Sunday, February 24, 2013

Talk about credibility: A review of Viktor Frankl's "A Man's Search For Meaning"

Why I read this book:

By now, the formula for how I choose my books should be pretty clear:

25% - Amazon's Daily deal
25% - Whatever David Brooks mentions in his column
25% - Friends' recommendations
25% - Whatever gets cross-referenced in these three sources: The Atlantic, Harper's,  and the New York Times (aka the Yuppie Trinity).

I saw enough references to Viktor Frankl's "A Man's Search for Meaning" among my aforementioned sources that I added it to my "to read" list. You can then imagine my giddiness when I saw this book pop up as an Amazon Daily deal! The choice is clear.


1. I need to find new sources
2. I need to at least adjust the weighting
3. The book is as mediocre as my mainstream sources
4. The book and my formula will prepare me for dinner table conversation in polite company
5. The formula is working! I just need to add Youtube so that I don't miss things like the Harlem Shake


First of all, you should read this book. This is a potentially life-changing book. If that does not move you, let's try a different approach. The book is widely known, and it is short. If you read it, next time someone says "There is a great book called "A Man's Search for Meaning", have you read it?", you can say "Yes! I have read it" (because it is short), and then the person you are talking to will think you are a respectable person because the main attribute of the book is not that it is short, but that it is potentially life-changing.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian professor of Neurology and Psychiatry who developed "logotherapy" - a method of psychotherapy based on the premise that the fundamental drive of human nature is to find meaning (as opposed to power or pleasure). Frankl spent years in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Frankl survived; his parents, brother, and wife, like millions of others, did not.

In "A Man's Search for Meaning", Frankl weaves the foundations of his philosophy with his personal experience in the concentration camps. Frankl believes that a person can find meaning primarily in one of three ways: through devotion to a task, unconditional love of another human being, and, in those circumstances when fate leaves no other way, the ability to bear suffering with dignity. Frankl's thoughts are wise, but what gives his words gravity is of course his personal struggle. When a man who has walked the tightrope between life and death speaks about what truly matters, you listen. Here is Frankl on love:

"But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look...Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love."  

The words are beautiful and tragic, amplified by the deeply personal tone. Frankl then reflects on other aspects of grasping for meaning. As a man who devoted his professional life to understanding what drives us, Frankl builds his observations of prisoner behavior into his theories. For instance, Frankl observes that the survival of a prisoner depended on his will to survive. Once the hopelessness of the situation undercut a person's spirit, the biological shutdown soon followed. The thought of reuniting with loved ones provided the lone reason to hold on for many of the prisoners. For some of those fortunate enough to survive the concentration camps, the breaking point came after liberation when they discovered that their loved ones perished, and the world moved on without the survivors. 

"Woe to him who found that the person whose memory alone had given him courage in camp did not exist anymore! Woe to him who, when the day of his dreams finally came, found it so different from all he had longed for!", Frankl exclaims abstractly in a tone of a sympathetic observer. 

And yet here is a man who found himself in that very situation! You would not know that from the book - I only discovered that Frankl lost his wife when I read other sources to find out more about this remarkable man. Frankl himself never mentions this fact - a particularly striking point given his deeply personal expressions about love and his wife.

So now you begin to understand the spiritual fortitude of this remarkable man and his ability to devote himself to love and work and to transcend suffering. That detached tone is the trace of a man whose spirit is so resilient, so otherworldly, that he has come to symbolize the redeeming qualities of human beings at a time when the very nature of a Man is on trial. Where is the anger, the bitterness? In any other circumstance, we may be tempted to dismiss a man so devoid of normal human reactions as a naive peacenik. Yet here is a man who has been to Hell and back. His words, so serene and wise, stand in stark contrast with the horrors he experienced and command attention. This book is foremost a spiritual expression - a testament that some values are universal, and desperately needed proof that the human race is not a self-consuming cancer.        

While reading "A Man's Search for Meaning", I could not help but compare this book to the other well-known memoir of living through the Holocaust, Eli Wiesel's "Night" because the tone of the books is so noticeably different. 

Frankl is philosophical, spiritual even. His beliefs are so strong, he transcends human suffering. Wiesel's account, on the other hand, is searing, and his tone is antithetical to Frankl's. God? He hangs on the gallows with the countless, nameless bodies. Faith? It was consumed by the flames that swallowed the infants who were tossed in by the truckloads in front of Wiesel's eyes. 

The difference in the philosophies of both of these men is striking. I find it all the more astonishing then that the lives of both of these remarkable men, despite the difference in their opinions about faith and the human soul, seem to converge on a common path. Both men devoted their lives to helping others, telling their story, and working tirelessly to make sure that the world does not go mad again. 

Viktor Frankl leaves this final tally of the struggle for human nature:

"Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, 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."

As the last of the members of that generation pass on, the accounts of Frankl and Wiesel take on added significance. For our sake, we must never forget their story.        

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