Bookshelf

Man’s Search for Meaning

The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust

by Viktor E. Frankl, 229 pages

Finished on 13th of March, buy here.
Listen to these book notes on the Teesche Podcast.

★★★★★

Half autobiography, half analysis of the human psyche. Suffering plays a big role in every person’s life and we need to learn to live with it well. Viktor Frankl was interned at Auschwitz during WW2 and lived to tell the story. We all can learn from him.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. This book is one part autobiography by a psychiatrist who was prisoner at Auschwitz and Dachau for three years during World War II, one part hopeful analysis of the human mind when searching for meaning.
  2. Suffering as a part of living might actually be a vital part of life’s meaning. The natural resistance or inner tension (loss of equilibrium) resulting from it are an indispensable prerequisite of our mental health.
  3. The way to finding meaning is through action, experiencing the world, and through suffering. Pleasure and happiness must remain a side-effect and can’t be a goal in themselves in order to find meaning.

🎨 Impressions

After reading about the horrifying conditions which Frankl had to endure in the concentration camps, it’s remarkable how he came out of it with the ability to explain the human spirit and analyze his own mind and those of his patients in an even more pointed way. Ultimately, the meaning in life is to be looked for by the individual and differs not only between individuals but also between phases of life. And we certainly won’t find it while lying on the couch and scrolling social media. “As soon as they could fill their abundant free time with some sort of unpaid but meaningful activity – their depression disappeared.”

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • Frankl taught me that it’s vital for our mental health to seek out struggle, to get away from equilibrium and venture into unknown mental territories. It not only makes us stronger and more adaptable to surviving difficulties but it’s also what our minds are built to handle.
  • Remembering the situation during the Nazi times is important now more than ever. The descriptive part of the book is helpful in understanding that we can never forget what happened and must be alert at all times in preventing similar tendencies in our societies.
  • I’m still not quite convinced that existentialism beats (optimistic) nihilism. It’s certainly a more wholesome way of looking at life, but seems to me that it’s also sort of arbitrarily constructed – whereas nihilism might represent a more truthful approach. We might never get to the bottom of this, and ultimately it’s about what mindset helps each individual and society at large in the best possible way to keep civilization going.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

  1. To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismarck could be applied: “Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.”
  2. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
  3. 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!

📔 Summary & Notes

  • The central theme of existentialism: to live is to suffer and to survive is to find meaning in suffering.
  • Frankl is fond of quoting Nietzsche’s: “He who has a why can bear almost any how.”
  • Do not aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you’re going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued. It must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.

Part One

  • Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to the other: How beautiful the world could be.
  • The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living.
  • [On staying with his fellow prisoners when presented with a chance to leave] As soon as I had told him with finality that I had made up my mind to stay with my patients, the unhappy feeling left me.
  • 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.
  • If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.
  • To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismarck could be applied: “Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.”
  • It was simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naïve hope that they would be home again by Christmas [compare Admiral Stockdale Paradox – the optimists in these situations lose hope the earliest]
  • 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.
  • “Was du erlebst, kann keine Macht der Welt Dir rauben.”
  • The commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.

Part Two

  • Rather than being a symptom of neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration.
  • Noö-Dynamics: Man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. [..] such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health.
  • It’s a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that whaat man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis”, a tensionless state.
  • What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
  • “Existential Vacuum:” the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives. “Sunday neurosis”: that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over.
  • There is always meaning, but it changes. We can discover this meaning in three different ways: 1) by creating a work or doing a deed; 2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; 3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
  • To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.
  • Edit Weisskopf-Joelson: “Our current mental-hygiene 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 the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.”
  • Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance–as whether one escapes or not–ultimately would not be worth living at all.
  • Procreation is not the only meaning of life, for then life would become meaningless, and something which in itself is meaningless cannot be rendered meaningful merely by its perpetuation.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Gordon W. Allport (in The Individual and His Religion): “The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure.”
  • Paradoxical intention: the phobic patient is invited to intend, even if only for a moment, precisely that which he fears. (sleeplessness: try to stay awake; over-perspiration: try to over-perspirate; ..)

Postscript

  • There’s a human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive. An optimism in the face of tragedy. The human potential allows for 1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; 2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and 3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.
  • Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy. Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically.
  • “Unemployment neurosis”: a twofold erroneous identification: being jobless was equated with being useless, and being useless was equated with having a meaningless life. Consequently, whenever I succeeded in persuading the patients to volunteer in youth organizations, adult education, public libraries and the like – in other words, as soon as they could fill their abundant free time with some sort of unpaid but meaningful activity – their depression disappeared.
  • How to find meaning? Charlotte Bühler: “All we can do is study the lives of people who seem to have found their answers to the questions of what ultimately human life is about as against those who have not.”
  • Don’t blur the difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness. If one is not cognizant of this difference and holds that an individual’s value stems only from his present usefulness, then, believe me, one owes it only to personal inconsistency not to plead for euthanasia.
  • The world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best. Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.

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