“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. 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…Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in its spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
The book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl had a profound effect on me. It is the story of Viktor’s experience in a series of concentration camps during the Holocaust, only Viktor was a psychoanalyst and attempts to discern the meaning of life through the lens of his most desperate experience. Published first in 1946 in Vienna, the book has a message that resonates not just as a psychological testament to historical events, but in the way that the observations about humanity are those that anyone, no matter how simple, complex, or tragic their lives, can relate to.
Viktor seeks neither sympathy nor pity in his retelling, rather endeavors to discover the very nature of man’s desire to live. When there is nothing left, no dignity, no food, nothing but the skin your in, what stops you from giving up? Why is it that some battle against death while others induce it with the premature ending of their lives? This is what Viktor is trying to illuminate. Unlike Freud, who developed the idea that man’s will to live depends on the desire to pursue pleasure, and Nietzche, who developed the idea that man desires power, Viktor argues that man lives in order to search for meaning.
The book was beautifully worded, simple and yet deeply profound. In our basest forms, the thoughts and desires of man are simple, yet bitingly and heart wrenchingly deep.
What struck me most was the way I related completely and entirely to some of the thoughts that Viktor relates. As he recounts his mental conversations with his young wife, 24 years old, whilst not knowing whether she lived or died in the woman’s camp, the truth of which had no bearing on his mental conversations with her, I found myself contemplating the conversations I often have in my own head with the people I love. Indeed, I have often found myself discussing life choices, morals, and the meaning of life with figures in my life who have impacted me in the deepest of ways…all in my head.
Yes, I consider myself a bit insane, but then it occurs to me that perhaps everyone does this in some form. Perhaps for most people, this manifests itself in a conversation with oneself, not loved ones. It is likely that I do not talk to myself, rather to those I love and have loved, because of the distance that is so prevalent between me and the people I care about most, geographical and, sometimes, emotional as well. Many have conversations with loved ones no longer in this life, either in the form of prayer or general dialogue to the heavens or the vast universe. It seems essentially the same to me, none of them more insane than the other.
It seems ridiculous that I would find similarity in the trivial sufferings of a 23 year old girl in the metropolis of New York City to the bitter and unbearable reality of one existing in a concentration camp…it seems downright disgusting to even make the comparison, so unequal that it is. That said, perhaps the beauty of this work is that Viktor sheds light on human kind in his most basic form, the flutterings and desperate strivings of man when there is nothing to live for…or so it seems.
Often, Viktor Frankl is presented in contrast with Sigmund Freud, who was of the belief that humanity’s most basic desires were linked to those necessary for survival and then to pleasure. I must admit, I never understood, nor am I totally convinced by, his arguments. Perhaps this is why I am partial to Viktor Frankl’s analysis, because I find that in my darkest moments, the conjuring to my mind of the people I love, whether or not they are still in my life, has gotten me through many a desperate moment. Indeed, in prolonged periods of existential crisis, these conversations with the “greats” of my life have given me direction, meaning and newfound passion and creativity.
So what does Viktor Frankl say is the meaning of life when there seems to be no meaning or purpose at all? Well, he says that it is not a question of what we expect from life, rather what life expects from us. His most famous of assertions being that, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
So when there is nothing left to live for, when desperate push comes to even more desperate shove, the one freedom we are left with is the ability to decide how we spend the moments that pass us by. In the concentration camps, Viktor realized that passing his days in easy, loving and, sometimes, deep mental conversation with his young wife was a much more pleasant passing of the time than that of the unbearable physical and mental torture that he and his campmates were being subjected to.
It turned out that his wife died in the camps, but Viktor Frankl continues to assert that his love for her transcended physical existence. In this way he furthers the argument that the meaning of life is different for each person, but the will to find that meaning fuels the will to live. What life expects of us is different from one man to the next. For one, it may be the love for a person, for another, the love for a project, or passion. In either case, this love goes beyond that of simple desire for something or someone. This love takes on a spiritual nature, pushing those who live through the toughest of times towards their most spiritual inner selves. Once pushed to this extent, the meaning of life becomes clear and the desire to live comes to fruition. In this way, years after his experience in the concentration camps, Frankl spoke to patients who were suicidal and attempted to plant the seed of meaning in these people’s lives, each unique to the patient, in order to revive the will to live.
Ultimately, Viktor Frankl sought to explain why some of the weaker camp mates survived the ordeal whilst the burliest of men did not seem to last very long in the camps. He comes to the conclusion that what separated those who survived the camps from those that did not had nothing to do with physical strength or intelligence. His conclusion: Spirituality.
Spirituality is Frankl’s explanation for the reason some survived the camps, while others did not. Purpose in life, then, is rooted in spirituality that is anchored by a deep and enduring love, or perhaps the reverse, love being the driver of spirituality. Nonetheless, a spiritual disposition gives way to clarity in meaning, and therefor a clear drive for living.
Being a spiritual, if agnostic, person myself, I found some kinship in Frankl’s exploration and was very much affected by his treatment of human nature. Love, to me, is transcendent, expanding beyond physical barriers or emotional rifts. Love imbeds itself in the most spiritual of our inner selves, if the love is real. Through this experience, I find meaning and hence find the spark of creativity and drive that allows me to overcome obstacles, forgive and attempt to better myself.