One of my favorite books and certainly one of the ten I would want with me if I was stranded on a desert island is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I was exposed to this book in a business seminar, of all places, about 20 years ago – a bizarre place to discover such a weighty book (I mean conceptually heavy, as it is actually a very short book). It provided compelling proof to me that we can control how our life unfolds and has remained one of my favorite books ever since.
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Frankl, a psychiatrist who was born in 1905, spent time in several German concentration camps during WWII. He was separated from his wife when he entered Theresienstadt in 1942 and and had to spend almost three years not knowing if she was alive or not. When Germany was liberated in the spring of 1945, he was set free only to find out that his wife and all of his family except for his sister had perished.
While in the concentration camp, he observed fellow prisoners and developed theories on why some people survive extreme suffering while others do not. He observed that the prisoners who survived were the ones that believed they could or had to endure the concentration camps. In his case, even though he imagined his wife may not have survived, he felt he had to survive in order to ensure that she would not have to live on as a widow. He also believed that even in the most severe predicaments, the prisoners could make choices and having this feeling of control was critical to mental health and ability to survive. In his own case, he actively chose to endure the pain he was experiencing and he also helped his peers by giving lectures on mental health.
The book might sound a bit depressing, but it is not at all. In fact it is quite uplifting. On the one hand, knowing what he and millions of others went through makes the things we worry about seem petty by comparison and more importanly, knowing that we can choose our destiny is very empowering.
Some of his quotes stuck with me:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. 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.”
“We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (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.”
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”
Shortly after the war, Frankl wrote his book and then went on to promote a method of psychotherapy treatment known as Logotherapy with the following main themes:
- Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
- Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
- We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.
Frankl died in 1997 at the age of 92.