Dr. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, tells the tragic, but inspiring story of his time as a Nazi prisoner in “Man’s Search For Meaning.” The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, Dr. Frankl tells his story about the time he spent in the four different death camps, as well as the time immediately after being freed. In the second part, Frankl describes his model of psychotherapy called logotherapy.
Though some criticize Frankl’s prose that describes his time as a prisoner as lacking in emotion, I found it rich in emotional descriptions. How many passages like this does one need to get a sense of the horror he went through?
I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.
Throughout Frankl’s narrative, he tells us about his internal dialogue and will to create meaning during the absurd horror he lived through. He imagined being with his wife again (who didn’t survive the concentration camps), or standing behind a podium giving a talk about how he survived his ordeal (which he ultimately did and to much larger audiences than he’d imagined.) He proffers many insights that he learned and held onto during his suffering so that he may write about them when finally free. One of his most famous lines reveals the deepest truth he discovered when in the darkest hours of his imprisonment.
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.
He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.
As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy.
The text is plentiful in inspiration.
Frankl’s background in psychiatry leads him to construct the second part of the text as a semi-formal model of logotherapy, the name he gives his approach to helping patients find meaning in their lives. This section may be less interesting to those outside of the mental health field, but it isn’t so technical as to not be accessible to most readers.
If you are looking for a text that is a stark reminder of what humans can endure, as well as ways of dealing with those hardships, try this classic. It truly is a testament to the potential strength of the human spirit in terrible times.