Book Club – “Man’s Search for Meaning”

“He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How”  – Victor Frankl

Prisoner 119,104 survived three years in Nazi prison camps during which he lost his wife, his parents and a lifetime’s worth of research.

In “Mans Search for Meaning” Frankl explores what saw him through these dark times when many others simply gave up the will to fight. He admits there was still luck involved, exactly only 1 in 26 prisoners survived, but as we all know sometimes we create our own luck.

I have spoken a lot about choice and this once again appears regularly in this book,

“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation”

Frankl gave examples of how some guards would do anything to help prisoners whilst some prisoners would do anything to secure their own safety at the expense of others

“we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions”.

Frankl spoke of how some men would at times simply give up, lie on their urine soaked straw, defecating on themselves, whilst drawing on their last cigarette which otherwise would be used as a food voucher…

“most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners”

Some prisoners took every opportunity to reminisce on the past or look fondly to the future, interestingly this forward focus only helped so far, with the death count between Christmas and New Year increasing beyond all previous experience…

the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naïve hope that they would be home again by Christmas. As the time drew near and there was no encouraging news, the prisoners lost courage and disappointment overcame them. This had a dangerous influence on their powers of resistance and a great number of them died.

Forgive the tangent (it’s all relative) but how often do we get ill just before we go on holiday? A discussion another time perhaps.

Frankl’s main argument is…

“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment”.

the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.”

Having a why, makes any suffering bearable. In fact, although never wanted and one will always prefer for it to not be there, any suffering may be part of the process

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task”.

Frankl also offers his thoughts on where pleasure sits with this debate…

“Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself”

“happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue”

Read as happiness is a byproduct of our goals not as the end product.

So what is the meaning of life?

Victor Frankl offered three ways of discovering meaning.

  1. Creating a work or doing a deed – Work
    • An experience or act that you routinely do that brings pleasure or states of flow where time stands still and you are engrossed in what you do. Or an ambition that is so vast it scares you, it may never be complete in your lifetime but you feel the necessity to work towards (Chris’s comments)
  2. Experiencing, or encountering someone or something – Love
    • “…Someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours—a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God—and he would not expect us to disappoint him. He would hope to find us suffering proudly—not miserably…”Victor Frankl
    • Do we simply give up or do we raise our expectations as mom or dad would want more, do we strive again to show our commitment to the cause as our loved ones would expect of us, or do we love ourselves enough to keep pushing on, worthwhile progress will take time (Chris’s comments)
  3. Challenging and changing ourselves – Challenge
    • “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”. Victor Frankl
    • Suffering is part of life (we all will die!) but we can own it, embrace it and be better for it, “what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement”. Victor Frankl

I’ll leave you with one final comment, I have my opinions on it but will leave you to make your own….

“the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”


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