Review: Man’s Search for Meaning

Man's Search for Meaning
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this book by accident, and I understand it is a modern classic, but I had never heard of it. This is a partially autobiographical, partially observational, tale of a psychiatrist who survived four Nazi concentration camps. You might be surprised to learn that he died in 1997 happy, well-adjusted, and with a sense of purpose. Dr. Frankl poses the hypothesis that in order to be sane, humanity requires meaning to their lives, and we must make that meaning for ourselves. There are essentially three ways to do this. The first is to do something in life that you feel matters, and you believe will make the world a better place or outlast you. The second is to experience another human being completely through love. And the third is to survive and endure suffering with courage, valour and honour. Dr. Frankl does not think that surviving suffering, when one has the power to escape it, is noble; that is martyrdom in all the modern pejorative connotations we ascribe to it in modern psychology. Rather, he thinks that sometimes unavoidable suffering must simply be endured. Hopefully we become better people by it.

Though Dr. Frankl argues for a new “school” of psychiatry called “logotherapy,” which is oriented towards helping his patients to find meaning and treats them through this (and I think there’s great value in that; I know so many people who would have been helped by this approach, and I watched it work for my husband after a near-fatal, crippling car accident) I believe the real value in his book is in the context of urging us to find meaning in unavoidable suffering. This phenomenon is sometimes called “Posttraumatic Growth” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posttraumatic_growth and it is the essence of Neitzsche’s famous saying: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

Reading partially like a scientific thesis and partially like philosophical query, I highly recommend this book to anyone, especially those who are trying to understand a deep grief or a traumatic experience, and I am going to put it on the required reading list for my students.

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