I’ve been reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (affiliate link) recently and I’ve been struck by how powerful his account is. I was turned off by the foreword of my edition, which I found fairly stuffy and difficult to process.
Once you get into Frankl’s work, however, the power of it is incredible. He is honest, open, and incredibly transparent in what he felt. He does nothing to diminish his own guilt or paint himself as a hero, but instead acknowledges with clinical precision how he acted and felt during the Holocaust and the horrors that had enveloped him. Although a prisoner, he refuses to be a victim.
I think that there are more than a few valuable lessons to be learned from his experiences, but I’m not sure that I have the wherewithal to really dig in and pull out all the wisdom and knowledge that Frankl shares from his personal accounts. I’m not even going to discuss his founding of logotherapy, as it is even more complex and goes well beyond my ability to understand and regurgitate.
The fundamental lesson that Frankl teaches us is that life is built around a search for meaning. That’s not something that’s considered too controversial, but it defies some of the earlier arguments about pleasure and power.
It’s a rejection of the dominance hierarchy, which is important to note. At the same time, it’s a little wrong to call it simply rejection. It is instead subversion.
Frankl recounts that in the death camps the prisoners had a tremendous appreciation for art and beauty, when it could be found amidst their bleak surroundings. Everything else had been taken away, but the beauty of nature or the momentary rapture of a few overheard strains of music would provide them with hope and fuel for future trials.
He also describes the power of love, the need to have something to live for. He recounts a moment in his practice where an elderly patient struggling with depression due to grief over his dead wife approached him, and Frankl’s response was along the lines of:
Your duty is now to live and honor her life; you have spared her the fate of surviving you, and now your purpose is to live as she would have you do in her memory.
This, along with other examples, underpins what Frankl teaches in a powerful way. His focus was not on seeking to find hidden desires or traumas that changed the way that people thought and acted, or dig for repression.
It was to find the best way to improve their lives.
And he had experience from life in the camps.
I don’t think there are very many people alive today who can sympathize with Frankl on an equal level. But I do think that we live in a world where people go through challenges that are ignored and misdiagnosed.
It is not for nothing that modern life is often compared to a prison, with people having only nominal agency. Many of the things that would formerly have given individuals the ability to forge their own path remain, but are kept aside from them during the course of education and the pursuit of a career, requiring careful planning and knowledge that is difficult to obtain to fully reach fruition.
And I see people quite frequently who are hurting, desperate, and lost.
But I’m just a guy who’s studied far too much literature, so what am I supposed to do?
The answer is not as far off as we would fear. I’ve maintained that there is a fundamental need for a purpose to peoples’ life, something that is difficult to recognize but may be gleaned through encounters with great literature that shapes the human condition.
Frankl describes, in poignant detail, how the love he has for his wife shapes the way that he survived the camp. Knowing she was likely dead, it was her ideal as much as any hope for a future with her that drove him from destruction and resignation toward his own future purpose. Desire to complete a future task for the betterment of humanity pushed him toward survival.
Purpose saved his life, and his purpose has doubtless saved other lives.
But what does this mean for us?
We need a purpose, and there’s no good reason not to make it be one of love, something that will better the world. That’s a psychological need. Whatever we are good at, we should do it for society and for our loved ones, to support a better future.