A review of "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl, as reviewed by a millennial finding direction in a post-pandemic world.
By: Jonathan Bridges
The Lost Generations
Affectionally coined by author Gertrude Stein, the term "lost generation" refers to a group of writers, poets, and musicians in Paris during the 1920s, depicting similar themes in their works, including disillusionment in the post World War I society, loss of identity and tradition, and uncertainty of the future. These writers expressed in their works the circumstances of the generation who grew up during World War I and post-war.
The early 1900s began as an era of hope with an increase in industrialization, social and cultural shifts, and rapid economic expansion. Yet, with WWI, this hope came to a stretching halt. After the war, soldiers and civilians alike returned to a sense of normalcy that was anything but normal. Postwar, traditions lost their value, gender roles shifted and more people felt the need to travel to deal with postwar society, drinking, and excessive indulgence was a coping mechanism.
While a whole generation seemed to be hopeless wanderers, the postwar phenomenon lead to a boom in economic growth, construction, the rapid growth of consumer goods, and a pivotal period of creative innovation in arts and culture. Of course, we all know what then happened on October 29, 1929.
The early 1900s have an uncanny resemblance to the 2000s. War in the Middle East in 2001, the great recession in 2009, and the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020 with inflation woes.
2020 turned our lives upside down and coming out of the pandemic, we also found ourselves lost, searching for a new normal and meaning in a world where nothing seemed to make sense anymore.
The Great Shaking
For me, everything changed in 2020. My career interests, likes, and desires, seemed to change on a dime and I've spent the past two years, little by little, trying to search for an ounce of meaning. Little did I know that the search would consist of losing a job in DC (thanks to COVID), losing friends, moving to my home city, quitting another job to strike it out on my own, dealing with depression and ADHD, immersing myself in politics (character builder for sure), and still trying to make sense of it all.
While I can't predict the next month or the month after, I continue to move forward with confidence because while I don't have faith in my circumstances, I have faith in my ability to pivot, adapt, and learn. This resilience could only have developed through a decade of chasing false illusions (like fame and fortune), rejection, over six jobs, living in four different places, lots of praying, lots of crying, mistakes, and a mild mental breakdown. Cheers to being 30!
Yet in all of this, the one thing I was searching for more than anything else, the one thing that gave me both hope and hopelessness, was my search for meaning.
Man's Search for Meaning
I love to read. Reading is how I escape reality, learn, and make sense of the world. A few weeks ago my Friday, 7-in-the-morning, Bible Study group selected to read "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl. I didn't think much of the selection, abet I don't think much that early in the morning, as anything other than another self-help book. I was taken aback that we were reading a book by a Psychologist, instead of a "religious work" of some kind. The following week, the group decided to move on from reading the book to reading Hebrews. I get it, after all, it is a Bible Study group, not a psychology class. A book by a psychologist telling of his experiences in a concentration camp isn't a light read, but of course, I kept reading. As I read I couldn't help but draw parallels to scripture, which I also cited. I believe that psychology does not seek to exclude faith, as Dr. Frankl said,
The aim of psychiatry was the healing of the soul, leaving to religion the salvation of the soul. Man's Search for Meaning p. 163
Normally I skip forwards since they usually provide a paraphrased version of what I'm about to read. I find this anti-climatic and would rather be surprised by the author. I'm not a literary snob, I'm just impatient and want to get the goods that I'm looking for. However, these words from Harold Kushner, rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel and author, in describing Man's Search for Meaning caught my attention.
Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure or power...but a quest for meaning. We find meaning in work, in love, and in courage.....Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it... It [Man's Search for Meaning] insists that life is meaningful and that we must learn to see life as meaningful despite our circumstances. p.x
We are creatures driven by circumstance. We're happy when we're successful and we're sad when we lose. We praise God when we win, we forget Him when we're content, we curse Him when we fail, and beg for His mercy when we lose hope. Don't lie, we all do this as our circumstances change. I call this bi-polar faith. That's why 1 Thessalonians 5:18 tells us to give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will in Christ Jesus for us.
We allow our faith to be like this because our quest for meaning is driven by circumstance and thus we see meaning as achieving success or changing our circumstances. But that's a recipe for disaster. Dr. Frankl explains this further.
Don't aim at success- the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the inintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds true for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.... Success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it. p. xv
Here is the part where I tell you to read the book if this sounds interesting. I've only gotten through the preface so I haven't spoiled too much. As we're all trying to find direction in a lost generation post-pandemic, this book will shift your perspective and focus not on your suffering and circumstances, but on finding hope and meaning. I'm going to continue to peruse my favorite parts of the book, so feel free to keep reading, but take this as a proper spoiler alert.
A Hero of Circumstance
Frankl experienced the worst circumstances imaginable, a prisoner at a Nazi concentration camp. The realities he and his fellow prisoners faced are more than an average human could comprehend or cope with. Frankl described how they adapted and made sense of their new reality.
An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior. p.20
The most important factor to surviving in a concentration camp wasn't physical strength or stamina. It had little to do with survival. Although "sensitive people" as Frankl put it, were more subject to physical pain, the damage to their inner selves was less.
They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. p.36
For Frankl the retreat that saved him was love. Love gave the men comfort and hope. He saw the power of love firsthand and how it kept even the weakest prisoner alive. For many of the prisoners, survival meant retreating to the past and embracing the former love. It's no wonder 1 Corinthians 13:13 tells us, "And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love."
Frankl pointed out that while it's possible to continue living through various forms of coping, suffering is still suffering, no matter how big or small.
A man's suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quanity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and concious mind, no matter wheather the suffering is great or little. The size of suffering is relative. p.44
In suffering, we retreat to the past "good life" and become adverse to making decisions or standing out. We think that by making a decision, we will make our situation worse. Instead, we see "fate" as the master and try not to do anything to tempt fate. This way of thinking leads to apathy and irritability, like depression. Yet, this way of enduring suffering and circumstance does not produce meaning.
Frankl observed the phenomenon of some prisoners doing things like giving fellow inmates extra bread or giving them encouragement. It was in the very nature that prisoners bore their circumstances that fascinated him. They retained the ability to choose their attitude despite their circumstances. These prisoners chose not to be a victim of circumstance, giving up freedom and dignity to conform and blend in as typical inmates. This decision was solely left to each prisoner and was the very freedom that the SS guards could not take away.
Frankl saw that the way prisoners endured their suffering was an achievement in itself. This spiritual freedom was what makes life meaningful and purposeful. Suffering is as much a part of normal life as death, but it is the way in which we endure that adds a deeper meaning to life that is brave, dignified, and unselfish. James 1:2-4 tells us, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." Frankl saw that everyone in times of suffering had the choice of self-preservation or they can take the moral high road and serve more than themselves.
However, it is within that fight for self-preservation that we become no different than an animal, only retaining base instincts. By resorting to this animalistic instinct, the prisoners didn't look at the camp's hardships as a test of mental fortitude, but they stopped taking life seriously and despised it all together as something of no purpose. They continued to live in the past. The inmate stopped believing in the future, letting themselves decline mentally, spiritually, and physically. We tend to see this in cases of serious depression.
The key to endurance is by looking toward the future goal that one can look forward to. That's why in Philippians 3:14 Paul said, "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." This ability to look toward the future is one of the chief characteristics that distinguish humans from animals.
Those who know how to close the connection between the state of mind of a man- his courage and hope, or lack of them- and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect. p.75
The question of meaning lies not in meditation but in action and in right conduct. By realizing the responsibility that we have to act during suffering, we turn the thinking from our own plight to a duty that we have towards others. This realization diminishes depression and instead instills hope and purpose.
A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. p. 80
Once we know the "why" of our existence, we can endure the "how" or the circumstances.
Return to Normalcy
As the remaining prisoners are liberated from their camp, there is another phenomenon going on that Frankl calls, "depersonalization." At first, liberation seems unreal, or unlikely. Then the prisoner begins to eat and talk excessively. All of that mental pressure built up for years is now released. This sudden release can be dangerous for the prisoner and society.
Just as the physical health of the caisson worker would be endangered if he left his diver's chamber suddenly (where he is under enormous atmospheric pressure), so the man who has suddenly been liberated from mental pressure can suffer damage to his moral and spiritual health. p. 90
People who are suddenly free began to use their freedom ruthlessly and sinisterly. The oppressed now became the oppressors. Their actions were justified by their own ruthless experiences. Bitterness creeps in and it becomes impossible to return to normalcy.
While none of us can relate to the pearls of the concentration camp, we all have our own version of suffering. Take the COVID-19 Pandemic. Suddenly without no warning, our normal life was halted. We were told to stay confined at home, we were limited to where we could go, and we lived under constant fear of the consequences of rejecting orders. This was our reality for two years. Now, we're expected to return to a level of normalcy that no longer exists. How are we to cope and transition to this? How are we to find meaning in our lives?
Let's face it, we're in a hyper-diagnosed society. To our success and detriment, we have created modern medical marvels that have cured disease and prolonged life. We've also created a mindset that suggests that any problem that we face mentally or spiritually, is a disease in need of pharmacologic treatment. As Frankl refers to "neurosis" throughout the book it simply refers to mental, emotional, or physical reactions that are drastic or irrational.
Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic; some amount of conflict is normal and healthy. In a similar sense suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon; rather than being a symptom of neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement. p. 102
Just like how a normal amount of stress is healthy and essential for the productive promotion of our well-being, mental conflict and suffering are a normal part of life and are essential for our personal growth. We dispair over our meaning or "worthwhileness" and see it as a disease rather than a normal and healthy part of human development. Naturally, our physicians see dispair and anguish as a symptom to treat rather than stretch.
When we see our lives as about finding meaning, instead of gratification or pleasure, we stop seeking a sedative solution to our problems, but rather seek a spiritual and productive solution. In times of distress, we need a task to complete or something to look forward to, in order to stay healthy and keep going. This is the key to survival.
Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish. p. 104
Frankl believed that the gap in finding meaning should be the focus of mental health, rather than the notion of achieving a mental equilibrium or "homeostasis." To paraphrase, instead of constantly being "levelheaded," we should be striving and struggling to achieve a "worthwhile goal," that we freely choose. Like healthy stress, healthy tension, causes us to push toward fulfilling life's meaning.
Yet there is another phenomenon that affects people, and that is boredom, which manifests itself as an "existential vacuum," defined as loss of life interests, and a lack of proactiveness, leading to deep feelings of meaninglessness. With automation, our society has more time for leisurely pursuits. If Frankl was around to see just how far we've automated daily life, he wouldn't know what to do. However, he was quick to attribute widespread cases of depression, aggression, and addiction to the boredom and "existential vacuum" causing these conditions.
Even post-pandemic, many of us feel helpless and hopeless (existential vacuum) because of this shift of identity, mainly attributed to our utility and workplace productivity. Until now, our meaning to live has been intertwined with our ability to produce. COVID threw a wrench in our production. This frustration has now led to our desire to seek pleasure.
Logotherapy suggests that we not look to our past, as psychoanalysts do, to determine the root cause of our neuroticism, but to our present and future. There is no one silver bullet to determining our life's meaning, but it is all based on our current situation. Just as if you were to ask a chess master what the best move in the world would be, their response would be,
There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one's opponent. p.108
Thus, we cannot search for an abstract meaning in life. There is no one size fits all meaning that applies. Each of our meanings is based on our current situation. Logotherapy, therefore, doesn't seek to provide a cookie-cutter diagnosis to each patient, rather it helps each patient discover what is important and purposeful for them. For Frankl, the essence of Logotherapy is simple,
Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now. p.109
We must determine if we're responsible for society or for our own conscience. Frankl paints a clear picture of the role of logotherapy as an eye specialist rather than a painter,
A painter tries to convey to us a picture of the world as he sees it; an ophthalmologist tries to enable us to see the world as it really is. The logotherapist's role consists of widening and broadening the visual field of the patent so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible to him. p. 110
Therefore, self-actualization is not attainable at all. Like success, the more one would strive for it the more one would miss it. What is attainable is self-transcendence, forgetting oneself to a cause, and serving another person in love. In Galatians 5:13-14, Paul stresses this very point, "You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself."
No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized. By making him aware of what he can be and what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true. p. 112
Love allows us to suffer. It allows us to transcend beyond ourselves and our innate animalistic instincts, to a higher purpose. When we suffer for someone else out of love it ceases to be suffering, and rather becomes a meaningful sacrifice. However, Frankl stressed that suffering intentionally or to be seen as a martyr is simply masochistic.
Prosperity Gospel is not the American Dream
In an industrious society such as American society, weakness and suffering is not something that is discussed or praised. Personally, I've dealt with the "prosperity gospel" mindset among many churches and Bible Studies. They preached the notion that financial blessing and physical well-being are the will of God, given to us in reward for our faith and obedience. Faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase material wealth. This runs contrary to what Paul wrote to Timothy cautioning him of false teachers, (1 Timothy 6:5) "and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain."
This mindset by many religious leaders is why Christians and others who are suffering are pushed to feel ashamed of being unhappy. They are told that unhappiness is from the devil and due to a lack of faith. Christians are told to suppress their problems and focus on the "many blessings." Instead of being empowered to find meaning, they are told that their faith is simply lacking. We need to remember Galatians 6:2 teaches us to bear one another's burdens and 1 Thessalonians 5:11 says to encourage one another and build one another up.
This prosperity mindset also diminishes the fact that suffering is natural and is necessary for growth. In the paper "The Defiant Power of the Human Spirit" Jerry Long, a quadriplegic who suffered a diving accident, said
I know that without the suffering, the growth that I have achieved would have been impossible. p.147
Suffering is a natural part of life and in situations, that we cannot avoid, the best thing we can do is make the best of it and learn from it.
Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by doing so change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph. p. 146
The famous people that we admire are ones that had a high degree of perseverance. They keep their heads high during suffering. We recognize and praise the people not who inherited the "American Dream", but who fought like hell to create their own, despite their circumstances.
These stories of personal struggle and triumph have been published in countless biographies and autobiographies. Frankl suggested simply studying the lives of others who walked similar paths to find solutions, to quote Charlotte Buhler,
All we can do is study the lives of people who seem to have found their answers to the questions of what ultimately human life is about as against those who have not. p. 144
The Paradox of Anxiety
Neurotic people who suffer from participatory anxiety, suffer because they focus on their own performance or behavior rather than on the other individual or task.
Fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intension makes impossible what one wishes. p. 124
These people worry about their ability to perform and thus they are paralyzed from doing the thing that they set out to do. The fear itself basically manifests the symptoms, like racing heart or short breathing. The symptoms, in turn, reinforce the fear and makes one feel like they are not in control. Fear creates. a vicious cycle that makes one think they have a condition. Therefore when they encounter a similar environment in the future that fear and panic set in and the fear manifests the symptoms.
The key to overcoming this is through humor. By making fun of yourself and your anxiety you begin to detach yourself from the neurosis and become closer to a cure. Making fun of your fear allows you to see yourself from an outside perspective. This reframes your anxiety triggers and your mind stops associating certain situations or environments with a phobia. The physical symptoms that worsen the panic begin to disappear and the anxiety goes away. It's a process. A process of reframing your state of mind.
The Human Mind is not a Machine
According to Frankl, Nihilism is at the core of most psychological treatments including psychotherapy. Nihilism is defined as the idea that the state of being has no meaning.
Psychotherapy promotes a nihilistic philosophy and doesn't give the patient the true picture of themselves. Frankl stressed the danger in the teaching of man's "nothingbutness," the theory that man is only a result of biological, psychological, and sociological conditions, or the product of heredity and environment.
Such a view of man makes a neurotic believe what he is prone to believe anyway, namely, that he is the pawn and victim of out influences or inner circumstances. p.130
This view supported in psychotherapy denies that man is truly free but rather at the mercy of circumstances. It teaches people to cope and accept their conditions rather than transform. This run contrary to the teachings of 1 Corinthians 10:13, "No temptation has overtaken you that is not known to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation, he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able. to endure it."
Frankl stressed the importance of viewing the human condition not as a series of machines and wiring, but as spiritual human beings that have the freedom to make decisions, regardless of their condition. This objective view that many psychologists are taught to have with patients leads them to see humans as anything but human. The fact that human beings are self-determining and spiritual beings is the very thing that makes us human. Frankl's credo was simple,
An incurably psychotic individual may lose his usefulness but yet retain the dignity of a human being. p.133
Man has the ability to make choices in trying times. If we are simply machines that are victims of circumstances, then the Nazi's practice of eugenics for the naturally strong individuals, and euthanasia for the naturally weak was justified. The beauty and greatest gifts that God gave us, aside from love, are what I call transcendence and perseverance. These two superpowers cannot be taken away by anyone else but by our own doing.
Human potential allows for 1. turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; 2. deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better, and 3. deriving from life's transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action. p.138
What is "Tragic Optimism"?
"Don't worry, be happy." I'll admit, I was always aggravated when I heard this phrase. For me, it always oversimplified the solutions for dealing with my circumstances. I always wondered what happiness was, and the natural cynic in me always believed happiness was a fairy tale, alongside unicorns. Tragic Optimism states that one is and remains, optimistic in spite of a life filled with pain, guilt, and death. How is it possible to say yes to life and find happiness in spite of all of the suffering? However, reading Frankl's explanation on happiness came at me like one big happy wrecking ball. Take that Miley Cyrus.
Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to "be happy." Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation. p.138
Not to diss the American Founding Fathers, but Frankl was on to something here. Happiness is not the outcome or something to attain, but it is the effect of pursuing our purpose in life. I feel like many of us see happiness as the pot of gold that can be obtained by following the path on the treasure map. In reality, X doesn't mark the spot, but the ending. Happiness is the path itself.
I would amend the preamble to the declaration to say "life, liberty, and the pursuit of meaning." After all, it's these unalienable rights that make us human. For Frankl, his love for his wife and the will to finish his book have him the power to cope with suffering in the most extreme of conditions.
Let's bring this home a bit. In the western world, very few people can relate to the level of suffering that Frankl endured. But we can all imagine our own version of dispair, losing a loved one, dealing with illness, a terrible breakup, or something I've experienced a few times now, losing a job.
Frankl observed in many of his younger patients a form of depression that came from job loss, which he personally diagnosed as "unemployment neurosis." In our culture, we attach our identity to our job and when we lose a job, we then identify ourselves as useless, and, in turn, being useless means having a meaningless life. He also observed that the depression resulting from job loss didn't have anything to do with financial burdens.
His initial solution was to encourage his patients to volunteer or do unpaid work that interested them and allowed them to exercise their skills to serve other people.
As soon as they could fill their abundant free time with some sort of unpaid but meaningful activity-their depression disappeared although their economic situation had not changed and their hunger was the same. p. 141
Let's look at what we're going through presently in "post-COVID" society. This new lost generation is dealing with high levels of depression, aggression, and addiction. So much so that many experts are citing a mental illness epidemic, particularly among younger adults. It's because we've lost our direction. Yet, this isn't anything new, Frankl saw a similar phenomenon during his time.
Just consider the mass neurotic syndrome so pervasive in the young generation: there is ample empirical evidence that the three facets of this syndrome - depression, aggression, and addiction- are due to what is called in logotherapy "the existential vacuum," a feeling of emptiness and meaningless. p.141
Frankl recalls an experiment conducted on young boy scouts. The groups were growing more and more aggressive and the only thing that changed their aggressiveness was when they were focused on a collective purpose, dragging out a stuck carriage. This situation challenged them and united them around a common meaning to help someone else.
I believe that our two years of being isolated, experiencing job instability, and experiencing economic uncertainty, have created our own existential vacuum in our society. While some of our feelings are pathogenic and require pharmacological treatment, we first need to seek to transcend our circumstances through meaning.
As logotherapy teaches, there are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or by doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone...Meaning can be found not only in work but also in love....experiencing can be as valuable as achieving. p.145
Live like you were dying
Just as the song suggests, we have to adopt a "live like we were dying" attitude. Yet, the meaning goes a bit beyond living with no regrets and taking risks. We have to see each dying moment as a challenge to make the best possible use of our time. Make each moment meaningful. Frank's imperative was simple,
Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now. p.150
He ultimately taught that we possess unique human capacities such as inborn optimism, humor, psychological detachment, brief moments of solitude, inner freedom, and a resolve not to give up. In the camp, Frankl drew strength from the loving thoughts of his wife and his deep desire to finish his book. He found meaning in glimpses of beauty in nature and art. He retained the freedom to choose how to respond to his suffering.
Finding meaning means going above personal pleasure and doing something for someone else, or serving someone through love. It's all about our attitude to our circumstances. Positive emotions, expectations, and attitudes enhance our immune system. We stay positive through self-transcendence, the application of positive effort, technique, acceptance, of limitations, and wise decisions. We stay positive by focusing on our future and our conscious decisions and actions.
For Frankl, his life's meaning was helping others find theirs and he had high hopes that mankind could transcend any suffering. He believed that we possess the realistic ability in our suffering to behave either like a sinner or like a saint; yet it's up to our decisions, not our present conditions to find meaningful direction.
Man is that being, who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz, however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips. p.134