I’m reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and I cannot put it down. I am a fast reader and usually I quickly scan page after page. Here I found myself reading and re-reading paragraphs and pages again and again. I wish I have read this book when I was sixteen. I realize now how much we were deprived of books back in the Soviet Union even though we were “the most reading nation”. But that is another story.
Viktor Frankl was an extraordinary man. Like so many Jews during World War II he was cast into the Nazi network of concentration camps. Miraculously, he survived. Later he became an accomplished scientist, the founder of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, a meaning-centered and humanistic approach to psychotherapy. In his book Viktor Frankl describes his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner and offers his way in finding meaning in life, even it is lived in the most sordid conditions. He quotes the words of Nietzshe: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” The prisoners who gave up on life, who had lost all hope for future, who had lost the Why were doomed. They were dying less than from lack of food or medicine but rather from lack of hope, lack of something to live for. As terrible as it was, Viktor Frankl’s experience in concentration camps had brought him to his most powerful idea: life is not a quest for pleasure and happiness, but quest for meaning.
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What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We have to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.
When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.
For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that could be help to us. They kept us from despair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive. Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.
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…the story of the young woman whose death I witnessed in a concentration camp. It is a simple story. There is little to tell and it may sound as if I had invented it; but to me it seems like a poem.
This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the windows of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just a branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.’”