Imagine an old man walked up to you on the street and said he had insights on life that could help infuse your own with meaning and purpose — if you gave him $10. Would you do it? Probably not.
Imagine that old man rolled up his sleeve and it was immediately evident by the tattoo roster on his skin that he was a Holocaust survivor. Then would you do it? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
Luckily, Viktor E. Frankl’s memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” is well-known. There are plenty of others who feel the same way I do: It is one of the most profound books ever written.
Mr. Frankl was a psychiatrist who had all sorts of theories about the will to survive, how man goes about giving life meaning, and the ways we respond to suffering. Those theories were then put to the test when he found himself a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof 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.
And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.
Seen from this point of view, the mental reactions of the inmates of a concentration camp must seem more to us than a mere expression of certain physical and sociological conditions. Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually. (Victor Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, 1959, 1962, 1984, 1992, 2006. 77)
A man who has given a specific meaning to his life can withstand almost any set of circumstances with dignity — even a Holocaust. A man who does not know why he must live can feel as though he is trapped inside a nightmarish prison — even as a free citizen.
“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. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct.” (77)
If the implications of Mr. Frankl’s insight are not clear, consider the effect of his wife on his mind’s eye as he trudged through snow during forced labor:
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.
I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in a positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.
For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, ‘The angels are lost in a perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.'” (38)
If I was thrown into a concentration camp tomorrow, then one of the things that would keep me alive would be the desire to write about my experience — perhaps on this very blog. My wife is my beloved, but so too is writing because I believe God made me a writer.
Everyone’s life has a meaning. Finding it is often painful and difficult. I firmly believe, however, that reading Mr. Frankl’s memoir can help make the task, as monumental as it is, much easier. I highly recommend “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
Editor’s Note: I will mail a copy of this book to the first regular reader who asks for a copy. I don’t mean to penalize readers who stay behind the scenes (I appreciate all of you), but for the purposes of this give-away I need to have seen you in the comments section on occasion. Just let me know if you’re interested and I will contact you at the email address you have provided WordPress.