Viktor Frankl wrote Mans Search For Meaning over nine consecutive days. By September 2nd, 1997 (the time of his death) Mans Search For Meaning had sold more than 10 million copies in 24 languages.

I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book an achievement and accomplishment on my part but rather an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.

Viktor Frankl

Nazi invasion

Viktor Frankl, Image: Citizens of Culture
Viktor Frankl, Image: Citizens of Culture

As a young man, Frankl was a leading psychiatrist in Vienna. He had established suicide prevention centres for teenagers and began developing his most noted contribution to psychology – logotherapy: A series of methods to combat depression and help people to find meaning in their lives.

Hitler had already occupied Austria when Frankl received his visa to the United States. The relief his parents felt was in conflict with Frankl’s own guilt about leaving them behind. He noticed a fragment of loose marble on the table of his parents home: a piece from the largest synagogue in Vienna – burned by the Nazis. It was a fragment from the Ten Commandments: Honour thy father and mother.

At that moment I decided to stay with my father and my mother upon the land, and to let the American visa lapse.
Viktor Frankl

The Nazis imprisoned Frankl, his pregnant wife, his brother and his parents. All but Frankl were murdered. Mans Search for Meaning reflects on Frankl’s time living in the concentration camps and how he found meaning – even in the most horrific of circumstances. Here are some of his lessons.

Find meaning in suffering

A photo of Viktor Frankl is superimposed onto another photo of Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
A photo of Viktor Frankl is superimposed onto another photo of Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Image: Balanced Achievement

Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning.
Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl defines two types of prisoners – those who lost faith and those who didn’t. Frankl argues the prisoners with a sense of meaning were more likely to survive.

For Frankl, his meaning became a book. On arriving at Auschwitz, Frankl’s first draft of a book he was about to publish was taken and destroyed. The camps and the people became his teachers. Frankl would rewrite that manuscript in his head and on scraps of paper he found in the camp.

(I)n a camp in Bavaria I fell ill with typhus fever, I jotted down on little scraps of paper many notes intended to enable me to rewrite the manuscript, should I live to the day of liberation. I am sure that this reconstruction of my lost manuscript… assisted me in overcoming the danger of cardiovascular collapse.
Viktor Frankl

Nobody is spared from suffering and all of us carry the potential of the human spirit. We can find meaning in all circumstances or we can slowly fade away. Frankl calls on all of us to take responsibility and make something of our lives – in spite of everything.

What is your why?

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.
Friedrich Nietzsche

It is your attitude towards life – your purpose that matters. Who do you want to be? How do you want to be seen and understood? The search is everything.

For Frankl, meaning comes from three possible sources: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty.

What is life expecting from you?

Is it conceivable too that life expects something of you…The point is not what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us.
Viktor Frankl

We need a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. It is not all about “I” but about “us”. What can you do for life? What can you do for others?

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.
Viktor Frankl

Everyone’s why is different:

No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny.
Viktor Frankl

Our last freedom

When we are no longer able to change the situation we can always change ourselves.

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.
Viktor Frankl

Between stimulus and response, you always have a choice. You and you alone will choose who you will be in the next moment and no one can take that from you.

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 human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.
Viktor Frankl

Don’t aim for success or happiness

Happiness and success cannot be pursued…the more you aim at it the more you are going to miss it…it must ensue. It is an unintended consequence of striving for something bigger than oneself … you have to let it happen by not caring about it.
Viktor Frankl

As long as you aim at success you will miss the target. It is only when we focus ourselves on purposeful work, success can welcome us. At that moment, when we have stopped chasing, we realise success which is now at our door is secondary: It was the meaning of the journey that always mattered.

Be Idealistic

If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him … we promote him to what he really can be.
Viktor Frankl

Never lose hope in the human spirit. If we seek to understand each other with love, hope and aspiration we can be so much more than we ever imagine.

Love

Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk…But my mind clung to my wife’s image…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…The salvation of man is through love and in love.
Viktor Frankl

Love is the only way we can ever fully understand each other. Love is how we see the potential of who we can become.

This post has only scratched the surface of the insights you will gain from Viktor Frankl. Mans Search for Meaning is life changing. Here is a video of Frankl himself discussing finding meaning in difficult times.

2 comments

  1. Mel Smith

    This book has been a huge inspiration to me over the years, I found it when working alongside the Holocaust Education Trust on a project with a group of young people. It has influenced my thinking through all of the very diverse aspects of my work and personal life, especially the grief of losing my Dad. So many important messages in this book – so many corners of pages folded down for me to refer back to – for me thats the sign of an exceptionally powerful narrative x

    Reply
    • Stephanie Leonard

      I read this book when I was in Berlin about 5 years ago. It moved me so much it is now my gift for people when they need to find courage again. I’m so pleased you have found an anchor from his words when life brings her waves too us. What other books have given you inspiration?

      Reply

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