One of the hardest books to read, but one of the most rewarding. I just finished psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. During the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of an estimated 17 million humans like you and me, Frankl was moved from camp to camp, doing forced labor in brutal conditions, threatened constantly with death. Man’s Search for Meaning serves both as a memoir of sorts for his time in concentration and labor camps and as an explanation of how that experience shaped his understanding of psychology.
I want to share with you just a few of the words of hope that I found in Frankl’s book, and I hope you’ll be inspired to read the rest of the book yourself. I can’t state strongly enough the impact that this book has had. No matter how sad its stories, I found it to be one of the most hopeful books I’ve read.
1. You matter.
Some days you may question whether there’s any point to your being here. But even in the worst of times, Frankl found that if he and his fellow prisoners considered the impact they might still have on others through their love and their work in the future, they could see just how much each of them did matter.
“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'” – Viktor Frankl
2. You get to choose your life’s meaning.
Life is a weird path of twists and turns for each of us, and in comparing ourselves to others or to the ideals we think we’ve learned, we sometimes can’t find how we matter. But Frankl learned that peace can be found in giving up the search for an ultimate meaning, and instead choosing what you will live for.
“Everyone has is own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. . . . Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.” – Viktor Frankl
3. You can always find joy and fulfillment in LOVE.
Love is a powerful and beautiful thing. For me, this was one of the most meaningful and helpful messages in the book. In a strongly individualistic society, it is hard to grasp the significance and fulfillment in just loving another person. It is okay to live for love.
“My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. . . . A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” – Viktor Frankl
4. You can reduce your suffering by observing it objectively.
It’s hard to imagine suffering worse than prisoners in a concentration camp, but even in such intense suffering, Frankl found relief. He discovered that a simple change in how you observe the present moment can make a bad situation much more bearable. He told a story about when, during a particularly awful day, he started imagining that he was actually retelling his situation in a future psychological lecture. Just this simple mental exercise helped immensely, reminding him that life was bigger than his current hurt, that the present was simply a circumstance that could be observed.
“By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past. Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself. . . . What does Spinoza say . . . ‘Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.'” – Viktor Frankl
5. Feelings of joy and suffering are relative. You’re not stuck in your feelings.
This may be a blessing and a curse, depending on how you look at it and what focus you choose. Frankl observed that the feelings of despair, suffering, frustration, and sadness, weren’t necessarily worse or more overwhelming, in a situation as awful as a concentration camp, than in a less severe circumstance. Humans tend to feel suffering very completely, whether the stressor is big or little. On the one hand, that can mean a small disappointment can be overwhelming. On the other hand, that can mean that you may handle the very worst circumstances much better than you think–which is a hopeful thought. Studies have shown that people who go through awful events often end up much less devastated, at least after a while, than they think they will be. In the same token, feelings of happiness and joy can be extremely strong, even when found in very simple experiences.
“Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative. It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys.” – Viktor Frankl
6. Growing old is going to be okay.
This one sucks. I always hate thinking of growing old, watching my remaining time in this life get shorter and shorter. This book honestly helped with that. Frankl has the most beautiful perspective on this that I’ve heard. It’s a peaceful and hopeful one. I’ll let him speak for himself. I hope it helps you as much as it helped me.
“At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence. . . . I should say having been is the surest kind of being. . . . The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a younger person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? ‘No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.'” – Viktor Frankl
7. You are always free to choose and change.
Another one that is near and dear to my heart, that inspires compassion and hope for myself and for others: His life in Nazi death camps persuaded Frankl that people are not stuck being, thinking, speaking, or acting as they have, or as they’re conditioned to. Sure, the deck may be stacked against you. And on average, people tend to stick with their patterns. But at the end of the day, each of us is free to choose. Free to choose how we will react to the circumstances life brings to us. Free to choose who we are.
“Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” – Viktor Frankl
Guys, it’s hard to communicate how much I loved this book. It wasn’t the most impressively written, it wasn’t the most exciting, it wasn’t the most pleasant. But it was full of the raw experiences of real life in all its nitty gritty weirdness. It was honest. And it was full of hope and inspiration. So full of hope. Real hope.
I hope you’ll read it. And I hope that every day for the rest of your life, you’ll find hope.
“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.” – Viktor Frankl