Hailed as one of the great books of our time, Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl is a powerful read. By understanding the horror of life in a Nazi concentration camp that he survived, and then applying his psychological and spiritual understanding of life, some great perspectives are attained.
Viktor Emil Frankl, MD, PhD was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. His best-selling book chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate which led him to discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most sordid ones, and thus a reason to continue living.
Here are some quotes and excerpts from his book:
Foreword by Harold S. Kushner:
"He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how" - Nietzsche
The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.
Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.
Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.
Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.
No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
Any man can...decide what shall become of him - mentally and spiritually.
"There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings." - Dostoevski
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.
If there is 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. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity - even under the most difficult circumstances - to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and becme no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.
Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.
What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.
Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
There was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.
What you have expereinced, no power on earth can take from you.
Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.
No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.
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.
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and only he can answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
The more one forgets himself - by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love - the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.
Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him.
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For 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.
In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.
Life's meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the potential meaning of unavoidable suffering.
A life whose meaning depends upon...happenstance - as whether one escapes or not - ultimately would not be worth living at all.
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. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. 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."
Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or a by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.
To be sure, a human being is a finite thing, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions, but it is a freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.
I also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions concievable.
One of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.
Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.
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.
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.
The Case for a Tragic Optimism - I speak of tragic optimism, that is, optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always 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.
One must have a reason to "be happy". Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.
Once an individual's search for meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering.
To invoke an analogy, consider a movie: it consists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures, and each of them makes sense and carries a meaning, yet the meaning of the whole film cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without having first understood each of its components, each of the individual pictures. Isn't it the same with life? Doesn't the final meaning of life, too, reveal itself, if at all, only at its end, on the verge of death? And doesn't this final meaning, too, depend on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been actualized to the best of the respective individual's knowledge and belief?
Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.
(Quoting from a letter from Jerry Long who became paralyzed from the neck down in an accident): "I view my life as being abundant with meaning and purpose. The attitude that I adopted on that fateful day has become my personal creedo for life: I broke my neck, it didn't break me. I am currently enrolled in my first psychology course in college. I believe that my handicap will only enhance my ability to help others. I know that without the suffering, the growth that I have achieved would have been impossible."
If one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude. Long had not chosen to break his neck, but he did decide not to let himself be broken by what had happened to him.
Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.
There is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past - the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized - and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.
Everything great is just as difficult to realize as it is rare to find.
Afterword by William J. Winslade:
He once remarked "I do not forget any good deed done to me, and I do not carry a grudge for a bad one."
Frankl was once asked to express in one sentence the meaning of his own life. He wrote the response on paper and asked his students to guess what he had written. After some moments of quiet reflection, a student surprised Frankl by saying, "The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs."
"That was it, exactly," Frankl said. "Those are the very words I had written."