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[Book Review] Viktor Frankl's 'Man's Search for Meaning'

TW: Mention of suicide, violence

Note: This book was discussed at TNO Reads, The Night Owl book club's first meet.

Everyone comes to a point in their lives where things begin to seem futile; when we fail to see any meaning to life and have thoughts of giving up. Man’s Search for Meaning, an autobiography of a psychiatrist and a memoir of a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, narrates the experiences of the author (Dr. Viktor E. Frankl) braving the most horrifying odds one could ever imagine. The book imparts hope through Frankl's personal anecdote and his narration of encounters with his patients, many of whom tried taking their own lives, but eventually overcame their circumstances as they have been able to see meaning to life and to existence.

The book is divided into two parts, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” and “Logotherapy in a Nutshell.” The first part of the book takes one to the everyday happenings in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany where nobody knew if they would leave it alive. While positive attitudes towards life acted as an aid to endurance, the prisoners' dehumanization and the tricks they used to revolt in the face of death, are all the testament. Here, Frankl talks about three stages in a camp prisoner’s life: shock, apathy, and reconciliation with freedom. The prisoners consist of people from various walks of life reduced to mere numbers; numbers replace names, and identities are diminished. The detainees serve rigorous manual labour in the biting cold, spurred on by the incentive of avoiding death as long as was possible. Vicious slurs were served generously, while the malnourished captives lived from day to day. Trade for commodities like a simple piece of string was all that stood between life and death. In the Auschwitz Camp, cigarettes became a form of currency and were traded for essentials such as a bowl of soup.

Once the fear of death took the back seat, the prisoners revisited their "why"s of existence. Many of these meditations to the will to meaning were aroused by sights of nature or a passing joke. Frank himself was reminded of his wife and the love that he bore for her, and was consumed by memories of happy moments shared with her. For others, strengthening of the "inner world" came in the form of turning to spirituality and religiosity. Through the course of the text, Frankl often quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Most prisoners had a 'why'; for Frankl, it was his desire to rewrite the manuscript which was confiscated when he had entered the concentration camp.

A running theme throughout the book (which is given specific attention in the second part) is that suffering is an inevitable part of life. And, each suffering has a meaning. According to Frankl, one should take pride in living a life with meaningful suffering rather than die for nothing, as man becomes dependant on decisions rather than on conditions. The prisoners who had braved the harsh nature of the detention camp had aspirations to achieve, wishes to fulfil. But if one aspires for something in life, one must carry on with that expectation throughout their life for when it breaks and one loses hope, the disappointment could be an invitation to death as was common among the prisoners. And yet, when the actual day of liberation came, while everyone thought it would be a dream come true, there was a sense of disillusionment. The experience of the camp became a nightmare but the sufferings made them ambivalent to not just struggle but also comforts.

The second part of the book brings us the author’s interaction with his patients post-liberation. He developed logotherapy through his experiences of surviving the Nazi concentration camp. Its motive is to instil among people an appreciation for the meaning in life required for survival. The author comforts the patients (and this reader) by providing techniques to outlive the worst scenarios. A positive attitude in a tragedy like pain, guilt and death was the author’s spell to a long life.

Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!

These words of the author must have helped a lot of the readers overcome their confusion and guilt. Imagining the present to be the past and knowing that the past cannot be changed; I take that as a mantra to live in the present overcoming fears of guilt and grief; forgiving and rectifying one's actions.

To me, this book has served as a therapeutic in overcoming my insecurities. It found me at time when I often find myself frustrated at little things, resulting from me not realising my expectations for myself. It reminded me of the time I feared the death of a dear one, and instilled pride in me for having outlived that phase. I realized I have a meaning to life and that I control the power to change myself because "fate" won’t. Nevertheless, I doubted Viktor E. Frankl’s claim that his patients overcame their troubles after a single session of logotherapy. A question triggered me “Did he follow up on his patients for a long period?” Even so, I believe his words have helped many realize the existential realities; even more, seeking meaning to life for a lively existence. And, I am one among those many.

This Night Owl Original has been authored by Ningthoukhongjam Girija. She is a student of Political Science at the University of Delhi; an ambivert who fancies solitude to pen down her thoughts. She is fond of pop punk and often feels her life is depicted in Simple Plan songs.



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