Plus ça change, rien ne change — The more that changes, nothing changes.
This French proverb came to mind as I read Victor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (Amazon Kindle edition). First published in English in 1962, the book serves up timeless insights, chronicling Frankl’s stint in 4 concentration camps during World War 2, surviving the ordeal and from it fine-tuning what became known as logotherapy.
The book neatly divides into 2 major parts. The first part records Frankl’s experiences in the camps, noting with a keen eye the everyday details of life and how prisoners coped (or didn’t) with the horrendous conditions. Part two turns to a scholarly exposition of logotherapy – from the Greek logos, “meaning” – a theory that many neuroses have little to do with sex (Freud) or power (Adler) but everything to do with what Frankl terms the “existential vacuum,” the failure to identify purpose or meaning in life.
Speaking of the minority of prisoners who maintained a hopeful attitude, Frankl observed: “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” (p. 68, location).
Related is a quote from Neitzsche cited multiple times:
“He who has a Why to live can bear almost any How” (location 21).
Frankl identifies three areas that can bring meaning to a person’s life (location 28):
1) work (doing something significant)
2) love (caring for another person)
3) courage during difficult times
As a Christian minister, there was much in Frankl’s book to praise. Jesus taught principles that line-up well with the first two points. For example, Matthew 16:25 insists: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (NIV). The follower of Christ identifies a purpose much larger than one’s own pursuit of happiness, losing himself or herself in service to God and others. Likewise, in the example of Christ who braved the cross and thereby redeemed humanity, the third point in Frankl’s triad is illustrated. Though Jewish and not Christian, Frankl – after his first wife perished in the camps – married a Roman Catholic. Perhaps this is why he is comfortable with Christian language, noting for example:
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life” (p. 70, location 154).
Writers since Frankl have picked up on the theme of meaning as essential to mental health. Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (2002) explores the same theme but from a specifically Christian angle.
While much of Frankl’s observations are spot-on, I question his insistence that meaning stemming from past achievement is irrevocable (see location 1832). What happens when a culture at-large devalues history and is almost entirely oriented to the “next best thing”? Can a 90-year-old individual who invested his or her life in what was once a meaningful invention – such as the 3 1/2 floppy disk – still take pride in it when no one uses them anymore? While that may have given meaning to life at the time, can it be a source of ongoing meaning when now almost everything is stored in the “cloud”?
Despite this question, on-balance, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is a remarkable account of how purpose can keep a person going even in the most miserable of circumstances. There is much there to ponder, more than single reading can absorb. I’ll look forward to picking it up again in a few years and finding new insights.