Home Literature Book review: Man’s search for meaning is a beacon of hope

Book review: Man’s search for meaning is a beacon of hope

17 min read

By Ania Perveen

When Viktor Frankl’s magnum opus Man’s Search For Meaning hit the bookstands and sold millions of copies, the author described this success as a symptom of mass neurosis.

He said this since the very title of the book promised meaning to life. This suggests that what most of us lack in life is nothing but meaning and purpose.

After Sigmund Freud, Frankl’s contribution to psychotherapy is considered to be one of the most important contributions.

The book is divided into two parts. Part-I deals with Frankl’s autobiographical account of the concentration camp and the experiences he gleaned from there. Part-II defines and elaborates his new psychotherapy which he named logotherapy.

Viktor Frankl defines logotherapy as a school of psychotherapy in spiritual terms. In logotherapy a quest for meaning happens to be the major motivational force in man.

Viktor E. Frankl was an Austrian neurologist, psychologist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor. His book turns out to be a ray of light in the gloomy grey night, illuminating the path ahead by beating darkness away. It is about the happiness that a person, who is stuck in a hostile place, experiences when all of a sudden discovers a way out. It is like that hand that grabs you on a slippery floor on a frosty winter day and keeps you from falling.

Humans have a nature of complaining. We always mourn something and believe we are suffering something bigger than others. The great American novelist James Baldwin writes, “You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive. ‘’

Have we ever thought about what problems and sufferings feel like? Perhaps suffering is when you are in prison for no reason, your independence is snatched away and you get completely alienated from the world.

Suffering is when you do not get space to speak your truest self and get a place to rest for some time without someone else contaminating your calm. Suffering is when after strenuous labor on a chilling winter day, you get paid only with dry bread and some unsavory soup for one time a day. Suffering is when death unremittingly lingers around you, either in the form of cremation in gas chambers or in desperately overflowing and frosty huts which lack hygiene and sanitation.

The chilling details mentioned above were all suffered by the author of this book.

He faced all these with just one thing and that was hope. He never turned his face from hope and had this feeling intact that one day he would get released and walk free. Reading this book will offer you something utterly crucial, and that is, moving on. You are trapped. You are suffering. But nothing is permanent. Viktor Frankl reminds us of one thing and that is: finding meaning in your suffering.

Frankl and his co-inmates were far away from their loved ones. Indeed, they were perplexed and uncertain about their life for when they saw smoke coming out from the chimneys of gas chambers, they felt death closely.

This book revolves around a single theme: to find meaning in life. Viktor Frankl aptly quotes German philosopher Fredric Wilhelm Nietzsche as saying that “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how?’’ Spending three horrendous years in a concentration camp, despite the harsh circumstances, Frankl kept himself strong and robust. He survived because he found meaning in his suffering.

In that prolonged and dark period he clung to hope and lived courageously. However, here the question arises how? Faced with such painful things, anyone would prefer suicide, but he assembled small things only to keep the glow of the lamp and hope alive. He did give himself some sort of meaning so that he would emerge free, one day.

First, Frankl adhering to the memories of his loved ones, imagined the smile of his wife and that gave him hope to see her when released. He even gave a message to his friend in camp, namely Otto, that if he was killed, he should tell her wife that Frankl remembered her very much and she was his hope in harsh times. Her bright face detached Frankl and took him to a different world. Her encouraging look helped Frankl much to fight off depression. In simple terms, this heaved his spirits high and helped him to face the hardships of the camp.

Down this peaceful state of mind, Frankl thought he had grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry, thought and imagination can possibly impart. The salvation of man is through and in love. Frankl even did not know if his wife was alive or not. But his love for his wife was ethereal. 

He says he has learned one thing very well and that is: Love goes beyond the physical person of the beloved. This type of love finds meaning in her spiritual being, her inner self, whether or not she is actually present, and whether or not she is alive at all.

These all frets cease to be of any importance. At this juncture, love becomes as strong as death.

The second thing which revitalized and rejuvenated his will to live in the camp was art and nature. The inner life inside the camp was getting harsher and more unsavory day by day. Experiencing the natural beauties and art turned their sullen faces into cheerful and joyous ones. Like witnessing a nice view of the setting sun, shining through the tall trees, staring outside and looking at thundering clouds with bolts and lightning, changing shapes as well as colors.

These winsome things gave Frankl and other inmates hope to live and wait for a good day to come.

One major thing along all above-mentioned was humor. Humor made their lives truly joyous and brought smiles to their sad faces. It was the weapon of their souls to fight off depression and give space to self-preservation. Seeing the worst possible things in a humorous light made their suffering less severe and helped them much.

The second part of the book is logotherapy, in a nutshell. Frankl borrowed the Greeks word logos which denotes meaning. In logotherapy the focus is on meaning. Conversely in psychotherapy, the focus is on the patient’s past. Frankl’s therapy helps patients to look ahead and find meaning in whatever they have in the present. It does not induce the patient to excavate old memories and find a solution therein.

Sigmund Freud spoke of “Will to pleasure,’’ and Alfred Adler spoke of “Will to power.’’ Viktor Frankl speaks of something utterly new and convincing and that is “Will to meaning.’’ He says when meaning vanishes from life there turns up an existential frustration in one’s life. This will result in neuroses. The only solution to psychological problems, Frankl notes, is to provide yourself with an authentic meaning.

When there is no meaning in your life, you feel a disastrous meaninglessness which Frankl calls an “Existential vacuum.’’ To have mental peace and live a worthwhile life, man must continuously redefine himself and struggle for new things to bring into life. Otherwise, man would be haunted by inner emptiness.

Frankl notes there are three major ways to pave the way for meaning in your life: (1) By working or engaging yourself in something creative. (2) By love, meaning you should have someone who loves you by heart and let you feel how worthy and meaningful you are. (3) By the attitude and concomitant response to the unavoidable suffering.

About love Frankl writes, “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality.’’ Love is a very powerful element to change the human psyche and fill it with happiness. But one must love the right person who lets you feel you are worthy and important, who knows how significant and inevitable you are.

The third way to find meaning, as Frankl suggests, is being worthy of your suffering. Frankl notes that, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.’’ Frankl does not insist on avoiding suffering and enjoying pleasure, his prime goal is to imbibe meaning in every aspect of life. He writes that never struggle to be happy. Happiness is not the goal. The goal is meaning. He pithily notes that happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. What this denotes is that one should not go and find happiness, instead one should just struggle to find meaning in each and everything of one’s life, and that will by default bring happiness.

He further clarifies his assertions by saying that “our current philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.’’ Frankl is right. Most of us are unhappy because of our unhappiness and this is distressing. Happiness must flow and come on its own and let our hearts be filled with joy and meaning.

All in all, this book is a seminal read. Everyone must read to understand things from a new perspective. This book lets you know that you are not alone in this suffering, there are many who have suffered enough but have not lost hope.

The writer is a student of Pakistan studies at Quid-i-Azam University.

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