Man’s Search for Meaning is a disarmingly simple read with profound depth. Viktor Frankl starts by straightforwardly recounting one horror of his Holocaust experience after another, occasionally punctuating the nightmare with a surprising glimpse of humanity, beauty, or hope. Then, mid-way through the book, he gradually turns his experience into an exposition on suffering and the very meaning of life itself. By the end of the book, you’ll find you’ve been gently invited to discover the meaning in your life and equipped with tools for facing the suffering you’ll inevitably face.
But don’t let the author’s gentle and optimistic approach fool you; Dr. Frankl’s philosophical undercurrent is in direct opposition to many of psychiatry’s orthodox views: that power or pleasure are the unconscious forces behind human psychology, that man is primarily a product of environmental effects, and that human life has no higher purpose other than what we assign it.
Through his story of suffering and a summary of “Logotherapy,” Dr. Frankl wants to convince you that every human life has a unique, higher purpose — even yours. He doesn’t paint a picture of what your life could be or should be for you but instead acts as a therapeutic optometrist who helps you see your self more clearly and to find out your life’s unique meaning.
A Visual Meditation
Visually sketching key concepts helps me understand them better, and hopefully, to remember them longer. I made around thirty sketches as I read through Man’s Search for Meaning. The following are a set of seven ideas that build on each other that I found particularly helpful to reflect on.
1. Suffering is the emotional distance between what we expect and what we have.
We all carry around reasonable and idealistic notions of what we expect for our life, relationships, work, or any given day. Instead, we often get outcomes that are painfully misshapen, incomplete, or puzzling. During the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl and millions of others experienced this to an unimaginable extreme. Most of us experience these unwelcome surprises as routine confusion, a “bad day,” or sometimes they accumulate into a full-blown mid-life crisis or bout of depression.
While we tend to think of suffering only in its extremes, Dr. Frankl describes suffering as any amount of negative emotion we feel in the gap between what we’d expected and what we got. As the gap widens, we feel a proportionate sense of genuine anxiety, loss, anger, hopelessness, shame, or sometimes, all of these emotions at once.
When we’re powerless to close the gap between our reasonable expectations and what life gives us, we revisit these negative emotions again and again until we’ve tapped out our emotional reserves. For victims of horrific events like the Holocaust, emotional reserves are tapped out quickly. For most of us, it’s more like a slow drip.
When we inevitably bottom out, we most naturally slip into one of two coping mechanisms.
2. We cope with suffering by conforming or dominating.
When we’re powerless to get what we need, deserve, or hope for from life for long enough, it’s in our nature to react in one of two ways:
- Conformity: Retreat from our unique suffering by following the crowd or reshaping our lives to fit someone else’s ideal in place of our own failed ideal.
- Domination: Refuse to accept the hand life has dealt us and attempt to twist everything and everyone around us into the shape we’d imagined, no matter the cost to ourselves or others.
While either approach may alleviate our emotional suffering for a short while, we either face boredom through conformity or frustration in domination with little satisfaction. Then we try and shortcut satisfaction (or at least distraction) through temporal hits of pleasure from sex, money, gossip, mindless entertainment, drugs, and other vices. After a while, these pleasures no longer sustain the high we need to numb ourselves, and we slip into hopelessness and despair. All the while, the collateral damage from our inadequate coping mechanisms result in more suffering in a self-defeating cycle.
The way out of the suffering death spiral
“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”
The first step is to understand and label all our suffering — big or small — for what it is: getting something from life that’s less than we deserved, needed, or hoped for.
Once we reflect on this instead of reacting, we’re free to choose a third way: Responsibility.
3. Responsibility is the response life demands of you and not what you or others want from your life.
It matters less what you expected of life than what life expects from you.
Whether we’re dealing with a massive life crisis or a momentary setback, instead of asking, “Why did I not get what I wanted?”, Logotherapy asks: “What response does this challenge or opportunity deserve from me?”
This view of responsibility is different than what might come to mind. True responsibility isn’t:
- Assigned in advance but encountered, and often unexpectedly.
- What we acknowledge or aspire to but exists outside of us.
- Anything others could do in our place, but something that requires a unique response only we can bring to it.
So what does this type of responsibility look like in real life? I’ll share three thoughts from the book and my own reflection:
- Death: When a loved one dies, instead of fixating over what we’ve lost, ask what response we can give to someone who’s passed. Dr. Frankl share’s a story of an old man despairing over the loss of his wife of many years. The man found hope in realizing that had he died first, she would be experiencing the same grief, but instead, he took that on for her. This perspective helped him view his suffering as a noble sacrifice for her. We may find deeper meaning in the loss of someone dear to us by taking on the purpose of preserving the memory and legacy of the person as still relevant and valuable (see #6).
- Education: When taking classes to further our career, we shouldn’t stop at aspiring to make good marks, but instead ask: “What’s the best I can bring to this subject?” and then throw ourselves wholeheartedly into learning and exploring it as only we can. (I regret that I didn’t have this mindset when I was in school — I would have learned so much more!)
- Creative work: When we feel the lack of success in our career, we’re tempted to shape our work to what gets us the most clicks, likes, and shares (e.g., “pop music” or much of what’s posted on social media). But when we ask instead, “What can I uniquely create?” we’re free to draw, design, compose, or write with everything we have and create work that’s an end in itself. This type of art is the very definition of “fine art” and the only kind with a chance of becoming timeless. (As a side note, the most successful artists I know gained success by paradoxically not aiming for it but instead focusing on creating the art they wanted to create.)
The need for this type of responsibility is found anywhere we find big or small disappointments or anything worth striving for. It’s a simple enough concept, but few people have the courage to bear with it. According to Dr. Frankl, very few prisoners in concentration camps were able to take on this level of responsibility and most succumbed, understandably, to the destructive patterns described under section two. How many fewer of us will manage to achieve this standard of responsibility while surrounded by so many ready distractions and temporal comforts?
But if we “take up our cross” and respond to even the smallest of obstacles in this way, eventually something quite fulfilling and wonderful begins to take shape around us.
4. Taking on responsibility leads to meaning that’s greater than ourselves.
When we take on proper responsibility for what life gives us rather than dwelling bitterly over what we wanted, we’re free to creatively adapt the misshapen opportunities life sends us into uniquely creative work that benefits and completes the work and lives others.
When we follow this path for long enough, we then find that the people we help and things we create are increasingly built upon and connected more meaningfully to more people.
By focusing on our responsibility instead of ourselves, we lose ourselves in something greater.
5. By losing yourself, you find yourself.
“The more one forgets himself — by giving himself a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”
As we take responsibility for what life needs from us and give all that only we can give, the work and lives of those that increasingly depend on our creativity and love increasingly frame and form around the unique contour of our life and we become truly irreplaceable.
6. You cannot be erased.
“Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.”
As those who’ve suffered and lived well fade into old age and die, the lives they’ve impacted and the work they’ve started continues to grow and form around the imprint left behind as sure as if they were still breathing.
7. There’s a bigger picture.
Towards the end of the book, Dr. Frankl shares a thought exercise leading to a profoundly hopeful conclusion, especially coming from someone who’d watched his wife, parents, and friends die prematurely in fear, pain, and shame for no apparent reason. A paraphrase:
He asks: Do a bunch of apes who are being given vaccinations, again and again, to test a vital antibiotic know the purpose of their pain? No, they’d have to be human to take on this perspective.
He concludes: What if man, being pierced again and again by seemingly pointless suffering, is also experiencing it as a terminal point in a larger, purposeful plan?
In summary: No one else has been given your talents, faults, upbringing, and situation. Whatever life’s dealt you is uniquely yours to respond to and cannot be replaced or repeated. If you manage to selflessly respond to your suffering with courage and perseverance, you’ll find proportionally higher purpose, true identity, and lasting meaning.
I hope you found something hopeful in this article and that it inspires you to read Man’s Search for Meaning. You’ll discover many more valuable and better-expressed lessons in it’s few pages.