Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review: Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

The first half of Man's Search for Meaning, tells of Dr. Frankl's time in German concentration camps. It's easy for us to become numb to these stories; we've heard them so many times before. But Frankl is not telling them for the sake of horror, rather he is offering a unique lesson. Even in the most terrible situation imaginable, we can give meaning to our lives by finding a purpose, a reason to stay alive. For him, that purpose became service and honoring the inner dignity of every person he encountered. Yes, there is tragedy in every second of life in the camps, but Frankl offers inspiration as well. "After all," he reminds us, "Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auchwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Israel on his lips."

 The second half of the book is an essay entitled Logotherapy in a Nutshell in which Frankl introduces the psychological school of which he is founder. The name Logotherapy derives from the greek word for meaning. For Frankl, healing comes not from analysis of the past, but of creating a meaningful future. Freud built his theories around our desire for pleasure. Adler believed our prime motivation was power. But Frankl proposes that we are motivated by the search for meaningful living and a sense of purpose.

I will not try to describe the entire theory here, but this framework struck me most deeply. The first element is action: we find meaning by doing meaningful things, things that matter to us. The second is love: the active giving of our selves to others. And the third is suffering: or more specifically, responding to suffering, exercising our "uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement."

 I first learned about Victor Frankl years ago while reading Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey recommended this little book (154 pages) so highly that I put it on my personal "Must Read" list. Now that I've finally read Man's Search for Meaning, I wish I'd done so years ago. I echo Dr Covey's recommendation without reservation.

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