‘Man’s Search For Meaning’: Viktor E. Frankl’s incredibly profound, must-read memoir

Viktor E Frankl

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.

He writes:

“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.

Frankl writes:

“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.

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It’s okay to let friends go when they wish you were like Han Solo frozen in carbonite

Lando Han Solo CarboniteHere is a bit of advice for younger readers of this blog: One day you will have friends who will wish you were like Han Solo frozen in carbonite. You will meet these individuals at a young age, and as both of you become older they will always identify you with a very specific time and a very specific place. They will refuse to accept that people mature and change over the years, and their attempts to keep you in a mental and spiritual state of suspended animation will leave you puzzled as to how to properly respond. If tactful attempts to show them that hanging on too tightly to the past is unhealthy, then you must move on — not necessarily in dramatic fashion — but you must move on.

Han Solo CarboniteCells die in your body every single day. Over the course of many months, all of your cells are replaced with new cells. Physically, you become a different person. Mentally and spiritually, you also go through changes over the course of your life. The “core” of your being (the “you” behind the “you”) basically stays the same, but for all intents and purposes you are a different person. Some of your friends will become attached to the 2015 version of you and, like a favorite car, they will do anything they can to keep you just as you were when you first rolled up their driveway. If you want to become the best version of yourself possible, then placating this desire among those friends must be avoided at all costs.

Although there are probably countless variations of the Boba Fett-type of friend, my own personal experiences come in two varieties:

  • The friend who wishes the “old” me (i.e., immature prankster) still existed.
  • The friend who wishes the less knowledgeable version of me still existed.

In an ideal world, the friends we make early on in life would understand that knowledge is a virtue. Everyone would grow and expand at comparable rates, but they would respect the different ways we all branch out. Sadly, that is not the case.

When faced with these situations, you will feel the need to “act the part.” You will feel the need to “go along to get along.” Don’t. It would be weird for frogs to revert back to tadpoles, fish to roe, or butterflies into caterpillars — so why would you ever try to be a version of yourself that no longer exists? If you put on a fraudulent face to make someone happy, then you are doing both yourself and the person who cannot let go of the past a disservice. Only by being true to yourself can you achieve what you were truly meant to achieve and live life without regrets.

Life is much too short for living lies — even little ones that seem well-intentioned. If you have friends in your life who seem to want you to be their personal Han Solo frozen in carbonite, then it is because on many levels they are mentally and spiritually paralyzed. The biggest favor you can do for them if they refuse to see that truth is to walk away.

Take a few minutes to read Joan Marans Dim’s ‘A Decade of Goodbye’ — it’s worth it

It’s hard to really live until we come to terms with death. Many people spend their entire life running from it, but one way or another the conversation will be had. If you had five minutes left to live, who would you call and what would you say to them?

Because none of us know whether we have fives minutes or five days or fifty years left on our clock, it’s a good idea to regularly treat our loved ones as if we knew our passing was close at hand.

If you’re not someone who has seriously thought about death, reading Joan Marans Dim’s ‘A Decade of Goodbye,’ will likely prompt you to do so.

Here is just an excerpt from ‘A Decade of Goodbye,’ but I suggest reading the entire piece.

He has never let me tend to his most personal needs, but today he willingly sits on the corner of our bed as I help him disrobe. His entire body is jaundiced. I soap a sponge, gather towels and wash him. The moment is intimate, a rarity for us. I massage his back, chest, arms and legs with moisturizer.

“That feels so good,” he murmurs.

Joan Didion never had such a moment, I think.

I dress him, and he asks for his walker. But I am not finished. I want to comb his hair. In 52 years of marriage, I have never combed his hair.

“O.K.,” he says. And smiles.

I am meticulous in this act of grooming. Then I step back and study him.

“You look handsome,” I say, and mean it.

Beautiful. It’s hard to read such passages without trying to fast forward life in your own mind to try and see how your own final moments will play out with family, friends and loved ones.

As I read ‘A Decade of Goodbye’ I couldn’t help but think of Pearl Jam’s newest single, Sirens: “It’s a fragile thing, this life we live.”

Money will not solve your problems: Powerball fever highlights human weakness

Powererball

Sometimes the most dangerous thing that can happen to a person is for them to get what they wish for. Every time I start seeing news stories about “Powerball fever” or a run on gas stations when lottery jackpots explode, I can’t help but think of Tim Burton’s Batman. In it, Gotham’s population lunges for cash as The Joker throws out bills to them from on high, stuffing the paper in their pockets and crawling on all fores to claw in as much as possible. Then, the poison gas hits.

Joker Money Tim Burton Batman

There is a big difference between a “what the heck, why not” lottery ticket purchase and one bought where the person essentially fantasizes about how “all my problems would be solved” with a winning draw. Whether it is the at a federal, state, community or individual level, all too often people look at dollar signs as the ticket to happiness or fulfillment, when it is not.

“Who do you trust? Hubba Hubba Hubba! Money! Money! Money! Who do you trust? Me, I’m giving away free money! And where … is this Batman? He’s at home, washing his tights! … And now comes the part where I relieve you, the little people, of the burden of your failed and useless lives. But, as my plastic surgeon always said: ‘If you got to go, go with a smile!'” 

More often than not, the lust for money only serves to mask or exacerbate existing problems. And when anyone dares to point out that it is our emotional weaknesses and spiritual bankruptcy that is more likely the root of our financial ills and cultural unhappiness, the citizens of Gotham get defensive.

Barring some sort of medical problem or environmental disaster, the vast majority of people who are so hopeless that they see a lotto ticket as “a way out” of their financial predicament need emotional and spiritual currency — not money.

Let me put it this way:

When I was in high school I was a cross country runner. Sometimes, on an eight mile run I’d pass a casino and I’d see extremely poor people walking inside, in all likelihood to spend what little cash they had, hoping they’d hit a big jackpot. Today I live in Maryland, where politicians — both Republican and Democrat — have pushed casinos as a form of economic stimulus.

Question: Does Maryland want an economy built around Blackjack dealers and zombies who pull on slot machines, or does it want an economy built around science and art and engineering? That question has already been answered, and sadly the zombie-backers have won out.

The people who promote lotteries as a way to fund education are like plumbers who fix your leaky faucet by diverting water to flood your basement. The people who promote casinos as a the ticket to long-term economic growth are like high school guidance counselors who would tell a student to consider dropping out and getting a GED sometime down the road. We constantly mislead people, and then when they go down dangerous paths that with disastrous results, we blame this guy or that guy or anyone else within our line of sight.

Instead of running out to the grocery store to buy a lotto ticket when the payday hits 700 million dollars, I suggest using that 30 minutes to sit down in solitude and work towards figuring out what will make you happy at the deepest of levels. When you figure it out you’ll realize that such knowledge is worth more than any joker could ever put in your bank account.

Best,

Doug

Rock climbing as a metaphor for life: Conservatism vs. Liberalism

Douglas Ernst rock climb

Today I ran across an old picture of me ascending a rock climbing wall while at the Cumberland County fair in Maine. For some odd reason it dawned on me that rock climbing is a great metaphor for life. Before this picture was taken I had been working a booth for The Heritage Foundation, talking to the good people of Maine about the organization and its principles. A National Guardsman dared me to take the climb and, not one to back down from a challenge, I accepted.

Given that, I will now explain rock climbing as a metaphor for life, as well as how one’s worldview changes how they approach the wall.

In life, we all have an end point we’re shooting for. We all want to get to the top of some mountain. Some people want to prosper monetarily; others seek spiritual wealth. Some people seek knowledge; others wish to experience their fill of earthly pleasures. We all value different things, and as such our lives will all take vastly different twists and turns before we call it a day.

In between our starting point and the final destination there is an infinite number of paths laid out before us. We have a general idea of how we want to go about attacking the mountain, but there’s a big difference between gauging obstacles from afar and then experiencing them up close and personal.

Just like with rock climbing, sometimes the path that you thought would get you to the top in theory doesn’t work out in practice. You have to recalibrate your route. You might have to backtrack or go far out of your way to traverse a difficult section. In a worst-case scenario you might even fall off the wall, but thanks to a harness you don’t kill yourself and, if you so choose, you can start all over again — armed with the knowledge only failure can teach.

The conservative knows that every person who attempts the rock-climbing wall of life will have different strengths and weaknesses. Some people want to shoot for the top, and some don’t. Some people have amazing upper body strength, and others have an iron grip. Some people are light and some people are heavy. Some people are tall and some people are short. Given all these variables, the conservative generally doesn’t worry too much about what the guy next to him is doing and begins climbing away. He focuses on his technique. He monitors his strength. He takes time to stop and pause and re-evaluate his strategy when necessary. He isn’t afraid of falling. The conservative does all this, and in the long run he is generally rewarded for it.

The liberal, by contrast, does not fare too well. He complains about the size of the footholds. He looks at their placement on the wall and wonders who put them there and if there was some sort of nefarious plot connected to the decision process. He complains that he doesn’t have chalk, but the guy next to him does. He wants better shoes. It’s unfair that he has to climb in rainy weather, when the guy before him had nice weather. The winds are shifting one way or the other. He wants a different belay man. The list is endless. And at the end of the day the liberal sits at the bottom of wall, having wasted valuable time that would have been better spent just climbing the damn wall.

Sometimes, the liberal will look up and see his conservative counterpart smiling at the top of the mountain and will yell nasty things in his direction. The conservative will be accused of being a heartless bastard for basking in the sun’s rays and enjoying the view while the liberal down below must sit in the shadows — again, even if it was the liberal who chose to spend the limited time and resources afforded to him unwisely.

If you have a rock climbing wall around your neck of the woods, I suggest giving it a try. You’ll learn a lot about yourself, both mentally and physically.

See you at the top,

Doug