Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy, left this world a heartwarming and extensive masterpiece about suffering: Man’s Search for Meaning. Undoubtedly, Frankl’s work adapts all the values that he expressed in his own life as a doctor, husband, Holocaust survivor, and a humanitarian; the psychiatrist’s experiences with his hardships provide the wisdom and truth behind each of his insights related to emotional distress.

Frankl was a concentration camp inmate for three years, liberated by American soldiers in 1945. While imprisoned, his pregnant wife, mother, and brother were all murdered in gas chambers. Frankl himself had to withstand incredibly harsh and traumatic conditions and watch other camp inmates pass away. Yet despite all his pain, depression, and loss, Frankl found that he could translate his suffering into a meaning for life. The psychiatrist emphasizes this by saying:

Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.

Indeed, the doctor did not idly stand by during his times of hardship; rather, Frankl chose to bear an attitude to find meaning in his suffering. He mentions in his book that the reason his friends were dying was not just from the horrible conditions of the concentration camps. No — the psychiatrist comments that his friends passed away from a lack of motivation to live. Seeing all this, Frankl’s experience as a Holocaust survivor led him to affirm that life is a quest for meaning.

Frankl found that there are ultimately three sources for meaning in life: in work, love, and courage. In all three sources, one is equally likely to encounter suffering. Frankl emphasizes that suffering in itself is meaningless — it is how we respond to our suffering that gives it meaning. Frankl describes seeing this in the camp with a heartwarming experience; he writes,

We who lived in 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.

The psychiatrist argues that responding to our sufferings is the way in which we accept our fate. In other words, it is how we bear our crosses that gives us the abilities to craft even deeper meaning to our lives. Frankl continues to say that people, in their suffering, can either accept or refuse “the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him/her.” Thus, it is ultimately the attitude with which one responds to his/her suffering that gives life more meaning.

It is an unfortunate reality that many of us are so busy completing daily chores that we often — whether it is unintentional or intentional — neglect how we are feeling. This can sadly perpetuate a stereotype: the stigma that it is a weakness to acknowledge emotions. We have all felt the consequences of this before; we have all felt sad and anxious to various degrees while simultaneously feeling as if no one is there to understand our words. We have all suffered due to a lack of guidance on confronting our feelings. It does not matter how trivial or massive the suffering may seem; regardless of the supposed amount of suffering, it still causes the same type of pain. Frankl metaphorizes this by saying:

To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative.

Previously, when I lacked the emotional intelligence I have now, I used to seek alleviation from every trouble by submerging myself into different activities. Although exercising, performing music, and reading books certainly helped distract me from my problems, they often left unresolved grief behind. As I grew older, I eventually learned to confront my problems head-on, but it was not until I picked up Man’s Search for Meaning that my methods of dealing with emotional turmoils came to consciousness. That is, I had not thought about choosing my own attitude towards my suffering; beforehand, I would instinctively let my emotions stir discomfort in me until they found a resolve, rather than actively trying to locate my intuitive distress. After reading Frankl’s wise words, I began to see how important it is that I choose my attitude towards my difficulties. It is my attitude towards my hardships that gives life its value; it is the attitude I foster towards my suffering that reaps priceless lessons, experiences, and knowledge. It is the attitude I foster towards my suffering that gives me peace. In dealing with past struggles, it is this book that led me to choose to translate my pain into something positive. It is this book that led me to build Books 4 Change.

 

Whether you are going through episodes of loss, anxiety, sadness, or frustration, let us dare to see our suffering as a blessing. Let us dare to see our suffering as an opportunity for growth and development. Let us dare to see that perhaps the grass is not greener on the other side; rather, the grass is greener where you water it.

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