Book Recommendation: "Man's Search For Meaning"

Find your purpose! Find your meaning! Find your passion!

Those three statements, and various derivatives thereof, have taken over the Internet during the last few years. Everyone is obsessed with some form of inspiring fulfillment that will grant them abundant happiness for the rest of their lives.

If you’re reading this because you want me to tell you what this meaning or purpose or passion is, well don’t waste your time. I’m not going to tell you this because I have no idea what that is; I barely have an idea what this could be for myself in my own life (though I do recommend this podcast episode for some guidance).

I will, however, discuss a fantastic book I recently read about deriving meaning in life not from finding your passion, not from finding your dream career, but from how you react to unavoidable suffering in your life.

This book is Man’s Search For Meaning by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl.

(I know, I’m late to the party on this one, but better late than never)

Meaning from unavoidable suffering

In Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl touches on a topic that I believe is terribly underrated and far too infrequently discussed when we talk about finding meaning in our lives: unavoidable suffering.

After spending three years in various Nazi concentration and labor camps during World War 2, Frankl describes how he survived and emotionally processed the atrocities of this experience. He found that what generally determined the probability of surviving the camps was not physical fitness, but rather the way in which a person reacted to his/her suffering.

The people that were able to suffer honorably and with dignity— to see their suffering not as punishment placed upon them or as license to hate humanity, life, and God, but as an opportunity to add deeper meaning to their lives — were most likely to survive the camps. These people saw this as an opportunity for them to be worthy of their suffering and obtain the moral values that a difficult situation might afford them.

But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity even under the most difficult circumstances, to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish.

Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forego the opportunities of obtaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.
— Viktor E. Frankl in his book "Man's Search For Meaning"

I love that first sentence. It is such a useful and sobering counterbalance to the overemphasized message in society that creativity, enjoyment, and happiness are the only ways to experience or find meaning in life. As well-intentioned as that message is, I’ve become sick of hearing it. At risk of sounding like a masochist, I do agree that the way we accept and deal with unavoidable suffering is an honorable path to finding meaning in life. Just because you’re not shooting rainbows out of your ass every second of the day, doesn’t mean you can’t have a meaningful life.

Sidenote: Frankl repeatedly stresses that the suffering has to be unavoidable, as it was in his case with the Nazis persecuting the Jews during the Second World War. On the other hand, avoidable suffering is, quite simply, masochistic. There is no honor, meaning, or dignity to be found in masochism.

The three avenues to meaning

So to find meaning in our lives we either have to always be happy because we have found the most awesome career or are doing something else that has us buzzing with happiness every day, or experience unavoidable suffering (which, by definition, means that we can’t do anything to seek it because then it wouldn’t be unavoidable anymore). Is that it?

Not according to Frankl.

Towards the end of his book, he states that, broadly speaking, there are three ways to find meaning in life:

  1. Through great accomplishments and achievements. Think of Alexander Fleming, the Scottish scientist who discovered penicillin, Dr. Edward Jenner, the man who first introduced the idea of vaccinations in 1796, and all the other scientists who found cures to life-threatening diseases. Think of Nobel Peace Prize Winners or great politicians and leaders who, through their policies, dramatically reduce poverty and increase prosperity in their respective communities. In other words, meaning can be found by any person who, through his/her extraordinary accomplishments and achievements, positively changes society. Note that these accomplishments can come with great difficulty, ease, joy, struggle, frustration, satisfaction, or any combination of all of them.

  2. By experiencing something or someone. This one can be summed up in one word: love. People can find meaning through the profound depths of love for someone or something. A parent can find incredible meaning through his/her experience of being a parent, raising children, and loving his/her family with limitless amounts of love.

  3. Reaction to unavoidable suffering. Already discussed quite extensively, but allow me to add a few more thoughts. One of the most interesting lessons from the book came from a passage in which Frankl talked about how people always ask how to find their meaning and purpose in life. He thinks that the arrow is pointing in the wrong direction in this question. Instead of asking how to find meaning and purpose in life, we should ask what life is asking of us in every period of our lives. Instead of asking what life should give us — happiness, meaning, purpose — we should wonder what we as individuals are responsible to give life. To repeat Frankl’s words cited earlier, “the way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity even under the most difficult circumstances, to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish.

Sacrifice

Before I continue, I want to clarify that I realize how easy it is for me to preach these things from the comfort of my chair, in the comfort of my nice apartment, which is located in a nice neighborhood. Would I still take the noble and moral high-ground if I ever found myself in the type of horrific situation as Frankl did during the Second World War? Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the only way to find out would be for me to indeed experience this type of unavoidable suffering and given that this has (thankfully) not happened yet, I simply don’t know the answer to this question.

Nevertheless, let’s move on.

Frankl shared a story about an experience at his psychiatric clinic that stuck with me vividly after I finished the book. Loosely paraphrased, it went something like this:

One of his clients had just lost his wife to cancer and was in deep mourning. Distraught and in tears he asked Frankl “why her, doctor? Why her? Why not me?”

Frankl calmly asked the man to engage in a thought experiment with him. “Imagine that instead of your wife, you were the one to die of cancer. How do you think she would have felt?” he said to the man.

Why doctor, she would have been absolutely distraught! I can’t imagine the suffering she would have gone through!” replied the man.

Well,” said Frankl, “perhaps then you have taken her place for this suffering in this tragedy.

Contemplating Frankl’s words and seemingly accepting this interpretation, the man left the office without saying a word.

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.
— Viktor E. Frankl in his book "Man's Search For Meaning"

The story struck me because of Frankl’s unusual approach to and interpretation of such a tragic event. It opened my mind up to a different way of thinking about tragedy and suffering, and challenged me to take responsibility for how I react to adversity in my own life.

Although it wasn’t specifically Frankl’s point, this story also made me think about how in discussions about meaning, happiness, and all that fun stuff, we rarely discuss the desire to sacrifice some of our own good/wellbeing for the common good. It’s not always about us, and it shouldn’t be. Though perhaps it wouldn’t exactly be unavoidable suffering, wouldn’t it be great if we were more willing to sacrifice for the collective?

As each situation in life represents a challenge to man, and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life. To life he can only respond by being responsible.
— Viktor E. Frankl in his book "Man's Search For Meaning"

You can buy Man’s Search For Meaning by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl at every major book retailer. Don’t forget that you can also get it in audiobook version, at your local library, and through use of the Overdrive app (which is where I listened to the audiobook version of this book for free).

See you, Space Cowboy.