Man’s Search for Meaning

December 12, 2015

Meaning is found not in what we expect from the world, but what the world expects from us.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

In the years he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz, the Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl paid close attention to what set apart his friends who survived through the most awful conditions and those who ultimately gave up. After his release at the end of the war, Dr. Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning about what he’d learned: in short, that to endure great suffering, we must have some reason why our suffering, or our survival thereafter, is important.

Throughout his time in Auschwitz, Dr. Frankl played the role of therapist to his fellow prisoners. He touchingly describes the constant effort to keep friends from losing hope amid the despair of the concentration camp:

Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.

In the book, he quotes Nietzsche’s aphorism that

He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.

But not just any “why” will do. An important insight from Man’s Search is that the meaning must come from outside oneself and one’s life. It’s not enough to go on living for the sake of a warm bath and a favorite meal at some undetermined point in the future.

The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life any more.” What sort of answer can one give to that?

If our survival is for our own sake, especially our own satisfaction, then it is easily overwhelmed by the physical pain and deprivation of experiences like this. “No experience can be worth this suffering,” we think. Instead, those who endured alongside Dr. Frankl did so for the sake of another, perhaps a wife or child who may still be alive, or perhaps some important professional work one must continue for the sake of human knowledge. To those who endured, it mattered less what they expected from life than what they felt life expected from them.

This was what drove Dr. Frankl himself to go on. He thought his wife and child might still be alive, and he entered Auschwitz with a manuscript for a book which was immediately confiscated, and which he felt the need to rewrite. While he tragically learned after his emancipation that his wife and child had perished shortly after their separation, Dr. Frankl went on to publish his book as The Doctor and the Soul, and to make invaluable contributions to the field of psychotherapy.

His most notable contribution is a school of psychotherapy called logotherapy from the Greek logos or “meaning”. In the most basic sense, it’s about helping people endure unavoidable suffering by finding some meaning in it. Dr. Frankl gives the example of a doctor who came to him, distraught over the passing of his beloved wife, and unsure of how to go on living without her. Dr. Frankl asked:

“What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?”

“Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!”

Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.”

He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

However, the converse is true as well, that pain and suffering are made worse when there is no apparent reason or meaning. Early on in his experience at Auschwitz, Dr. Frankl relates that what shocked and hurt him the most wasn’t so much the physical pain and deprivation, but the senselessness and injustice of it. He tells of a guard attacking him for an absurd reason:

Once, the man behind me stood off a little to one side and that lack of symmetry displeased the SS guard. I did not know what was going on in the line behind me, nor in the mind of the SS guard, but suddenly I received two sharp blows on my head. Only then did I spot the guard at my side who was using his stick. At such a moment it is not the physical pain which hurts the most (and this applies to adults as much as to punished children); it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.

In closing, finding reasons for and meaning in our suffering can also be a salve against regret. Approaching my 30th birthday, I found especially stirring a passage in which Dr. Frankl discusses two ways to look at getting older. The pessimistic—and perhaps more common one—is of dwindling possibilities. But you might also consider life as a growing collection of realities. I’ll turn it over to Dr. Frankl, who illustrates it much better:

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…

What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? “No, thank you,” he will think. “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.”