Reflecting on “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Recently I discovered an excellent book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” written by neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl after he survived a German concentration camp during World War II. While his story is harrowing and beyond nightmarish, his ability to maintain himself during the experience and recover afterwards is an incredible testament to his strength of mind and character.

Frankl was near death during his imprisonment many times. He had little influence over the conditions he endured, including starvation, overwork, illness, and abuse. By the flip of the coin of chance, he could have instead have been sent to death multiple times. Yet he survived.

In fact, early on Frankl decided to make his concentration camp experience into a psychological study—to explore why some people survived with their spirit while others did not. From his perspective he discovered “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.”

This insight is so powerful—that even in the literal worst circumstances of life (near death, pain, torture, and more) the individual has a choice in their mind about maintaining the true self. It is both a mental and a spiritual choice in how to survive the difficulties of life. “It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

All life is suffering.

Basically, he acknowledges (like Buddhism) that all life is suffering. But what gives meaning to it is how we handle this inevitable experience. He saw this as an individual experience that has to be answered for each person on how to respond to whatever suffering they experience, whether with strength and dignity, or losing their humanity.

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”

Each individual must find their own meaning and way to live with (or respond to) their suffering. Frankl describes three categories of meaning: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”

Working, volunteering, or accomplishment is pretty straightforward. The second can involve experiencing beauty or nature, or by loving another human. The last may be the most difficult in that it is turning suffering into achievement by sheer will of attitude or thought. This means finding meaning in the suffering that cannot be erased.

While these are tough topics, Frankl writes about them frankly and with a quiet beauty. He describes with many examples about how approaching suffering by finding meaning can become an individual’s defining achievement.

This book really resonates with my experiences living with rheumatoid arthritis. I don’t like to think of it as suffering, but if I am honest with myself it is a painful and lonely disease. It is my personal burden to bear. Instinctively I have engaged in all three methods of finding meaning. I have work that is personally fulfilling. I love art, music, and nature. I love my husband, family, and friends. And I work to live well despite my condition—to be a brave, kind, and good person through the suffering I experience.

Everyone has their burdens to bear and must find their meaning. Frankl’s thoughtful reflections can provide comfort and guidance through even the hardest contemplation of suffering.

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