May 20, 2021
I just turned 31 years old. When you have a birthday over the age 25, it feels… meh. My recent birthdays have been characterized by intense periods of reflection, like “what the hell am I doing with my life?”.
One could say that, especially during a birthday month, I’m on my “search for meaning”. Having just finished Matthew McConaugheys’s memoir, Greenlights, it was time to pick out a new book. People, I picked a really good one. Not to belittle Greenlights – it was good, it was just predictable, and not good enough to write about.
Anyways, based on book recommendations from Tony Robbins, Tim Ferriss, Jordan Peterson, and those guys, I chose Man’s Search for Meaning by Dr. Viktor Frankl. Though it was first published in 1946, Dr. Frankl managed to simplify a transcending existential aspect of our time on earth – that is, our search for meaning.
I finished the 4.5 hour audiobook in a week, and then I listened to parts of it again. Like in the title of the book, I’ll use the word “man”, but the takeaways are universally insightful. Let’s jump in:
Man’s Search for Meaning is divided into three parts:
- Experiences in a Concentration Camp
- Logotherapy in a Nutshell
- Postscript (1984): The Case for a Tragic Optimism
The meat of my review covers Part II.
Part I – Experiences in a Concentration Camp
Frankl survived two years in Auschwitz, one of the most infamous Nazi concentration camps of World War II, and he credits this with some of his perspective on therapy. To be transparent, the stories about the holocuast make me so sad that I skipped some of this part for now. What I read made me grateful for my life. Our outcomes are dependent on how we choose to navigate hard times, and humans can be incredibly resilient.
“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.”Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Part II – Logotherapy in a Nutshell
In Part II, Logotherapy in a Nutshell, Frankl attempts a succint account of his life studies. His worldview was that humans are primarily motivated by a desire to find and make meaning in life. He referred to this as our will to meaning.
Your Meaning is Unique. One should not search for a meaning of life, nor should one ask what is the meaning of his life. Instead, one should realize that he is the one being asked that question by life itself. Life asks us for our own meaning, and I can only answer for my life – not yours or theirs.
“What matters is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment”Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Existence. Live as if you are already living for the second time, and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act in this life now. This maxim invites us to realize our sense of responsibility by imagining that the present can be the past, and that the past may be ammended.
This reminds me of an exercise that I’ve been putting off – writing my own euology. The Eulogy exercise: imagine yourself as a fly on the wall at your own funeral. Your loved ones are sharing stories about you, recounting your life. What will they say? He was a good man? What else? Furthermore, am I living today to become the person I hope they will describe me as at my funeral? Dark, but functional. I like it. Back to the book.
Tension, not homeostasis, is a prerequisite of mental health. This tension he describes is the gap between what one already is and what one is to become. It is only when we challenge man with a potential meaning to fulfill that we evoke him from latency. Frankl argues that many cases of neurosis, addiction, and/or trauma are caused by existential crises, or what he called “the existential vaccuum”.
The existential vaccuum. Sometimes frustrations around lack of meaning may be compensated for by the more sinister “will to power”. This is usually exhibited as a “will to money” or “will to pleasure”, and simply stated, is using money, sex, and/or power to feel a sense of achievement. The existential vaccum is also largely characterized by boredom.
All meaning for humans comes from pointing ourselves outward, to serving causes or loving people. True self-actualization is impossible without self-transcendence; the more one forgets himself by giving himself, the more he is. Thus, as life goes on, the meaning of our life changes, but it never ceases to be.
We can discover meaning in life in three different ways.
- Creating a work or doing a deed
- Experiencing something or encountering someone
- The attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering
The first one is self-explanatory – you complete something (a work or good deed) and you feel accomplished or rewarded. The second, experiencing something, such as nature, culture, beauty, or encountering another human being through love.
The meaning of love. Love is the only way to grasp another human being at the inner-most core of one’s personality. By love, one is able to see the essential traits and features in another person. Love also sees potential in another person and supports the loved one in reaching that potential.
The third way to find meaning in life is by suffering. One of the most fundamental truths in life is that we all will face our share of hardship, difficulty and suffering. We are sometimes confronted with hopeless situations, but what matters is our uniquely human ability to turn tragedy into triumph. If faced with an incurable disease like cancer, we shift the focus to changing ourselves.
Frankl describes a patient whos wife passed away. He asked the patient, “What would [your wife] feel today if you were the one who died first instead?”. The patient replied that her pain would have been unbearable. Then, described with more elogance than I can do justice for here, the patient comes to an understanding that his suffering has meaning – he carries a burden that his wife doesn’t have to carry. Bittersweet enlightenment.
As a man, but also for all humans, sometimes we are required to take action that even our loved ones may disagree with but that we believe are in our best collective interest. In my experience, this burden can be accomodated by suffering, and through that suffering, meaning. Meaning provides the capability to cope with suffering.
When suffering fills my life, what do I choose to do?
“He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how'”.– Freidrick Neitsche
A Practical Solution
Whereas psychoanalysis (i.e. Freud) is backward-looking and self-indulgent, logotherapy is a practical solution about constructing a future for yourself.
Paradoxical intention refers to a technique used in logotherapy that attempts to counter the phenomenon of hyper-intention. Hyper-intention is reflected in scenarios where we focus so much on something, that it is forever out of our grasp. For example, fear brings about that which one is afraid of. Asking someone to say “cheese” before a photo will result in a less than genuine smile. Over-thinking an orgasm in the bedroom will make it increasingly elusive.
The solution to hyper-intention is to embrace it, speak openly and even make light of it. This allows you to gain control over it. Frankl discusses the case of a patient who sweats heavily when speaking publicly. Following Dr. Frankl’s suggestion, the patient starts his next speech by jokingly asking the audience if they thought he could sweat more this time than he did last time. The patient claimed his sweat-problem went away, though I heard his speech was rather dry…
Another common example is “writer’s block”. Next time you find yourself staring at a blank page, say, “I’m just going to see how bad I can write.”. Watch the ink spill.
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it, the more you are 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 a dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Part III – Postscript (1984): The Case for a Tragic Optimism
Tragic optimism allows us to:
- Turn suffering into achievement
- Use guilt to change oneself for the better
- By acknowledging the transitory nature of life, to act responsibly
Life’s “tragic triad”, pain, guilt, and death, may lead to meaninglessness, but they don’t have to. Acknowledging these truths lightheartedly and without dwelling is useful. Being optimistic – saying, “Yes to Life” in spite of its tragedies – is only possible when life has meaning.
My question for Dr. Frankl would be around a seeming contradiction – how do I seek meaning without crossing into that hyper-intention over-focused zone, and thus, never finding it? Sometimes this is the cycle of thinking I find myself in.
I also find Dr. Frankl’s thoughts individualistic, man’s search for only his own meaning, and wonder if and how he views Man’s collective meaning, especially given Frankl’s experience in World War II.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Man’s Search for Meaning, and I will revisit the book and this book review regularly. This is only my second book review. My first, of Atomic Habits by James Clear, can be read here.
Today, the Viktor Frankl Institute maintains the life work of Viktor Frankl and provides information about Logotherapy and Existential Analysis.