It is difficult to even attempt to understand the experiences of the prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. One can try to imagine the horrors of the gas chambers or the ready incineration of supposedly “weak” prisoners, but it is perhaps more difficult to ponder the daily routines at such camps–the habits of the prisoners and guards. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl provides much insight on the brutal nuances of the concentration camps which render them even more horrific than once believed. The long barefoot treks in the snow, the urine-soaked straw bunks, the sharp pang of constant hunger, and the lack of basic personal provisions are but a few of the more specific details which made the prisoners’ experience all the more nightmarish.
Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, provides a highly detailed account of what life was truly like as a camp prisoner. Several of such accounts indeed exist today, but he retells his story through a psychological lens. By sharing the behaviors of the guards and prisoners, the physical conditions, and several anecdotes, Frankl analyzes human behavior and seeks to optimize human life by learning from such behavior.
Suffering is a central point of discussion in the book. Frankl asserts that one’s meaning can indeed be fulfilled in the presence of suffering, yet such fulfillment is certainly not contingent upon it. He states that if the source of the suffering can be removed, it is selfish and irrational not to remove it. However, if suffering is beyond one’s control, one can find peace amid the chaos and still proceed to live a meaningful life.
Most human beings wish to live a meaningful life. It is sometimes difficult, however, to find such meaning or to even define what meaning is. Frankl takes a far more reasonable approach to this profound question. Rather than asking what our meaning is in life, we must realize that life is asking us this very question. Therefore, we must discover life’s meaning for ourselves. Life need not divulge this to us, for we are the ones intended to discover it. Life consistently questions us. Instead of doubting it, we should learn to listen and answer back.
One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous quotes is, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Frankl repeats this statement several times throughout his book. It is pleasantly simple and easy to understand, and yet it is something that humans constantly struggle with. In order to find the “why” that is unique to an individual, one must be willing to answer the questions life is asking us.
Man’s Search for Meaning certainly inspired me to live life differently with more love, gratitude, and enjoyment of each moment. If every person could attempt to live like Frankl, the world would instantly improve in every respect. Please be ready to answer life’s questions, remember that necessary suffering does not prevent one from finding meaning, that having a “why” makes life far more endurable, and that love transcends physical existence and is indeed just as, if not more, powerful than death.