by Viktor E. Frankl
Started: 27 November 2007
Finished: 10 December 2007
Throughout history humanity has always been in search of purpose and meaning to our existence on this earth. One of the oldest jokes in the world is the young person asking the ancient one, “What is the meaning of life?” and receiving some sort of reply like, “If you find out, you let me know, okay?!”
Viktor Frankl’s classic work was originally written in 1945 and published in 1959. I own a 1984 paperback edition of the book which had already been through seventy-three editions in English alone, not to mention nineteen other languages. I mention this because all other facts I quote will come from my copy of the book, unless stated otherwise; for more recent information, the reader is encouraged to look up Dr. Frankl and this seminal work in psychiatry on-line and see all the further developments which have occurred in subsequent years. It is truly staggering the influence this book has had.
The first half of the book is devoted to the good doctor’s life-transforming experiences as a ‘guest’ in a Nazi concentration camp. Perhaps I should not jest—even lightly—about such a serious matter and yet I suspect our author would not mind. He was a man of incredible insight and wisdom. Humor was a resource he well-appreciated; encouraging his patients to use it as a part of therapy.
Prior to this I had never read past the first half of the book; I was only interested in the autobiographical portion of the book. As I have mentioned in previous posts, a surfeit of psychology books in college, both undergraduate and graduate level, left me with no taste for further reading on the subject. More is the pity because Dr. Frankl’s book is as much philosophy and religion as it is dry scientific studies and theories on human behavior patterns. His extraordinary experiences coupled with a brilliant mind would not allow his thinking to be pigeon-holed as many contemporary books on the subject seem to be.
Without further rhetoric on my part, here are some of my favorite parts and quotes from Man’s Search For Meaning:
‘I think it was Lessing who once said, “There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.” An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.’ (p32)
‘Strangely enough, a blow which does not even find its mark can, under certain circumstances, hurt more than one that finds its mark.’ (p36)
‘Some men lost all hope, but it was the incorrigible optimists who were the most irritating companions.’ (p46)
‘In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in the concentration camp, it was possible for a rich 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. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a more robust nature.’ (p47)
‘I understood how a man who has nothing left in the world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position a man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.’ (p49)
(Dr. Frankl lost his entire family to the gas chambers. In the above quote, he is describing how he used the image of his wife—already dead, although he did not know it—to inspire, uplift and keep him alive through the long days of his captivity.)
‘To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas . . . Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of the human suffering is absolutely relative.’ (p55)
‘Does this not bring to mind the story of Death in Teheran? A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death who threatened him. He begged his master to give him the fastest horse so he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him, “Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” “I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.’
‘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, to choose one’s own way.’ (p75)
‘If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.’¹ (p76)
‘(What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.) Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.’ (p90)
‘A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease. (His) suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration. . . . Logotherapy regards its assignment as that of assisting the patient to find meaning in his life.’ (p108)
One of the most interesting treatment techniques which Dr. Frankl offers his patients is something he calls “paradoxical intention” based on, ‘the twofold fact that fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes.’ (p126) He goes on to describe a man he cured of profuse sweating by instructing the man to imagine increasing his output of sweat under stressful situations.
While our author believes in responsibility for one’s actions (he advocates a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast) he also believes in every person’s free will to determine their own future at all times. He cites a case of a well-known Nazi mass-murderer who made a stunning turn-around later in life; he has no sympathy for pre-determinism. ‘How can we dare to predict the behavior of man?’ (p134)
Whether we are aware of it or not and regardless of our willingness to admit to it, we all have agendas in our reading. For myself, in the past I was often unaware and/or dishonest about my own reasons for selecting this or that book. However, what I find most enlightening now is when I begin a book for one purpose and finish it for quite another.
In the case of Man’s Search For Meaning I began the book in search of arguments to refute George Orwell’s conclusion of the novel 1984 and finished this present work in total fascination with Logotherapy and its associated theories and treatments.
¹This would seem to directly contradict what Ms. Byron Katie Reid contends in her body of literature. She asserts that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.