“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
I’m a little disappointed it took me so long to read this book. As a survivor of perhaps the worst episode of prolonged suffering in modern human history, Victor E. Frankl provides wisdom and insight in Man’s Search for Meaning.
The first half of the book details his experience in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. In the second half, he addresses Logotherapy, the field of psychotherapy he developed from his own suffering as well as his observation of others’ suffering during the Holocaust.
The Greek word “logos” has various definitions, though from Frankl’s perspective it is used to denote “meaning”. Logotheraphy focuses on the meaning of human existence and on man’s search for such meaning.
Frankl discusses the “existential vacuum”, a place where every human being finds herself from time to time. In the existential vacuum, which often manifests itself as a state of ennui, “[n]o instinct tells one what he has to do, and no tradition tells one what he ought to do; sometimes one does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism), or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).”
So, what is the meaning of life? According to Frankl, “the meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
The meaning of life always changes, but it never ceases to be. It can be discovered in three ways according to logotherapy: (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. In sum, meaning is everywhere, all the time.
Logotherapy is defined by the technique of ‘paradoxical intention’, based on the two-fold fact that fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that ‘hyper-intention’ makes impossible what one wishes. These technical terms describe a basic human phenomenon: when we fear something, we increase the chances of it happening; and when we try too hard to make something happen, we decrease the chances of its materializing. Think of struggling with sleeplessness or anticipatory anxiety, two common examples Frankl discusses. Both of these uncomfortable states can be counteracted by paradoxical intention. If you have a hard time falling asleep, try to stay awake. If you worry about a sweat attack, “resolve deliberately to show people how much [you] can sweat”, thereby adopting a reversal of attitude that takes the wind out of the sales of anxiety.
“Logotherapy conceives of conscience as a prompter which, if need be, indicates the direction in which we have to move in a given life situation. In order to carry out such a task, conscience must apply a measuring stick to the situation one is confronted with, and this situation has to be evaluated in the light of a set of criteria, in the light of a hierarchy of values. These values, however, cannot be espoused and adopted by us on a conscious level — they are something that we are. They have crystallized in the course of the evolution of our species; they are founded on our biological past and are rooted in our biological depth.”
I highly recommend this book, especially for those who are experiencing existential ennui, and I think everyone should read it at least once because it offers some powerful perspectives on life and on living.