Book review: Man’s search for meaning

This is a very unusual book, spanning topics rarely encountered in one and the same volume. The author, Viktor E. Frankl, was a pshychologist and he spent most of world war 2 in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. And these two backgrounds have gone into this book which is both an account of his experiences in the concentration camps, a psychological analysis of how people react under such extreme conditions and a short introduction to his psychological school called Logotherapy.

The basic underlying theme here is meaning (logos in greek). Frankl argues, that what made some people endure the trials of the concentration camps, while many others gave up, was their ability to see meaning in their suffering. And in general, Frankl sees the drive to discover meaning as our most basic need, and he believes that many psychological problems (from neuroses to alcoholism) stem from a lack of meaning in peoples lives.

And I would have to agree. There is no more powerful force in our lives, than to know that we are working for some purpose, which gives everything that happens meaning.

The account of his time in the camps is chilling, to say the least, but the most fantastic thing about it is the clarity with which Frankl describes it, totally untainted by any condemnation of other brutal prisoners or the SS soldiers. It is not that he condones their actions, or believes that they can be excused because people have no choice in such circumstances. He writes: “It is not for me to pass judgment on those prisoners who put their own people above everyone else. Who can throw a stone at a man who favors his friends under circumstances when, sooner or later, it is a question of life or death? No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

Frankl describes three roads to finding meaning, of which the third is the most important:
By creating a work or doing a deed.
By experiencing something or encountering someone.
By facing unavoidable suffering bravely

If you can put a meaning even on unavoidable suffering, and thus face it bravely, you will have achieved a deep and untouchable freedom. It was this freedom that enabled some prisoners to find beauty even in the concentration camps, as witnessed by this quote: “In camp too, a man might draw the attention of a comrade working next to him to a nice view of the setting sun shining through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods (as in the famous water color by D?rer), the same woods in which we had built an enormous, hidden munitions plant. One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!'”

It is interesting to note how many psychological schools have come out of Vienna, starting with Freud and Adler and in this case Frankl and Logotherapy. Another example of Viennese therapy is the one described by Paul Watzlawick in Change, and there are certainly similarities between the methods use by Frankl and Watzlawick. As an example they both use paradox as a tool to effect change in a very short time.

And indeed they both believe, that large scale and lasting psychological change can be brought about very quickly. The attitude is very different in traditional psycho analysis, where everybody “knows” that it can take years of therapy to achieve any improvements.

I recommend this book highly, for many reasons:
As an account of life in a concentration camp
As an introduction to logotherapy
As an hommage to a Frankl, who stands out as intelligent and compassionate
As a celebration of the power of meaning in our lives

Read it!

This page contains a list of quotes by Viktor Frankl.

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