MIND: Review of Man’s Search for Meaning

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love … For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, ‘The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.'”

At my mother’s suggestion, and perhaps to ward off another one of my neurotic existential crises, I decided to read Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning this week. This best-selling novel is divided into two sections: the first explores the years Frankl was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps and the effect this had on his study of the human mind using first-hand accounts of his interactions with patients. The second section briefly explains logotherapy, a school of thought created by Frankl himself which helps patients address their metaphysical and existential needs.

Frankl believes that the search for meaning in life is the primary motivator for humans. I find logotherapy to be a broad school of thought and not as straight-forward as other schools of psychology. Frankl himself insists that one set of rules cannot be applied universally to all patients as every person is subjected to their own unique life experience. One belief that I found interesting was his observation that people are led to believe that they must consistently be happy. In striving towards happiness, we become unhappy in our lack of contentedness, and as a result we create a vicious circle of aspiring to a level of happiness that is ultimately unattainable. By learning to accept our suffering along with intermittent happiness, we will find ourselves in a more stable frame of mind. Frankl emphasizes that suffering can be a symptom of striving for meaning; as a result a person must accept their suffering as a by-product of life, though it is in their best interest to eliminate as much unnecessary suffering as possible. As Frankl explains, taking on more suffering than necessary is not noble – it’s masochistic.

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.”

Logotherapy emphasizes a person’s free will; we are able to change and adapt to internal and external events and use logic and emotions to react to situations in our life. Too many people become lazy and fail to realize the power of their mind, especially when it relates to positive thinking.  Stop to reflect – are your problems true problems? Or is your negative attitude making it a problem?

Frankl does not stop at free will; he also he branches out to encompass “will to meaning” which addresses the general feeling of malaise and despair that accompanies people who feel as though there is no meaning to their everyday life. This train of thought is reminiscent to Paolo Coelho’s in The Alchemist where he explains that as people move farther away from their destiny they feel empty and listless. The same logic can be applied to Frankl’s school of thought – the less you pursue your true goals and put off your true dreams (i.e. the things that will bring the most happiness and meaning to your life) the further you move away from self-actualization.

Interestingly enough, Frankl credits frustration due to lack of meaning in one’s life as a cause of aggression, depression, addiction, despair and suicide. Logotherapy does not offer a one-size-fits-all solution, but rather it supports people in realizing their potential.

By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic ‘the self-transcendence of human existence’ It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. This review cannot even begin to touch upon the numerous pearls of wisdom Frankl has to offer. In writing about the Nazi concentration camps he is brutally honest in explaining how a person’s moral compass for good and evil is perpetually changing – people are capable of change as long as they realize their responsibility to make their own choices. File this with The Alchemist as a must-read book.

Just consider a child who, absorbed in play, forgets himself—this is the moment to take a snapshot; when you wait until he notices that you are taking a picture, his face congeals and freezes, showing his unnatural self-consciousness rather than his natural graciousness. Why do most people have that stereotyped expression on their faces whenever they are photographed? This expression stems from their concern with the impression they are going to leave on the onlooker. It is “cheese” that makes them so ugly. Forgetting themselves, the photographer, and the future onlooker would make them beautiful.