#JustFinished: Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning”

Early this past Saturday morning, sitting outside Ridgewood’s ‘Boulangerir Patisserie’ coffee shop, in what seemed to be the first sunny day of Spring for the City of New York, I finished one of my current reads; Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning.” I will not attempt to generalize or to depict the weight of which this book holds inside of itself, for my attempt to do so will not serve the book, the author, nor the moment in time from which it comes the justice and the respect it deserves. Below however, I will share with you a few passages from its bindings which resonated in me deeply emotional connections with my currently evolving, yet growing, perspective on life, paired with brief interjections of my own undertake. Enjoy…

I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what a man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis,” i.e., 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. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

Though we may sometimes fool ourselves into believing that what we want is in fact a life free from suffering and from toil, in actuality what we yearn for is the ability to overcome whatever struggle we are presented, for on the other side of this overcoming is a stronger, more resilient, beautifully worn version of ourselves. This act of overcoming brings about meaning but is also derived and endured for the meaning upon which we place on it… ourselves.

If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together. So if therapists wish to foster their patients’ mental health, they should not be afraid to create a sound amount of tension through a reorientation toward the meaning of one’s life.

The meaning of our lives are not always presented to us; In fact, I would argue they never are. We do not simply stumble upon what it is we want in this life, but rather on the contrary, we create the lives we want based upon experiences, struggling, failing, overcoming, and placing meaning upon which what we want to place meaning to. Think about that. What is life if we do not place value upon our own meanings? I am aware of the “stumble upon” moments in our lives which do in fact lead to some sort of deeper understanding of the world around us and of ourselves, but it is still the individual who decides that meaning and learns from it and uses it how they choose.

To achieve personal meaning, he says, one must transcend subjective pleasures by doing something that “points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself… by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love.

Do not fall for the false heroism of individual pursuit, for it is merely a lonely existence placed upon a pedestal, believed to bring about courage and grit but instead leads to isolation and the yearning for connection. We are people, and we need people; it is that simple. This is not to say that there does not exist room for individual pursuits during the duration of our lives, but they shall not outweigh nor lessen the value of the collective, whatever that collective is to you (your family, your spouse, your relationship, a team, a group, a business, a community, etc.). Do not isolate yourself to be alone while forgetting that you are not. We are here to help and to sometimes be helped.

The choices humans make should be active rather than passive. In making personal choices we affirm our autonomy. “A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other,” Frankl writes, “but man is ultimately self determining. What he becomes– within the limits of endowment and environment– he has made out of himself.”

We have all heard the saying that “this life is meant to be lived.” It is… but not in the way we are sometimes blindly lead to believe. This statement does not mean that life will present to us the means to our ends or the points to be reached, it simply means to live your life. Not every day will be great and not every moment one to be remembered, that is if we hold expectations for these to be handed to us; that is not how life works. If we want our lives to consist of days which are great and of moments we want to remember, we must first understand this… that that is completely in our control, determined upon our choices, our actions, and our perspective, all of which are collectively intertwined. Though many times throughout our lives we do not choose the environment nor the situation, we do however chose our reaction and our meaning; let that bring you peace. What we take from the moments which make up our lives, what we subsequently learn from them, is ours; observed, analyzed, reasoned, understood and applied uniquely to our perspective and to our meaning.

I do not know why exactly, but I feel the need to end this with a verse from one of my favorite John Lennon songs, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)“. Though derived from a different time and from a different nature, contextually it makes sense, as most things do in this life if we stop and observe, simply studying the cohesiveness which exists in our universe:

Before you cross the street
Take my hand
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

If I had to put a meaning to it and its relevance to my reading of this book, I guess it would be found in the simplicity of the verses tone. “Before you cross the street”… that is to say before you make decisions in your life, think and provide meaning. “Take my hand”… remember you are not alone and your pursuits should not bring about unnecessary isolation. It’s OK to take someones hand; there is more reward in helping others than in selfishly helping ourselves. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”… there is a life to be lived, and what we become falls upon the responsibility of ourselves. Not every moment has to have some sort of philosophical meaning, and that makes life beautiful. The meaning may be thought about later, or it may not. Though I understand the contradictory ending to this, understand that that is OK. Enjoy your life, the highs and the lows, and craft your own meaning, accordingly.

Cheers,

City Reads NYC

Viktor Frankl on Suffering and Spiritual Freedom

But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors — be they biological, psychological, or sociological nature? Is man but an accidental product of these? Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?…

In his enduring book, “Man’s Search for Meaning“, Austrian Neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl questions the environmental influence on man and reassures for us the presence of choice we innately possess. Referencing with great detail his and his fellow mans’ time¬†during the Holocaust, within the inhumane and surreal conditions of concentration camp life, Frankl takes you to the lowest depths of human experience. But, upon momentary and subsequent life long¬†observation into this experience, he assures for us the truth and the power of our last remaining individual liberty — spiritual freedom.

… We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

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.

And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

Seen from this point of view, the mental reactions of the inmates of a concentration camp must seem more to us than the mere expression of certain physical and sociological conditions. Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him– mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevksi said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom– which cannot be taken away– that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

Independent of one’s current environment, or suffering, the human experience is largely dependent upon our perspective, a perspective which is instilled through the narrative we create for ourselves. We have choice; we do. We can choose to view our lives as a part of some uncontrollable fate for which we did not create or ask for, and rest assure many times in life things do happen that we cannot control. But, on the contrary, we can also view our lives however we choose to, uniquely crafted and experienced based upon one thing– our last remaining freedom– freedom of spirit.

Understand, no matter what you are going through, no matter how bad we have painted this experience to be, at any given moment there is choice; choice of action, choice of thought, choice of meaning. Place the value upon life yourself, free from external forces in which, again, for the most part, you cannot control. Give meaning to what you want to give meaning to and base that meaning accordingly to the perspective you want. It’s your choice. And, if your suffering is confusing to you at this moment, find peace in this: Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.