“He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How”
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
In a memoir that was written to be published anonymously, Dr Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Neurologist and Psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust Survivor, exposes his experiences under the Nazi rule, including his stay at Auschwitz – the gruesome concentration and extermination camp.
After hearing about this book several times and experiencing bits and pieces of its information in cross references from different books, I finally had the pleasure of reading “Man’s Search For Meaning”. Needless to say, this book exceeded all of my expectations; full of hard truths, the cruel realities of the concentration camps and an amazing learning experience about the different aspects of enduring life against all odds. Without a doubt, this is one of the best books I have read in my life. It’s no coincidence that in 1991 a survey for the Library of Congress listed “Man’s Search For Meaning” amongst the top 10 most influential books ever written. A book filled with life changing passages and clear proof that life can be endured even in the most precarious environments. In only 154 pages, Dr Frankl created a piece of literature that can’t have its genre defined as it presents the perfect blend of philosophical insights, psychological studies and historical scenarios and occurrences.
The book starts with Dr Frankl describing life as a slave labourer in the concentration camp during World War II. Although I had an understanding of the damages and cruelty of the Holocaust, hearing this from such a personal perspective forces you to zoom out of the “crowd” effect and zoom in on the life of a person – which, just like me, had a family, ambitions and dreams, going through one of the most inhumane experiences on earth.
Processed in Auschwitz, Dr Frankl was separated from his family, stripped of his humanity, and forced to work under the most gruesome conditions. Yet, we clearly see his ability to find the meaning which fuels his existence and drive to survive against all odds. The take-away is that in life you can either make a victory of your experiences or ignore the challenges and fade away.
Throughout the book, we see injustice, unfairness and suffering. We see people losing their meaning and hope for the future and therefore succumbing to disease, hunger, lack of sleep and ultimately death. Although the experience in Auschwitz may seem extreme, I feel the urge to apply this to my life. Dr Frankl’s experiences drove me to ask myself if I have a strong why; a why strong enough to take me through my hardest challenges.
In Viktor’s case, when in the toughest situations, he would think of his wife and about the lectures he would give based on all of his learnings in the camp. In some ways, Dr Frankl said, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning. Once again I was challenged to look at my own life and introspectively ask the question: Do I look for a why behind a situation or do I flat-out complain and ignore the challenges by opting for an easier route?
Man’s Search for Meaning is all about the power that we have to transform a tragedy into a human triumph. As I was reading this book, I was enticed to – once again – revisit the history behind the holocaust, the cruelty, the survivors and the camps. Indeed, I was driven, once again, to reflect and think about my purpose and life and rather than ask what I expect from life, I started asking what life expects from me and that speaks to meaning, to finding a purpose by engaging with something bigger than myself.
One of my favorite quotes of the book is: “forces beyond our control can take away everything we possess, expect one thing, our freedom to choose how we will respond to the situation. We cannot control what happens to our lives, but we can always control what we feel and do about what happens to us”.
Everything can be taken away from man, but his freedom to choose. We have a choice. We always have a choice. Between the stimulus and response there’s a gap, in that gap is our ability to choose how we will respond.
We’re not the product of our environment. We are a product of our choices. We’re responsible for who we become. Think about your work environment or a tragedy that you were involved with. Although you can’t change and you can’t control it, your reaction can be controlled and that’s what matters. The book clearly highlights that it’s not about your situation, but your attitude towards your circumstances. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Dr Viktor Frankl did just that. He transformed a tragedy into a triumph that changed our world completely. The development of Logotherapy, which was founded upon the belief that the striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary and most powerful motivating and driving force in humans. This is contrary to the doctrines of Freud’s will to pleasure and Adler’s will to power which were predominant.
Dr Frankl died in 1997, at the age of 92.
It was Viktor’s “Why” that propelled him to survive the “How” of the extermination camp. What are you doing with your life? How are you facing your challenges? What is the meaning for your existence? What is your “Why”? According to Frankl, we can discover the meaning of life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. Like I did to myself, I challenge you to stop and focus on your life.
I would like to wrap up this review with two quotes found in the book:
“Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is.
After all, man is that who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz;
however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright,
with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
“So let us be alert – alert in a twofold sense:
Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of,
And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”
Nevertheless, say “Yes” to life.