physical decay.”
Many prisoners expected they would be home again by Christmas. When Christmas passed, the overwhelming disappointment , the sudden loss of hope, lowers the body’s immunity:
“The ultimate cause of my friend’s death was that the expected liberation did not come and he was severely disappointed. This suddenly lowered his body’s resistance against the latent typhus infection.”
As I emphasized in Languishing: Neglected Middle Child of Mental Health, label your emotions:
“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”
Meaning of life is to find the right answers to the problems it throws as us:
“We had to learn… that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.
We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly…
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.
…therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment.“
Everyone should also realize that their existence is uniquely irreplaceable.
“This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love.”
And once the beauty of this uniqueness is understood, one sees continuing their existence as a responsibility.
“When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.
A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.”
As Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
Back to the three stages of a prisoner’s psychology: shock, apathy, and depersonalization.
This final stage is associated with life after liberalization.
“Everything appeared unreal, unlikely, as in a dream. We could not believe it was true…
Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.”
But, surprisingly, it is actually one of the most difficult stages:
“…the man who has suddenly been liberated from mental pressure can suffer damage to his moral and spiritual health.”
Some prisoners struggled to escape the influences of brutality they had lived through.
“Apart from the moral deformity resulting from the sudden release of mental pressure, there were two other fundamental experiences which threatened to damage the character of the liberated prisoner: bitterness and disillusionment when he returned to his former life.
While the author was able to maintain his moral compass…
“…no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”
… others turned bitter against the world…
“They justified their behavior by their own terrible experiences.”
The rest of the book goes into a more direct explanation of Frankl’s therapeutic doctrine: logotherapy.
Compared to more traditional psychoanalysis, logotherapy is less retrospective and less introspective. Rather, it focuses on the future.
“…logotherapy defocuses all the vicious circle formations and feedback mechanisms which play such a great role in the development of neuroses. Thus, the typical self-centeredness of the neurotic is broken up instead of being continually fostered and reinforced.”
The will to meaning:
“Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives.
This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.”
Good mental health requires tension…
“Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.”
“I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium… i.e. a tensionless state.
What man actually needs is… the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal…”
Addiction to power (often in form of money, pleasure and sex are symptoms of an existential vacuum. And this occurs when one’s will to meaning is weak:
“There are various masks and guises under which the existential vacuum appears.
Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money.
In other cases, the place of frustrated will to meaning is taken by the will to pleasure.
That is why existential frustration often eventuates in sexual compensation. We can observe in such cases that sexual libido becomes rampant in the existential vacuum.”
And reiterating on the meaninglessness of searching for a generalized answer to the meaning of life:
“What matters… is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.
To put the question to general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?”
The fact that the question is being asked is more important than the generalized answer itself.
“Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”
Even in hopeless situations, suffering ceases to become suffering if it finds meaning:
“We may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.
For what matters then is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.”
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