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Jul 2015 by PCI College

Book Review by Mike Hackett - Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl – Book Review by Mike Hackett

Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
“He who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how.” Friedrich Nietzsche.
On the 6th May, 2010, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared the Second World War to be one of history’s “Most Epic Struggles for Freedom and Liberation”. At a meeting of the general assembly, speakers participated in solemn commemoration of the victims of war by reciting the names and places that still resonated, despite the passing of 65 years since the official end of that atrocious conflict.
Today, words like Auschwitz, Dachau and Belsen haunt our collective psyche. The stories of those who lived and died in those places cast long shadows into history, the tragedies, the suffering, utter holocaust. For the millions of people who were systematically stolen from their homes and their communities, torn from families, abused and tortured, gassed and burned to death, their physical and emotional suffering is beyond what we can imagine. And yet it is in the context of such human devastation, we are gifted insight into the very soul of man, when hope is gone, there is still a glimmer of something transformative; the possibility of meaning.
And it was in this context of the concentration camp, surrounded by the suffering of a war-torn Europe, confronted at every turn by hardship and death, one man’s search for meaning grew to become ‘the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy’. Himself a survivor of Nazi labour camps, Viktor Frankl, daily encountered another struggle for freedom and liberation. His though was transformed from the visceral struggle for survival into a man’s desire not just to find personal meaning in his own suffering, but to find ways to alleviate the suffering of others by assisting them to make sense and meaning of their own. The work of making meaning in the clinical context is today Logotherapy.
It is in his 1956 book “Man’s search for Meaning”, Frankl both analyses his experiences in the concentration camps, and also, just as importantly, introduces the concept of meaning and his theory of Logotherapy. He states that even in the most dire circumstance, the failure of the sufferer to find meaning and a sense of responsibility in his existence becomes a form of neurosis called Noogenic Neurosis or if you wish, an Existential Crisis. Frustration in this essential ‘will to meaning’ adds a forward, future oriented view of man’s essential nature. Frankl quotes Spinoza who suggests that emotion which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it. Further, it is a peculiarity of man that “he can only live by looking to the future – sub specie aeternitatis. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.” (Frankl, 1956, Pg 94).
The central question is for him then, how can man survive when everything is taken away, the shoes on his feet, the clothes on his back, the hair on his head, when not just every important possession is lost, but also every person who is important to him. The answer says Frankl is that even when all is lost, when everything is taken, there is always one vital quality that can never be taken – man’s freedom to choose his attitude to his suffering.
“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 the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Frankl, 1956, Pg 86)
It is the essential recognition that we all have choices, represents the greatest potential for the alleviation of suffering. The challenge is to exercise our choices and not to give up, despite all, to never give in. Frankl observed that the difference between those camp inmates who survived versus those who perished was how the exercised their choice to see their suffering as meaningful, to recognise their ultimate freedom of attitude choice and that they held on to a possibility in the future which saw them free of the burdens they presently bore.
“And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.” (Frakl 1956, Pg 87)
As a man and as a psychotherapist Frankl rises above and beyond the observations on the psychology of the concentration camp and the dark themes, which arise for those who suffer myriad indignities. He always asks, how can we help? This is perhaps the greatest gift of Frankl’s time in Auschwitz. In a beautiful and touching way (though often quite challenging) the practice of this kind of existential therapy focuses the work of Logotherapy on weaving together the slender threads of a broken life into a pattern of meaning & responsibility.  
Perhaps then in 2015, as we prepare for the upcoming National Counselling & Psychotherapy Conference dedicated to ‘Psychotherapy and the Meaning of Life’, we should commemorate in the spirit of the United Nations, an ongoing struggle for freedom and liberty: the struggle to free ourselves from the tyranny of suffering without meaning; and the battle for liberty from failure to choose our attitude even in the most dreadful of circumstances. Perhaps monuments should be erected to men like Viktor Frankl, not just to their survival of the holocaust, but to their remarkable legacy: that meaning is not just possible, but essential for the alleviation of human suffering.

Frankl, Viktor E. (1956). Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Pocket Books Publishing.
Mike Hackett (July 2015)


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