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May 22, 2013


“Man’s Search for Meaning”

by Anne Paddock

…a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.

Victor Frankl wrote these words more than fifty years ago (1959) in Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that details the time he spent in several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Born in Austria, Frankl studied medicine and graduated from the University of Vienna and became a neurologist and psychiatrist.  He specialized in depression and suicide which led him to believe that the primary motivation of human beings is to search for meaning in their lives. Absent a purpose or reason to live and humans fall into depression, a sense of hopelessness, and give up, which Frankl saw time and time again in his treatment of patients and eventually in the concentration camps in which he was imprisoned.

BookIn 1941, Frankl was 36, living and working in Vienna – heading up the neurological department at the Rothschild Hospital – when he married for the first time.  By  the end of 1942, he along with his wife and parents were sent to a Jewish ghetto where his father later died.  In 1944, he and his pregnant wife, and mother  were deported to Auschwitz whereupon he was sent to Kaufering, another concentration camp affiliated with Dachau. Five months later he was sent to Turkheim, still another concentration camp also affiliated with Dachau, where he was liberated from in April, 1945 only to learn his wife and mother had died in the camps.

Faced with the total loss of his family, Frankl chose to live (and he lived to be 92 years old) and he did so by finding meaning in his work and eventually his personal life. At the time, psychiatry tended to rely heavily on the teachings of Freud and others who claimed pleasure was the primary motivation of humans but Frankl increasingly came to believe that humans need to look to the future to find meaning and purpose to their existence, and not dwell on the past. He called this form of psychotherapy Logotherapy, from the Greek word logos – “meaning.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is divided into two sections with the first section (93 pages representing two-thirds of the book) devoted to Frankl’s experience in the concentration camps and what drove him to survive despite the horrific conditions. The second half (57 pages) focuses on the scientific understanding of Logotherapy and how the this therapy is less introspective and retrospective than other therapies because Logotherapy focuses on the future and the meanings a patient can find by looking forward rather than backward.

Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.

Few books have touched me as much as this book in that I’ve often thought how people recover or move forward after major trauma or loss. Why does one person fall apart and give up while another goes on with life? Frankl provides the reader with a key understanding of why this occurs and while the second part of the book talks about the foundation and workings of the therapy, the first half of the book which chronicles his personal experiences in the concentration camps is what kept me turning the pages. Injustices, trauma, and horrific crimes are not forgotten but these experiences must be made secondary to looking to the future to find meaning in one’s life through work or doing, by experiencing something or encountering someone; and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

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!

  1. May 22 2013

    You’re right’s really an amazing book and one that really spoke to me. Frankl’s strength, focus, and ability to move forward after all that happened to him is inspiring.

  2. May 22 2013

    Anne, I read this book several years ago, and it resounded with me very deeply. Over the years, I have tried to convey Frankl’s message to others. I’m glad to see that you are introducing more people to his message.

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