Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Great Book #42: Man's Search For Meaning

Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl: I can't overstate how brilliant, how useful, how life-affirming it is. In a sentence, this slim book is about "saying yes to life in spite of everything"—the author was an innovative psychiatrist and neurologist from Vienna who survived Auschwitz and three other Nazi death camps. The first section describes his experiences in the concentration camps, and the second outlines Dr. Frankl's form of psychotherapy, logotherapy (from the Greek logos, "meaning"), in very practical terms.

Dr. Frankl's psychiatric training made him uniquely equipped to observe his own behavior and those of his comrades in the death camps with a sort of 'cold curiosity.' He served as camp doctor, and had a chance to escape at one point, but decided not to abandon his typhus patients. He does not hold himself up as some example of 'the right way to suffer', however: "We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles—whatever one may choose to call them—we know: the best of us did not return."

Actual survival was, in a sense, irrelevant. To keep ever-present in his mind the faces of his loved ones (his wife in particular) and a vision of his future life, to retain his dignity and human impulses without denying the horrific reality of the concentration camp, marveling at a beautiful sunset even as his friends went 'up the chimneys'—he did all this, but without the intervention of blind chance at crucial moments he might not have survived. Dr. Frankl writes of emaciated prisoners exchanging recipes over hard physical labor, planning a post-war dinner party they knew full well would probably never happen. But that's beside the point. It's not about when you die, but how you've lived.

There are so many moving and insightful passages I want to share with you here, but I'd end up transcribing most of the book! So here are just a few of the parts I underlined:

"'Listen, Otto, if I don't get back home to my wife, and if you should see her again, then tell her that I talked of her daily, hourly. You remember. Secondly, I have loved her more than anyone. Thirdly, the short time I have been married to her outweighs everything, even all we have gone through here.' Otto, where are you now? Are you alive? What has happened to you since our last hour together? Did you find your wife again? And do you remember how I made you learn my will by heart—word for word—in spite of your childlike tears?"

"...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."

"To be sure, a human being is a finite thing, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions."

"A statistical survey recently revealed that among my European students, 25 percent showed a more-or-less marked degree of existential vacuum. Among my American students it was not 25 but 60 percent." [And this was written in the 1950s!]

"...We watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions."

"...You may of course ask whether we really need to refer to 'saints.' Wouldn't it suffice just to refer to decent people? It is true that they form a minority. More than that, they always will remain a minority. And yet I see therein the very challenge to join the minority. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best."

This is one of the very best books I have ever read. Enough said, right?


Susan said...

This is an uplifting spiritual book about an unthinkable episode in history. I want to read it again. It makes me want to find the goodness in other people and myself.

Kate said...

On a related note, I was reading about how a 90-year-old general was just sentenced for Nazi war crimes and how he would be one of the last. It's so sad and weird to think that we are losing all of those who lived through (with some very amazing tales of survival) WWII.

On a sillier note, I love the closed captioning tweet! Spinster=sphincter how perfect!