book review: man's search for meaning by viktor frankl

Posted on Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

my first bus blog. I've been reading a lot on the bus, which is pretty much the only time I am able to read. just finished this book which I thought was quite profound so didn't want to go on to the next without jotting a few thoughts down. 

format of the book was mainly narrative in the first half, a little more technical analysis in the second half. premise was the idea that meaning is an essential driver of an individual's will to live, and a lack of meaning could actually be fatal. also that meaning can be derived in three main ways: achievement or deed, encounter or experience (with someone you love as the primary example), or through extreme unavoidable suffering.

this last one is a particular focal point as frankl shares his experience in the concentration camps during the holocaust. he recalls among the horrors and devolution of his fellow prisoners, there existed a few exemplary examples of men who retained their dignity and what he calls "tragic optimism" -- the daring to hope despite no evidence to support that freedom was imminent. he posits that this semblance of meaning, that this suffering is not for nothing, literally saved lives. 

even more poignant is the point he makes about those who were able to hold on to their humanity among the many others who, under the extreme duress of the camp environment, degenerated to a more primal survivor-mentality. the few who still managed to impart kindness despite their suffering, to share their scarce food, were definitely rare sights. but they were people that every prisoner could recall, according to frankl. and their mere existence and achievement leads him to believe that it is not surroundings alone that dictate an individual's sense of self, even though one would expect it to be perfectly natural to become debased given the harsh and extreme environment of the camps where literally everything is taken from you and you are treated as lower than dirt. on the contrary, frankl believes that even in this state of most extreme suffering, the individual cannot be stripped of the final choice which makes him human: the choice to maintain humanity or give it up. this is interesting to me because it implies that even though we can frame the situation as a victimization, the final straw that makes or breaks the man is his own choice to be broken, which gives him a certain agency over his own demise. it makes us incapable of being true victims in the sense of the spirit and any external force's power to break that spirit.

you may find fault with the reasoning that the few examples of this transcendence of suffering prove that it is possible to transcend. maybe for some, well for most, it is truly impossible. and that these individuals were simply extraordinary. but the idea that there is a choice at the very end, is still an intriguing one. perhaps that very idea is what eludes people who never fathom that and fail.