Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl – Book Summary

Man's Search For Meaning summary

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During the Holocaust in the 1940s, Viktor Frankl spent three years as a prisoner in the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. His wife, father, mother and brother died in these camps. He was faced with extreme hunger, debilitating illnesses and brutal living conditions, yet unlike the prisoners around him, he somehow managed to find hope and meaning during one of the most catastrophic events in human history.
It’s no wonder Man’s Search for Meaning sold over 10 million copies and became one of the most influential books in the world. Let’s have a look at three powerful lessons we can learn from the book.

Lesson one: He who has a “why” to live for, can bear with almost any “how”

  • Frankl was confronted by a fellow inmate, let’s call him Fred. Fred shared a dream he had in February 1945.
  • A voice told him he could wish for something so he wished to know when he would be liberated from the concentration camp and have his sufferings come to an end. The voice replied, March the 30th.
  • Fred had a strong sense of hope and was convinced the voice in his dream was right.
  • As the date ticked closer the war got worse, making it appear to be very unlikely that freedom was near.
  • On March the 29th, fred suddenly became ill. On March the 30th, the day he expected to be free, he lost consciousness. On March 31st he was dead. 
  • To paraphrase Frankl’s own words, the ultimate cause of my friend’s death was that the expected liberation did not come and he was severely disappointed.
  • This suddenly lowered his body’s resistance against the latent typhus infection.
  • His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralysed and his body fell victim to illness and thus the voice of his dream was right after all.
  • To back up this case, chief doctor of the concentration camp witnessed an increased in death rate of prisoners between Christmas 1944 and New Years 1945.
  • The doctor believe this was due to prisoners having false hope that they would be home again by Christmas.
  • As the time drew near, many lost hope and fell into an endless sleep.
  • So you might be asking, what can we learn from these stories?
  • Well Frankl sums it up by saying, “Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why, an aim for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence.”
  • Basically, the prisoners who found a reason to live had a stronger will to live and chance of coming out alive and those without a reason to keep going, increased their likelihood of severe illness and death.
  • Frankl goes on to describe two prisoners who were contemplating suicide.
  • They used the typical argument that they had nothing more to expect from life, but they didn’t commit suicide.
  • Why, because they found meaning, a reason to keep going.
  • For one it was his child waiting for him in a foreign country, the other man was a scientist who had written a series of books which still needed to be finished.
  • 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.

Lesson two: Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which a man can aspire.

  • Frankl emphasizes that everyone’s meaning is completely unique and that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which a man can aspire.
  • It was one man’s love for his child that kept him pushing forward and for another it was his love for sharing his findings with the world through books.
  • For Frankl himself, it was the love for his wife that kept him going.
  • He realized the power of love on a cold dark day where he and his inmates were commanded to march out to a work site. The emaciated prisoners were beaten and forced to trudge over large stones and icy terrain.
  • One inmate whispered to Frankl, if our wives could see us now. I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.
  • Upon reflecting on this time in the past, Frankl said, “I did not know whether my wife was alive and I had no means of finding out. But at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead. I think that I would still have given myself undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying.”

Lesson 3: When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.

  • Before Frankl was put in a concentration camp, he was working as a clinical psychiatrist.
  • He once had a client with severe depression.
  • Let’s call him Pete. Pete could not overcome the loss of his wife who died two years ago.
  • Frankl asked him, what would have happened if you had died first and your wife would have had to survive for you.
  • He said, for her this would have been terrible. She would have suffered.
  • Frankl replied, you see, Pete, such a suffering has been spared and it was you who have spared her this suffering.
  • He said nothing, shook Frankl’s hand and calmly left the office.
  • Frankl said, In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering in the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice. Of course this was no therapy in the proper sense. Since first his despair was no disease; and second I could not change his fate; I could not revive his wife. But in that moment, I did succeed in changing his attitude toward his unalterable fate and he could now at least see a meaning in his suffering.
  • In the world today, countless people who have found themselves in seemingly hopeless circumstances have found meaning in their lives.
  • Some things in life are inevitable. The loss of loved ones, terminal illnesses, and forgotten memories.
  • Whatever we do, Man’s Search for Meaning challenges us to accept that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find a meaning in it, and move forward.

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