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Man's Search for Meaning Mass Market Paperback – June 1, 2006
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One of the great books of our time. —Harold S. Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People
"One of the outstanding contributions to psychological thought in the last fifty years."—Carl R. Rogers (1959)
"An enduring work of survival literature." —New York Times
"An accessible edition of the enduring classic. The spiritual account of the Holocaust and the description of logotherapy meets generations' need for hope."—Donna O. Dziedzic (PLA) AAUP Best of the Best Program
About the Author
Viktor E. Frankl was professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School until his death in 1997. His twenty-nine books have been translated into twenty-one languages. During World War II, he spent three years in Auschwitz, Dachau, and other concentration camps.
Harold S. Kushner is rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, and the author of bestselling books including When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Living a Life That Matters, and When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough.
William J. Winslade is a philosopher, lawyer, and psychoanalyst who teaches psychiatry, medical ethics, and medical jurisprudence at the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston.
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Top Customer Reviews
This particular work is one I keep at hand and re-read on a regular basis. I read it for the first time a few months after I started medical treatment and therapy for life-long depression. I get more from it each time I go back to it.
Logotherapy manages an incredible balance. It does not put man himself at the center of the universe, thus avoiding the kind of narcissistic self-reflection common to much of the therapeutic literature today. Yet, it does not sweep man aside as irrelevant. Instead, Frankl argues that we have an incredible power to shape our attitudes and responses to the challenges life presents us and that we inevitably grow thanks to these challenges.
This is a quick read and could conceivably change your life. Man is more than the sum of his biology and his environment. We inevitably choose to be who we are. Frankl's argument is that, if we choose wisely, we can triumph even in tragedy. It's a truth many of us have lost sight of in our cynicism.
"We who lived in the 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."
What's most interesting about it, as Frankl says himself, is that what he's propounding are not abstract ideas developed by some academic at a university or in some research laboratory. He uses his direct experience in one of the most adverse circumstances possible--a Nazi concentration camp--to relate the ideas of logotherapy (his own school of psychotherapy) to the reader.
In a nutshell, the three most important tenets of logotherapy are as follows: (1) Life has meaning under all circumstances--even the most miserable ones; (2) Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life; and (3) We have the 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. These principles are put directly to the test, and Frankl demonstrates their validity in a way that no social scientist has conceived of (or been able to) ever before.
From the afterword:
"Frankl was once asked to express in one sentence the meaning of his own life. He wrote the response on paper and asked his students to guess what he had written. After some moments of quiet reflection, a student surprised Frankl by saying, 'The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs.'
'That was it, exactly,' Frankl said. 'Those are the very words I had written.'"
Frankl was feeling guilty about leaving his parents when he noticed a piece of marble on a table at home. What was it? His father said it was a piece of the largest synagogue in Vienna, burned by the Nazis. On it was a fragment of the Ten Commandments --- the part about honoring thy father and mother.
Rock covers paper. Frankly decided to stay in Vienna and look after his parents. As if that were possible! Before the war was over, the Nazis imprisoned Frankl, his pregnant wife, his brother and his parents. All but Frankl perished.
In 1945, in just nine days, Frankl wrote "Man's Search for Meaning." It has sold tens of millions of copies, been published in dozens of languages --- for many, it's been a life-changer. Somehow, I missed every opportunity to read it. Just as well. My younger selves might have missed the profundity of this short, simple book.
Frankl's message is simple: Life can be terrible. But there is one power you alone possess --- the power to decide what you think about your situation. If you think there is a point to your suffering and if you can imagine your life on the other side of it, you are searching for meaning. More, you are finding meaning, for the very act of searching ennobles you. Achievements can pile up, riches may come your way --- none of that matters. The search is everything.
For Frankl, the search for meaning is both a philosophy and an attitude. Going into a concentration camp, he knew what the odds were --- 90% of the people on his transport train would die, most within a few hours of arriving at Auschwitz. And this led him to his first breakthrough: "I struck out my whole former life."
Auschwitz became his teacher. He had no fear of death; the gas chambers spared him the thought of suicide. He learned to look eager for work; if you want to live, you have to be useful. And then he learned The Secret. Let him tell it:
We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road running through the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his hand behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us."
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another on and upward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look then was more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth -- that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.
I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way--an honorable way--in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life, I was able to understand the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."
Those are easy words to write in the comfort of the coffeehouse, surrounded by attractive people who have the dual luck of health and wealth. But to feel this way after being shipped to four concentration camps and losing your loved ones --- that's something else.
Yes, Frankl was lucky, and he knows it; as he says, "The best among us did not return." But the lucky did. Indeed, only the lucky did. And isn't a great part of luck the irrational belief of a better future?
Like all concentration camp memoirs, Frankl's is one horror after another. But unlike almost all others, his memoir is dotted with remarkable scenes. Like the time a block warden, at a very low point in the war, asks Frankl to speak to the inmates. Frankl reminds them that all they have lost can be achieved again. And then he says something at once shocking and inspiring: "Human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have meaning." Even hopelessness offers a kind of dignity. If we act well in dire straits, we honor God --- we show that, even as we are killed, we maintain our dignity. That was some sermon....
Days after the war ended, Viktor Frank walked out of the camp and into the countryside. He listened to the birds sing; he felt the expanse of earth and sky. He did not yet know that the wife he thought of constantly was dead. He had just one sentence running through his head: "I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and he answered me in the freedom of space." And with that, Frankl walked into his future.
Why read "Man's Search for Meaning" now? Because we live in an age of weak excuses and phony explanations and very few people stepping forward to take responsibility for anything. In this appalling time, Viktor Frankl reminds us that what we do and how we think about it actually matter. He tells us that, even on a crowded planet, every life is important. He makes us stand tall and see clearly and think straight and want to do right.
It doesn't get much simpler than that, does it?