Man’s Search for Meaning: Can a common life derive meaning from another man’s meaning of enduring extraordinary human catastrophe?

In reviewing the quotes I highlighted from Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, the Nietsche quote “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how,” appears four times. It must have resonated with me, even though in my current situation I cannot claim to be bearing adversity in any true sense. Perhaps there is a gradual erosion, through the slow drip of comfort and mundanity, of those convictions that might have fueled any contributions to the world of the Arts or Science. Even so, at my age it is not entirely a revelation that one’s life has to convey meaning to oneself, in order to keep spirit and energy flowing in a positive and motivational current. It is not only to see life as worth maintaining in the highest possible manner, but to be allowed to engage in it with an almost destinal and divine nature. To be able to live life in such a way, even as one engages in a very common and unnoteworthy existence, is a paradox that becomes easier to live in, as one gets older. But what strikes the reader, from Frankl’s memoir, is that this type of meaning can be maintained when almost nothing else is. To survive in a Nazi concentration camp is one thing, but to make that survival, whether or not the individual even escapes death there, an honorable experience that gives deep meaning to one’s existence, is a knowledge worth conveying. It is a reminder to all of us, that not only is our effort to find and maintain meaning and understanding a worthy endeavor in our day to day occupations, but that a continued investigation of our lives can in itself be a rich source of meaning no matter what the circumstances.

For me, this point is made in his recount of an insight he reached while under the duress of navigating the miseries of camp life. At some point in the book Frankl observes that the intellectual person or any person that maintains a rich inner life could, as he writes, “retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.” This notion is repeated often and Frankl even tells us that when a person’s “inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things,” they tend to survive the harsh conditions better than those prisoners of a seemingly more robust physical nature. Even so, the circumstances become so dire he cannot retreat to his rich inner life and must spend all his attention on navigating through the very serious dangers of surviving a concentration camp. But then it dawns on him that investigating objectively his reactions and moment to moment decisions to the circumstances of the oppressive situation, relieves him of his inner negative suffering. We get the understanding that before this moment, in his resentment at being left to the bare task of survival, he had a tendency to perhaps question what is the point of living at all, under the duress of camp life. It is a despondency of the meaningless of life that all of us might expect to fall into under such conditions. Yet to suddenly discover meaning in the very trying circumstances themselves, is a recognition that meaning is seemingly a prerequisite to life itself. That is, that meaning can be born out of the very act of bare existing.

For most of us, and even for Frankl himself, once his internment is ended by the destruction of the Nazi state, life returns to a normality and mundanity that itself he acknowledges can cause an evasion of deep meaning for any person faced with all the chores and distractions of an average life. Near the end of the book, in his expounding of his theory of psychology and psychiatry, he rejects the established Freudian based view that a person’s psychological suffering is due to pathologies seeded in their childhood. He confirms and honors a person’s sufferings by acknowledging that real convictions for one’s own meanings in life need to be discovered and sought out. In the beginning of that process and perhaps at various times along its trajectory, although one may have some guidance from teachers or mentors, there is some real struggle, doubt, and suffering. It’s these very sufferings that spur a person onward to find deeper meaning in life. To deny that struggle is to deny a person’s search for meaning.

From my own personal experience the fear of the loss of meaning, that is, the fear that my life adds up to no more than what is described by the modern capitalist term “consumer,” has always been a shadow. That other people may find that being a discerning consumer meaning enough to satisfy their existence, does not lessen my phobia to the idea. As a matter of course, I may say that one important meaning of my life has been to accept surfing the ridge between trying to engage in a life that feels like it has destinal and divine nature, and at the same time recognizing I am still one of those average consumers. One of the more important ways for me, of living a life of meaning, is to be creative. To start with a blank canvas, a white page, a soundless musical instrument, and from there create something of beauty or interest that others may also find beautiful, intriguing, or in some way having value.

The current path of my life has been leading me more toward that of a consumer. And this has raised those fears. Frankl presents a more enlightened meaning of the consumer in his explanation of the patterns of life. I find it richly valuable the triumvirate of meaning that Frankl describes in relation to what might be termed phases or periods of a person’s life. There is the passive life of enjoyment, the creative life, and the suffering life. In all three he describes the value and importance of meaning that can be derived from each stage or passage. The creative life “realizes values in creative work.” It is a doing thing. A becoming thing that has always been a draw for me. But Frankl recognizes the value people have for life focused on the “opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature.” The friction for me has been that this trajectory toward a life of pleasures leaves less time to the creative life, and thus I find myself sometimes suffering. It can be argued my suffering is not at all similar to the suffering of a person who is being distracted from their life of inner riches by the very real need to navigate the treacherous aspects of survival. But suffering can have a deleterious effect on our moods and spirit, no matter its source.

My trajectory toward a life of more passive enjoyment is a compromise to a relationship. Relationships themselves demand to narrow our scope of what it is we are free to do, so we can align with another person enough to share a fair portion of our time in mutual pursuits. These pursuits can be, more or less, activities that both people highly value. Now it is not that a person lives solely in a world of sensual enjoyment, or alternatively in a creative workshop, at certain times of their life. It is even true that these experiences, including unaccountable suffering, in say perhaps the death of a family member or other loved one, are engaged in throughout a person’s life, even within perhaps the same year, month, week, or even day. I’m a person that requires, and am quickly satisfied with, a small portion of the passive life of enjoyment. Once I’ve had my fill I want to return to a life of creativity. I share many of the pleasures of the person I’m having the relationship with, or can see the value and discover those pleasures of which I am unfamiliar. But that other person tends to want more time enjoying those pleasures. In their current stage of life they are not driven toward the creative life as much as I. Or perhaps in this stage of the relationship mutually shared experiences tend to be of the passive enjoyment kind, and with time will mature into a more creative stage.

I feel it’s important to add that Frankl recognizes and himself experiences that intense meaning in life can most assuredly be found in a deep devotion to a loved one or toward people to which he is devoted. The examples are many, from the visa offer to the United States he turns down in order to stay with his parents, observant of the predictable course of the anti-Semitism in Nazi occupied Austria. He conveys it in his feelings for his wife, of whom he has been separated from early on in their internment, and likely realizes her inevitable demise. Be that as it may, I can sometimes recognize a resentment arise in me based on fears that because I spend so much time with my partner, I will not have the time to engage in, let alone complete, cherished creative projects.

So, it is perhaps that I need to engage with this life of pleasures, that I am sharing with a loved one, in the same objective manner that Frankl engaged with the routines of concentration camp survival. In this way, I might find I suffer less and I will not worry of the longing to be writing, reading, or engaging in some other way with my inclination to create. And I will still be able to keep alive the spirit that finds value in the creative life. For it is that the creative life is to a certain extent dependent on projects that require commitment, time, and vision. When we currently don’t have that time, the creative person can lose the cherished vision of the projects, and thus suffer. But by using Frankl’s prescription of being the objective witness, I can trust that if the creative process and projects have a true value and power of their own, then time will manifest to practice those artforms and give those projects the time that is needed. All this without creating a resentment that clouds my moment to moment experience, and especially does not taint the relationship with a loved one.

Again, I don’t want to equate the suffering of a concentration camp inmate with the supposed suffering of the would-be artist diverted from pursuing her craft. But suffering is a relative experience. Whether or not you agree many sufferings are born out of our own delusions, finding the root causes of those sufferings and thus diminishing the actual suffering, is a step toward finding meaning in life. And once free of the suffering, more options to fulfil one’s existence, i.e., to find meaning, appear where before we saw only obstacles. My point here is to show that the knowledge Frankl conveys can be applied to any condition of life. It need not await a catastrophe like the one Frankl had to endure, in order to reveal the knowledge, or mature it into a theory worthy of modeling a therapeutic style of psychiatry, and writing a bestselling memoir.

Perhaps, that is why I find it so comforting that Frankl’s vision and tendency toward the creative life is so strong, that even under the duress of possible annihilation in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, he tries to keep his ideas for his manuscript written down on scraps of paper, hidden from his tormentors. Even when those are destroyed and his life is almost certainly destined for a soon pitiful end, he finds pencil and paper and tries to recreate what he lost. It’s the same comfort I get when reading that J.D. Salinger carried his work-in-progress manuscript The Catcher in the Rye in his backpack when storming the beaches of Normandy. In the face of such an uncertain outcome for his life he maintains a space for his creative vision. This is more than something I could have done in my younger life, when I would sometimes succumb to thoughts of giving up on my creative pursuits, because I saw no way through the current impasses and more pressing responsibilities of my life, which kept me from engaging in the activities that could further my creative visions. It really is remarkable these habits of Frankl or Salinger and their ways of valuing something of meaning in their lives, that tends to expand beyond one’s life, even though its final fruition requires them to fulfill enough time in their lives to complete the kinds of projects that helped to give their lives meaning. It is honoring and valuing the very act of creativity, in the face of the possibility that its full fruition will not be realized.

All of this tends to reveal an actual effort in finding and maintaining meaning in one’s life. Frankl demonstrates often that this meaning requires a person to actively engage in assessing the values and meanings of one’s actions within the confines of the horrors of the camp life, from the objective mind of a witness to one’s own suffering, to his decision to stay with his patients in the sick ward of a camp, instead of transferring to a camp that would ensure a better chance of survival for himself. It is undeniable that a person has to actively engage in finding and maintaining the ideas, aspirations, and activities that give their life meaning. But it is the story of the dying girl from Frankl’s memory, that is remarkable and revealing of a natural tendency for our species to find meaning, even when seemingly all hope and energy is drained from the capacity to make an effort. It is almost as if it is effortless for meaning to arise to those available to it.

Without telling the story Frankl beautifully conveys, I’ll say it is an achingly heartbreaking, yet poignantly dignified story of a dying girl he met. She was well aware of her imminent death, but was deeply comforted in a conversation of love with a chestnut tree branch that she could see out a window, a couple of blooms still alight on the branch. When Frankl asked her if it responded he conveyed her response with the line.

“She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here–I am here–I am life, eternal life.’”

It’s almost as if the meaning of life has fallen like grace on this young woman, who may not have been able to muster any effort at searching for meaning whatsoever. It is the only part of the book that had me tear up unexpectedly while reading the passage, as I stood in line to enter a grocery store.

Finally, I think it is important to add one other phenomenal attribute a man like Frankl is able to cultivate with his ability to find deep meaning in the best and worst of life. This was his power to forgive. In the afterword of the book, it is revealed Frankl went back to his practice in Vienna without harboring ill will or hate toward some of his counterparts in the field of psychiatry that he knew were anti-Semitic and in alignment with the rounding up of the Jewish population of the city during the Nazi occupation of Austria. He rejected wholeheartedly the notion that a collective guilt be leveled at the mass population of a country like Germany. I’m sure this power of forgiveness served him well to greatly reduce the kind of suffering that victims endure when harboring hate toward those who have wronged them. It is a lodging of hate most of us would understand, and some of us would understand would need dislodging, if we wanted to continue to find and maintain higher meanings in life. I find it interesting that Frankl was initially determined to publish this book anonymously. He found self promotion abhorrent and although perhaps he would have accepted putting his name to publications based solely on his psycho-therapeutic theories, I can understand his notion that his discoveries and understandings of the meanings in life, as a sufferer to the horrors of Nazi extermination and concentration camp existence, should be conveyed as universal truths that so many would have had the opportunity to discover during such a trying time in human history. The potential reader of Man’s Search for Meaning might very well be apprehensive to visit this nightmarish period in human history. Our current state of affairs has plenty of trials and sufferings to effect even the most optimistic of us. But one leaves this book with convictions that the deep meanings to one’s existence can be discovered and deeply investigated, no matter the conditions of one’s life. It is a knowledge worth receiving, whether a reiteration of a truth one already knows, or a discovery that is just beginning to dawn.