One of the books that has been suggested to me several times over the years is Viktor E. Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I finally got around to reading it and I’m disappointed in myself that I did read it twenty years ago. My suggestion? Go out and get this book right now and read it. It’s a tiny book and will take you just a few hours to read, less if you skip the first part, which you should NOT. If there ever was a list of required reading for life, this book would be on it.
In the first part of the book he talks about his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. I’ll admit that I did speed read through this part of the book a bit. It’s sickening, really, and I’m not easily scared off from reading real horror accounts. I do highly recommend reading it. It gives powerful insight and background to the second part of the book.
A few of my favorite quotes from this part of the book were,
“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
When I ask myself, ‘How can people behave this way?’, this makes sense of it to some degree.
“It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”
My answer to those that lose their minds at those who poke fun at negative situations. If they can, I can.
“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, to choose one’s own way.”
Think about this. If someone who spent three years in a concentration camp can feel this way, why can’t you? At every turn, we have a choice to make. Do we meet this day with a positive attitude, with kindness, with compassion, with pride? Or do we throw ourselves into the mud and wallow in depravity?
“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 mediation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it consistently sets for each individual. These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment.”
This one hit me hard and it’s something I struggle with all the time. There is no general answer to “What is the meaning of life?” The answer may be 42 but we don’t really know the question. By the way, Douglas Adams was on to something there, so go read “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” if you haven’t already.
Why do we not know the question? Because it’s different for everyone and different every day of one’s life. My meaning now was not my meaning yesterday and it was never yours.
And then there is the idea of taking “right action.” What does that mean? Was my right action in my teens and twenties, finding a family of my own? Was it focusing on raising my children in my thirties? What is it now? Is it writing this? Volunteering? Working another job? Traveling? I just don’t know yet but I do get closer to the meaning every day, only to be farther along in my journey and have the meaning change again. Like he says later in the book, maybe we just can’t know what our meaning really is until after we’ve lived it. I like looking back at my life and seeing my collection of experiences and trying to make sense of it all. I can’t imagine what today will look like from twenty years from now.
The second part of the book is about his theory of “logotherapy” which really made sense to me. Should I go into it here? Why not? I’ll share a couple of my favorite quotes, but PLEASE go read this book for yourself. You will not regret it!
“Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic; some amount of conflict is normal and healthy.”
What? Please! You mean being sad for a moment, hours, or days, doesn’t necessarily mean I need to fix something?! Being angry or put out about someone’s behavior doesn’t always mean I have anger issues?! Feelings are transitory. See what they mean, learn from them, or don’t, and then let them go.
He talks about homeostasis being great for biology, but in human nature, not so much. Humans don’t like being bored. We can’t grow when we’re bored. We’re always moving from one extreme to another, ecstatic to depressed. I’ve kept a journal for years and I love going back and reading old entries. In my writing, I can watch myself rise to great happy heights and plunge to depressing depths, sometimes several times in a day. Each time it happened I was learning something about myself, about what I wanted in life, where I needed to go, finding my own meaning. I wish I could see it as it happened more often. I wish I could realize more quickly that my lows will be followed by highs again, but I guess that’s the nature of life. Transitory and partially blind.
Here’s another sweet one!
“Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.”
Pleasure is a side-effect of your trip to Disneyland, not the goal. The goal is to spend time with your children, experiencing the artwork, the people, the food, the smells. The goal is to get there safely, to not spend too much money, and to BE there.
“I’ve spent all this time and money to be here, YOU WILL be happy that we’re here!” I’ve heard something to that effect too many times to count. They’re missing the point and making pleasure the goal instead of the side effect.
All of life is like that. My goal today is not to be happy. It is to finish my work, clean my house, spend time in the yard, and eat dinner with my family. Pleasure will be the by-product of that.
And the last one from this part of the book…
“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.”
We are not things. A table is useful because it is level and solid. A house is a house because it shelters you. A human is a human, independent and free. It does not matter if he is useful to anyone else but himself. He is not less of man because he cannot walk or talk. She is not less of a woman because she cannot bear children or read.
Ultimately it is up to you to determine your own self-worth, your own meaning of life. We can always be moving toward that self-understanding in some small way and we should never give that up, even in the worst of circumstances. That’s what Viktor Frankl’s time in hell taught him and what he brought out of it for us.