Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the great books of our time. Typically, if a book has one passage, one idea with the power to change a person’s life, that alone justifies reading and re-reading it and finding room for it on one’s shelves. This book has several such passages.
It is first of all a book about survival. Like so many German and East European Jews who thought themselves secure, Frankl was cast into the Nazi network of concentration and extermination camps. Miraculously, he survived, in the biblical phrase “a brand plucked from the fire.” But his account in this book is less about his travails, what he suffered and lost, than it is about the sources of his strength to survive. Several times in the course of the book, Frankl approvingly quotes the words of Nietzsche, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” He describes poignantly the prisoners who gave up on life, who had lost all hope for a future and were inevitably the first to die. They died less from lack of food or lack of medicine than from lack of hope, lack of something to live for. By contrast, Frankl kept himself alive and kept hope alive by summoning up thoughts of his wife and the prospect of seeing her again after the war, and dreaming at one point of lecturing after the war about the psychological lessons to be learned from the Auschwitz experience. Clearly many prisoners who desperately wanted to live did die, some of disease, some in the crematoria. But Frankl’s concern is less with the question of why most died than it is with the question of why anyone at all survived.
His experience in Auschwitz, terrible as it was, reinforced what was already one of his key ideas. Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The great task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person, as Frankl held on to the image of his wife through the darkest days in Auschwitz), and in courage in difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it. At one point, he writes that a person “may remain brave, dignified and unselfish, or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.” He concedes that only a few prisoners of the Nazis were able to do the former, “but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate.”
Finally, Frankl’s most enduring insight, one that I have called on often in my own life and in countless counseling situations: forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.
There is a scene in Arthur Miller’s play Incident at Vichy in which an upper-middle-class professional man appears before the Nazi authority that has occupied his town and shows his credentials: his university degrees, his letters of reference from prominent citizens, and so on. The Nazi asks him, “Is that everything you have?” The man nods yes. The Nazi then throws it all in the wastebasket and tells him, “Good, now you have nothing.” The man, whose self-esteem had always depended on the respect of others, is emotionally destroyed. Frankl would have argued that we are never left with nothing as long as we retain the freedom to choose how we will respond.
My own congregational experience has shown me the truth of Frankl’s insights. I have known successful businessmen who, upon retirement, lost all zest for life. Their work had given their lives meaning. Often it was the only thing that gave their lives meaning, and without it, they spent day after day sitting at home depressed, “with nothing to do.” I have known people who rose to the challenge of enduring the most terrible of afflictions and situations as long as they believed there was a point to their suffering. Whether it was a family milestone they wanted to live long enough to share or the prospect of doctors finding a cure by studying their affliction, having a Why to live for enabled them to bear the How.
And my own experience echoes Frankl’s in another way. Just as the ideas in my book When Bad Things Happen to Good People gained power and credibility because they were offered in the context of my struggle to understand the illness and death of our son, Frankl’s doctrine of logotherapy, curing the soul by leading it to find meaning in life, gains credibility against the background of his anguish in Auschwitz. The last half of the book without the first would be far less effective.
I find it significant that the preface to the 1962 edition of Man’s Search for Meaning was written by a prominent psychologist, Dr. Gordon Allport, and the preface to this re-issued edition is written by a clergyman. We have come to recognize that this is a profoundly religious book. It insists that life is meaningful and that we must learn to see life as meaningful despite our circumstances. It emphasizes that there is an ultimate purpose to life. And in its original version, before an appendix was added, it concluded with one of the most religious sentences written in the twentieth Century:
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.
Preface to the 1992 Edition
This book has now lived to see nearly one hundred printings in English—in addition to having been published in twenty-one other languages. And the English editions alone have sold more than three million copies.
These are the dry facts, and they may well be the reason why reporters of American newspapers and particularly of American TV stations more often than not start their interviews, after listing these facts, by exclaiming: “Dr. Frankl, your book has become a true bestseller—how do you feel about such a success?” Whereupon I react by reporting that in the first place 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.
To be sure, something else may have contributed to the impact of the book: its second, theoretical part (“Logotherapy in a Nutshell”) boils down, as it were, to the lesson one may distill from the first part, the autobiographical account (“Experiences in a Concentration Camp”), whereas Part One serves as the existential validation of my theories. Thus, both parts mutually support their credibility.
I had none of this in mind when I wrote the book in 1945. And I did so within nine successive days and with the firm determination that the book should be published anonymously. In fact, the first printing of the original German version does not show my name on the cover, though at the last moment, just before the book’s initial publication, I did finally give in to my friends who had urged me to let it be published with my name at least on the title page. At first, however, it had been written with the absolute conviction that, as an anonymous opus, it could never earn its author literary fame. I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. And I thought that if the point were demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing. I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.
And so it is both strange and remarkable to me that—among some dozens of books I have authored—precisely this one, which I had intended to be published anonymously so that it could never build up any reputation on the part of the author, did become a success. Again and again I therefore admonish my students both in Europe and in America: “Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”
The reader may ask me why I did not try to escape what was in store for me after Hitler had occupied Austria. Let me answer by recalling the following story. Shortly before the United States entered World War II, I received an invitation to come to the American Consulate in Vienna to pick up my immigration visa. My old parents were overjoyed because they expected that I would soon be allowed to leave Austria. I suddenly hesitated, however. The question beset me: could I really afford to leave my parents alone to face their fate, to be sent, sooner or later, to a concentration camp, or even to a so-called extermination camp? Where did my responsibility lie? Should I foster my brain child, logotherapy, by emigrating to fertile soil where I could write my books? Or should I concentrate on my duties as a real child, the child of my parents who had to do whatever he could to protect them? I pondered the problem this way and that but could not arrive at a solution; this was the type of dilemma that made one wish for “a hint from Heaven,” as the phrase goes.
It was then that I noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at home. When I asked my father about it, he explained that he had found it on the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. He had taken the piece home because it was a part of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. One gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the piece; my father explained that this letter stood for one of the Commandments. Eagerly I asked, “Which one is it?” He answered, “Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land.” At that moment I decided to stay with my father and my mother upon the land, and to let the American visa lapse.
VIKTOR E. FRANKL