Despite the rather lofty title this book is genuinely readable, and not at all as impenetrable as one might imagine.
The book is divided into two parts: the first recounts the author’s altogether horrific experiences of being a Jew in several of the Second World War’s most notorious concentration camps.
The second part of the book deals with the way in which Dr Frankl’s experiences and observations of humanity at its most inhumane crystallized into some very interesting and profound insights into the human condition.
The first part is at times profoundly moving, and the second often challenging but the book is well worth the short time it would take to read.
The key observation pivots around the fact that even when we are striped of every last vestige of dignity, frozen, starving, abject and completely without hope of redemption or rescue, there will forever remain at one’s innermost core, something that cannot be taken away not interfered with.
This core, perhaps surprisingly, is the way in which we chose to respond to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
The author describes watching his fellow inmates and found that he could predict with a fair degree of accuracy who would make it through the night and who would not, based largely on that person’s attitude to their circumstance.
There is no immutable law that stipulates at which point we must give up hope, or for that matter that we must crumble in the face of our suffering, however great or endless it may seem to us at the time.
Frankl’s main tenet is that we can as humans essentially chose not to let any circumstance get the better of us. We each have the freedom to elect not to be miserable or insulted or dejected or jealous or indignant, if we so chose.
Of course he does not use this to suggest that if someone is down that we may blame him or her for somehow lacking mental fortitude, but rather that people can be helped to think more positively.
He goes on to extrapolate and show that many of the mental dysfunctions that have become so prevalent in modern times (depression, anxiety, boredom and so on) can be treated quite successfully by addressing not the causes of these conditions but rather the general motivations of the character in question.
In essence his theory states that the existential vacuum is caused more often than not by an absence of true purpose in one’s life.
Something to live for, or giving one’s life a sense of meaning, will see a man through seemingly interminable hells in the outside world as well as it will often keep him clear of depression or otherwise turning in upon himself in his own internal mentation.
This way of seeing things eventually culminated into a whole new branch of psychotherapy called Logotherapy, with which Viktor Frankl is credited as “inventing”.
To say that depression and anxiety can be cured by simply getting the patient to think about something else or to go volunteer at the local soup kitchen is a vast simplification but it is not a million miles from my understanding of Frankl’s process.
Viktor Frankl’s arguments are well made and the book is highly readable – as the 10 million sales since the book was first published shortly after WWII will attest. Quite where Logotherapy would now sit in the light of more modern developments such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming I’m not entirely sure – not least because I can claim no expertise in either, but I know enough to recognise similarities between both.
Has the book had a profound effect on my own self-awareness? Perhaps a bit, yes. I will admit that I will often now second-guess some of my more negative inclinations, such as they are, and that is not without utility.
The book is short – stretching to barely 160 pages with the foreword and lengthy editorial summation at the end – fascinating, and again, well worth a read.
Here follows a rather sweetly dated interview with the venerable Viktor Frankl (who sadly died at the ripe old age of 92 in 1997) which appears to have been conducted by a local news anchor who to all intents and purposes looks a little out of her depth – bless her :-)
Possible Talking Point Arising from “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl:
- Is it actually possible to choose to be happy or unaffected or positive about things in your life that severely test your patience or mood?
- Would you have given Frankl’s theory as much credit had he not endured the horrors he did?
- Could you recommend a course of Logotherapy to someone you knew to be a little dark of mood?