Man’s Search for Meaning. Book Club #2.

In Man’s search for meaning, the author, Victor Frankl shares an autobiography of his experience in the concentration camps during World War II, he shares his psychological insight of what a man faces when all hope is stripped from him and all man has left is his freedom of choosing his attitude.

He describes his experiences and opinions in three parts mentioned below. You can navigate through each section with the link below or simply read it all.

  • Part One — Experiences in a Concentration Camp.
  • Part Two — Logotherapy in a Nutshell.
  • Part Three — The Case of Tragic Optimism.

Part One — Experiences in a Concentration Camp.

He explains three transitions that an inmate of the camp goes through when he was admitted, the first one being the initial shock that a person goes through, a phase where a person is still processing what fate lies for him in the future, a bit of curiosity and a bit of uncertainty.

The next phase is followed by a sense of apathy, apathy toward what happens around the man, the injustice, the pain and the struggle around him starts becoming normal to him. (saying normal is an overstatement, what happens when a man is exposed over and over to the same things daily that he can get into a flow of it).

It’s a bit difficult to explain, but when we do the same things over and over, it becomes a habit, a habit of seeing injustice and violence and a constant flow. This sense of apathy for various people in the camp leads to a sense of meaningless existence, “Will all the suffering be worth it in the end?” Or questions such as, “What meaning can I get from this suffering?“, Is what the author asked himself.

The next transition is the one that is followed when the prisoner is liberated from the camp. What goes through the mind of the man who has been set free from all the suffering? Suppose a man had been living, suffering in the camp knowing that he will meet someone that he very much yearns to, only to find out that when he got out of the camp that there is no one to greet him on the other side of the door.

Cases even where a mind of man, his identity gets tied to the camp, what experience will he go through. Will man find that suffering is all he can find even after what he has gone through?

Part Two — Logotherapy in a Nutshell.

In the second part of the book, the author shares his approach to various psychological problems in the form of logotherapy, i.e. the existential frustration that we all face at some point in our lives, during which we start questioning what is the meaning of life? Why do we exist? What is the meaning of our existence?

Approaching such a problem is no easy task, and there is also no single panacea to the common questions we all face. Human psychology has many faces and is quite often very contradictory to itself. What we thought was right for us in the past, may not be good now. And what we think is right now, may not be right tomorrow. What we value keeps changing with time.

The author says, “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, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent to human beings and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.”

That is why we set goals for ourselves. We work hard not only because we want to achieve something but also because we simply might not like the state we are currently in. We work hard to move on from one state of satisfaction and comfort to another.

Most of us always dream of a life where all of our problems are solved and we have worries to worry about, however, such a life in my opinion is monotonous, how we define life is how we define what our problems are and how proud we can be of our suffering.

Problems are never-ending. We are always presented with them either externally or internally. Some problems arise because we’re not satisfied with what we have, others arise because of some unpredictable external events, both unrelated to us and related as well.

We can either complain about them or take an effort to put in action and learn from them.

How can one be happy if solving problems is all there is to life? What’s the approach to this? What type of mindset do we need to adopt to accept all of our problems?

In today’s world, happiness is a metric of one’s success and achievements, the more successful you are, the more fame you have and the more money you have is directly correlated with how happy one is, or this is what we have been told and conditioned to believe.

Then what is it that makes us happy?

When we desire something so bad and we solely focus on getting that thing alone. We find ourselves in a state of hyper-intention or hyper-reflection, a state where when we pursue something so much and when we do achieve it, it feels satisfactory but only for a moment. After that, we’re left to find the next thing that we think might make us happy.

The author suggests that success(or happiness from any goal) must always be a by-product of hard work and success must not be something that we strive for but rather it is the will to take responsibility to work hard towards what we think is meaningful.

How can logotherapy help us adopt a new mindset to this problem?

As mentioned above, being able to take responsibility for what you value now and work hard towards achieving it is what logotherapy is all about. Instead of solely focusing on the goal itself, you focus on the means of achieving the goal.

Logos is Greek for “reason” or “meaning”. Logotherapy is a literal approach to finding one’s meaning in life. How does one go about finding meaning in his existence? According to the author,

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed;
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone; and
  3. By the attitude, we take toward unavoidable suffering.

The first approach is quite simple to approach, we do something because we feel it is the right thing to do and we think that by doing so we are adding value to our lives and to that of others.

Let’s dive a little deeper, can meaning in life be derived from love towards someone or something and from the suffering that we go through? If so, are they the same or do they both hold different influences on our lives?

The meaning of love can be interpreted as pursuing something transcendent and almost beyond our understanding but this lack of perception is what makes it meaningful to understand it one piece at a time and devote ourselves wholly to it. Such a transcendence can be anything from living for another person to a lifetime journey of understanding philosophy and art.

The meaning of suffering is rather a very heated topic to tread upon. Suffering is unavoidable, whether we like it or not, we all have to go through it. Most of the time we end up asking, “will all this suffering have some meaning in the end?”

The meaning of love and the meaning of suffering is however not the same, as we are doing things and going through unique experiences that we think will give us meaning or rather we will be able to give meaning to something else or someone else.

But instead, if we ask, “what meaning can I get from this suffering?” And the moment you ask yourself this suffering becomes a state of contentment and thus it will become a quest to find something rather than doing something unwillingly till the end.

As logotherapy suggests three approaches to finding meaning in one’s life, it also stated that the meaning for a man varies from time to time, day to day and hour to hour. What matters now to someone may not necessarily matter tomorrow.

Then how does one go about finding meaning in life?

The answer is as simple as you don’t waste time on finding it, rather take responsibility for what you have in the moment and meaning will come to you with time. (hopefully).

Live life as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time wrongly as you are about to act now.

Victor E. Frankl

Towards the end of this part the author shares his thoughts on redefining psychology, at first psychology was an approach to finding how a man’s mind works in terms of a mechanism and the solutions to its problems in terms of nothing more than fixing a machine, but with time it came to know that man is much more than that and more complex than we could think he is.

He says, “Our generation (the authors) is realistic, for we have come to know the man as he 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.”

Part Three — The Case of Tragic Optimism.

This part of the book approaches a rather similar goal we all strive for but only a few can achieve it. A mindset of hope at trying times.

How do we stay optimistic during situations that challenge us to take a positive approach?

When faced with difficult situations most of us, which I’m also guilty of, start complaining and start asking why this is happening to us rather than trying to analyse the situation and do something about it.

A tragic optimism is a case of having or developing hope(optimism) despite tragic events that occur to us. The author explains three such events under which many other causes can be classified.

  1. Pain
  2. Guilt
  3. Death

Pain is something that we might be going through, which might have been inflicted by others onto us or even by ourselves, regardless of that, the pain and the suffering can be turned into human achievement and accomplishment.

The guilt that we face for our wrongdoings and mistakes we’ve made can be used as an opportunity to change ourselves for the better.

The death of a loved one is the most tragic event anyone has to ever go through, but there is still a way to derive hope from it and remember that all is not lost. Deriving from life’s transitions is an incentive to take responsible action.

While going through trying times, the questions we ask ourselves matter the most, how we frame the questions and how we go about solving them matters the most. The author shares that despite the world today is much more advanced and more connected people feel more meaningless than ever.

People have the means to live but nothing to live for.

Finding one’s meaning in existence is solely the responsibility of the individual, and since meaning varies from time to time, the best course of action is to take responsibility for every moment of their life. Take responsibility for our problems and instead of complaining, ask questions and try to find a solution to them.

I certainly had a shift in perspective after reading this book. One takeaway that I would like to share is that it showed me that complaining about your problems doesn’t get you anywhere, taking responsibility for them on the other hand is the only way to make a difference.

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