Entry #3: Viktor Frankl on Our Search for Meaning, and How to Find Ours

If you’re a book aficionado, you must be somewhat familiar with the name Viktor Frankl, or at least on the book title “Man’s Search for Meaning”. If these don’t ring a bell, here’s a little excerpt explaining the book’s content taken from God Wikipedia:

Man’s Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome.

Wikipedia, as of 2019

Published originally in 1946, this book is divided into 2 main parts; Frankl’s personal experience in a Nazi concentration camp, and then about logotherapy, his psychotherapy school of thought that focuses on fulfilment and happiness through the search for meaning. The title of the book speaks volumes in itself, which is about Frankl’s dark days in the concentration camp that led to him figuring out the essence of survival.

Frankl in his relatively younger days

Upon further research on him, I gathered that he is quite a controversial figure among Jews, holocaust historians, and psychiatrists. His logotherapy is said to “accomodate” Nazi behavior in a way. If one can achieve greater fulfillment through search for meaning, isn’t it possible that one may establish “eradicating others that are beneath them” as their ultimate meaning?

There are of course, two sides of this story. It was mentioned that his theory of logotherapy was established much before his time at the concentration camp, and his experiences solidified his theory. But some also claimed that despite so, he was displaying “Nazi-neutral” behavior, which showed that he didn’t condemn nor side with them. Further dissecting his theory, some may claim that logotherapy also justifies the supremacy belief that one may hold strongly if that is in fact, the meaning they have been led to believe. But more on this later.

That being said, my focus for this blog post is about Frankl’s thoughts for our search of meaning, and less about the truth of whether he sides with the Nazi or not, nor whether if logotherapy in itself supports fascism. If you’re really curious about him and wish to come to your own conclusion about him, feel free to google “Viktor Frankl Nazi controversy”.

The Search

The most interesting part of all. By now, we all pretty much recognize that our lives are spent in search of something. Even in the United States Declaration of Independence, it is stated that all human beings are entitled to “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness”. Now, there is something very interesting to be dug deeper in the statement. They could’ve simply stated “happiness” but they didn’t. Why? Because even 3 centuries ago, they realized that happiness is not something that can be given, but instead pursued.

What is it you’re searching for? Please don’t say money because you’re only burying yourself in a pit of disappointment

For Frankl, his search began when he decided to dwell in the field of psychology and especially psychotherapy. That was his venture and his calling. Had the Holocaust not happen, and his life went on smoothly, he would’ve spent the majority of his life to dedicate to his field. But the twist life suddenly threw at him did not stop his search for meaning. In fact, he was keen on proving his theory of logotherapy as a way to survive the pale brutality he faced during his time in the camp. His search was limited to seeing the face of his wife in his imagination and the slightest hope for triumph if he was ever to be released. When he was stripped from all possible endeavors of a normal human being to achieve happiness, his pursuit reverted to the one thing he still had; his mind.

While it is relatively easy for people in our times to try different things in life (No like job? QUIT! No like husband? DIVORCE!), sometimes we also take our freedom and absence of inhibition for granted. I personally have seen and interacted with numerous people who act as if they’ve given up on their search. People who were given the privilege of choice in life, yet did little to act upon them. People who were stuck in a job or business they hate, yet stuck out as if the choice of finding a better option was taken away from them. People who decided to stay in the state of mind that defeated them, and refused to move forward.

Without undermining the external circumstances that resulted in dismay, it can also be said that some unhappiness are self-inflicted. We have seen numerous cases where people triumph in the unlikeliest circumstances, yet we find it hard to act for our own glory. Some of us have become victims of our conditions. Blaming everyone else is too easy. Expecting the world to change is the norm. Yet, very few realize that it is their lives that are on the stakes, not others’.

I’ve been such person myself. In fact, the very moment I’m writing this, I feel completely lost in one such circumstance I set for myself many many years ago. I feel like I’m suffering the consequences of naivety and foolishness I did during my adolescence years. I kept blaming fate, my stupidity, my self, my family, my neighbor, and whoever else I put my eyes on. The only thought in my head is to escape from all of this and start new.

Then I stopped to wonder; then what? When I’m done with the self punishment and state of obscurity, I try to think with my head and an open mind. How do I go about this? If I can do something to change this, what action should I take? How do I defeat the challenge and come out victorious? Or perhaps, there is no “challenge” and I simply must accept, let go, and continue my search.

I decided to do all the things stated above. To act is to be responsible. To overcome the challenge is logical and will benefit those around me. To accept is mandatory for my sanity. To continue my search for meaning and ultimately, happiness is the only way to go.

And so I moved on…

Conclusion for this part: we must actively search, and do, and search some more. But what is it we should be searching for?

The Meaning

The meaningful life for a cat

Needless to say, everyone has a different of meaning that drives their search. For Frankl, his meaning is to reunite with his wife and publish his study of logotherapy. For Hitler and his SS rats, their meaning is to eradicate all races beyond the Aryan. As mentioned above, this is why logotherapy is controversial. While the real motive behind it is for a greater good, it also justifies stripping other people of their search for meanings to establish our own. If the “search for meaning” is taken at face value, it also enables the behaviors of terrorists and criminals who are pursuing their own twisted sense of meaning without considering others who are victimized from their actions.

So let’s set some boundaries for ourselves as to what is a good meaning to pursue and what is not.

If you are someone with strong moral compass, you perhaps know quite well what should and should not be done. But do you really? To put things into perspective with normal life circumstances, let’s say you are an avid musician and you just got a scholarship to study at your dream prestigious music school overseas. Now, the plot twist comes if you’re married with 2 kids. Obviously being a single parent for at least 2 years is not the meaning your spouse is looking for. So if you decide to still leave and pursue your study, you are demeaning your spouse and family’s right to be happy. Where’s the middle ground in this?

A simple way to answer this is to negotiate the terms of “meaning” for you and everyone involved in your decision. Is there an end goal to your search? Have you communicated what is there to be achieved after your study is finished? Is it possible to also relocate your family for a while? Say, your spouse finally agrees to your moving and is willing to take care of the kids for a while, then he/she will also need to come to terms with their search for meaning. Perhaps from “living peacefully with family” to “living peacefully with family while letting my loved one pursue their dream”. Once you come to a similar standing between you and everyone involved in your decisions, you can safely say that your action will not negatively impact other people’s search for their own.

This is the only way I can think of to prevent a misunderstood sense of meaning. Obviously the perpetrators of the Holocaust did not negotiate with the victims if they think it is okay to initiate mass murders upon them.

So in short, to come to a positive meaning to pursue, you should negotiate. That’s why I would rather call it “Our Search for Negotiated Meaning”.

The Negotiated Meaning

Now you know what kind of meaning you should search for. But what if you’re not someone who is passionate about a particular thing, which is a very common phenomenon among the human race? Where to start looking? I’m sorry to say but you gotta do it the hard way; through trial and error. Or in short, you have to “search”, which is exactly why it is thrilling and tiring at the same time.

Perhaps try and learn new things for free online (one of my favorite platform for learning is Coursera). Or join a community. Or adopt a pet. Or start online dating if you’re single. Or find a job that inspires you. Or move to a new city/ country. There is one very simple quote that I really like to remind me to keep searching from time to time:

If you don’t like where you are, move. You are not a tree

Jim Rohn

Our Search for “Negotiated” Meaning

Now we have come full circle. The codependence of searching and negotiated meaning. To search without knowing what to search for is futile, to arrive at a meaning without negotiating with parties involved is harmful, and to come to a meaning without searching is next to impossible. One cannot exist without the other.

Where do you stand in all of this? Have you completed your circle? Or are you only doing one out of the three? What endeavors are you doing in your life to search for your ultimate meaning and eventually, happiness?

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