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Man’s Search For Meaning

It was a period between 1940 and 1944 when World War 2 was in full swing, and the Nazi atrocities were at a peak. Located at the southern border of Poland was Auschwitz- a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps operated by the Nazis in occupied Poland. 

Auschwitz was the scene of the dreaded holocaust where the genocide of over a million jews happened with clinical precision using gas chambers. 

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian Jew, a Doctor, and psychologist who was captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz in 1942 but somehow managed to survive the camp. He was tortured, beaten, worked to the brink of death, not given enough food or proper clothes in freezing temperatures. He suffered from frostbitten toes, and edema. His entire family died at the camp. 

Despite all the hardship, Frankl found the strength and the resolve to endure the brutality and still have the will to survive. After being freed from the camp in 1945, he went on to write an extraordinary Part autobiography, Part Psychology book called “Man’s Search for Meaning.” 

The core of Frankl’s philosophy is that as humans, we have a deep desire to find meaning in our lives, and if we can find that meaning, we can survive any sort of hardship. 

Frankl decided that he was going to use his suffering as an catalyst to make himself a better person. That is how he found meaning in his experiences at the concentration camp. Frankl had a choice of becoming apathetic and not making any effort to survive or accept and embrace his suffering. He chose the latter. According to Frankl, while a man’s destiny in life is undoubtedly affected by the circumstances in which he finds himself, he is ultimately free to choose his own path in life. Even in the worst situation possible, man always has the freedom to choose his attitude towards life.

Frankl postulates in the book that we derive meaning for our life from 3 sources.

The first is “life purpose.” We all seek happiness in life, but the pursuit of happiness in itself is meaningless. Frankl says in the book that happiness is a by-product of getting involved in a task that engages all our imagination, talent, and capability. When we have a purpose, we derive a meaning that gives us a sense of contentment.

The second source for meaning comes from our experiences that focus on contribution and elevating others through love. Serving others is love. While our society may put human achievement at a higher pedestal, Frankl says that love is what matters and that it is a legitimate alternative to achievement.

The third source of meaning comes from the suffering every human being will encounter in life. We may not know what the significance may be for the suffering at the time of the experience. Still, we will undoubtedly derive meaning much later in life when the pain subsides, and we can dissect the experience of suffering devoid of the emotion. We realize in time that suffering strengthens character and evolves us to a higher state.

If you are looking for an inspiration and perspective for your life, read this book. If you are not the book reading type, here are some of the amazing nuggets of wisdom from his book. Remember, the book first published in 1946. These timeless quotes are relevant and pertinent, even today. 

  • “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
  • “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 own way.”
  • “But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
  • “What is to give light must endure burning.”
  • “In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
  • “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
  • “For success like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the personal and unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”
  • “No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same”
  • “If there is any meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
  • “I do not forget any good deed done to me, and I do not carry a grudge for a bad one.”
  • “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
  • “For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
  • “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me.”

For everyone of us life holds meaning regardless of what the circumstances may be. We can make our life meaningful by seeking to discover our life purpose, living a life of contribution and by choosing to see suffering as a mechanism to enhance my character.

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