Notes from "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl

2019-03-17   ·   7 min read


TL;DR: What does life expect from you?

EDIT (2018/04/10): I think life is about doing what you're supposed to do. To make the right choices consistently. I suppose the reward is the satisfaction of hours, days, weeks, years, and, ultimately, a life well spent. There's also probably a sense of liberation in having done all that could be done and was supposed to be done.


Man's Search for Meaning is written by Dr. Viktor Frankl. From his Wikipedia page, he "was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor".

Below are my notes from Man's Searching for Meaning.

Part 1: Experiences in a Concentration Camp

No comforts were to be found anywhere but inside. Many inmates would dream of nice things from the past such as eating delicious food in large quantities, wearing thick and comfy clothes, and taking warm baths. Dreaming of nice things provides satisfaction in the dream, but once the dreamer wakes up to reality then that person's hate for the present and longing for the past grows deeper.

Dr. Frankl found that there was a decision to be made in every waking moment. Even when a prisoner couldn't take action and was forced to obey, there were always decisions to be made in their head:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.

Ironically, striving for self-preservation in the midst of suffering did not lead to survival; many inmates succumbed to the suffering because they sought comfort in an environment where there was no comfort. When an inmate gave up, they would smoke a cigarette and lie in their bed for the remaining hours of their life. The sole goal of seeking pleasure will likely not lead to fulfillment, particularly when under exceptionally harsh conditions.

We find fulfillment in creating and consuming. Dr. Frankl argues that we can also find fulfillment in our attitude towards suffering:

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves .... that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life .... Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

We expect two things from life: comforts and meaning. But how often do we ask "What does life expect from me?". By inverting the question, many inmates discovered that the answer to the question "Is life worth living?" was yes. Dr. Frankl provides an example:

I remember two cases of would-be suicide, which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both men had talked of their intentions to commit suicide. Both used the typical argument—they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them. We found, in fact, that for the one it was his child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person. This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else, any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child's affections.

The inmates who survived had, in addition to luck, a reason to endure the suffering. This purpose, this meaning to their suffering, kept them alive. Purpose varies from individual to individual and from situation to situation. This purpose must be a responsibility that only the individual in question can fulfill:

When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how."

Part 2: Logotherapy in a Nutshell

Logotherapy "focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man's search for such a meaning".

In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive

Dr. Frankl's purpose was to write this book. He believes it's the reason why he was able to survive the worst parts of the concentration camps.

There is no generic or universal meaning to life. Your reason to exist, your purpose, is to fulfill your responsibilities.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence

Sounds like sanatana dharma 🤔

On acting responsibly:

Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!

What does logotherapy do?

Logotherapy tries to make the patient fully aware of his own responsibleness; therefore, it must leave to him the option for what, to what, or to whom he understands himself to be responsible

Dr. Frankl argues that we can find meaning in our lives in 3 ways:

  1. creative work
  2. love and relationships
  3. "the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering" (i.e. "turn a personal tragedy into a triumph")

When we are no longer able to change a situation— just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer —we are challenged to change ourselves

Dr. Frankl asked a patient, what will you be thinking when you're lying on your deathbed and looking back at your life? I generally don't think one should optimize for a sole moment or handful of moments of their life but, in this case, it makes sense to do so since it could lead one to live a rich life.

The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sad­ness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calen­dar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest.

Logotherapy is concerned with the meaning in a single situation and in every situation. It does not aim to find an overarching meaning. Dr. Frankl explains why this is so through an analogy:

.... [A movie] con­sists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures, and each of them makes sense and carries a meaning, yet the meaning of the whole film cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without having first understood each of its com­ponents, each of the individual pictures.

Conclusion

This book is well written. Reading Part 1 was sufficient to help me make better choices more often. My main takeaway is to consistently ask "What does life expect from you?"


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