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 quick summary of the book’s content taken from 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 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.

Man's Search For Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the ...
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

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, the 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.

Portrait of Viktor Frankl

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, he probably would’ve spent the majority of his life dedicated to his field. But the twist life suddenly threw at him did not deter him. In fact, he was keen on proving his theory of logotherapy as a way to survive the brutality he faced during his time in the concentration camp. What kept him going was the hope to be reunited with his wife and hope for triumph if he’s ever gonna be released. When he was stripped from all possible endeavors to achieve happiness in such climate, 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 (Hate your job? Quit. Cheating husband? Divorce), sometimes we also take our freedom for granted. Surely we all know people who seem to have given up on their pursuit of happiness. 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’.

What is it you’re searching for?

But then we stop to wonder; then what? When we’re done with self punishment, the answer to next steps become clearer. How do we go about solving this? Is it our outlook of the situation that needs to be changed? Or is it an actual challenge that we need to act on?

Most of us at this point then arrive at a similar resolution: we need to be responsible for our own lives. Continuing to mull over the unchangeable is doing more harm than good to our well-being. To continue out search for meaning and ultimately, happiness is the only way to go.

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 white supremacist groups, they find meaning in “racial cleansing”. As mentioned above, this is why logotherapy is controversial. While the real motive behind it is for a greater good, it also justifies morally dubious actions.

If you are someone with strong moral compass, you would know quite well what should and should not be done. But do you really? To put things into perspective with a more relatable life scenario, let’s say you’re an aspiring musician and you just got a scholarship at a prestigious music school overseas. You’re also 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 might be demeaning your spouse and family’s right to be happy. How should you resolve this?

A simple way to answer this is to negotiate the “meaning” for you and everyone involved in your decision. Is there an end goal to your search? Have you communicated how important this study is? 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 middle ground between you and everyone involved in your decision, your action will have minimun negative impact other people’s search for their own.

Practicing negotiated meaning is one way to prevent a misunderstood sense of meaning (a criminal certainly won’t try to negotiate a middle ground with their victims!). That’s why it would be more fitting to call it “Our Search for Negotiated Meaning”.

Our Search for “Negotiated” Meaning

We’ve been talking about the search of meaning until now. But what if you’re not passionate about a particular thing, which is a very common trait? Where to start looking? Well, the first step is always the most important step. You have to do it the hard way; through trial and error.

There are so many starting points that you can use to propel yourself forwards and upwards. Perhaps try and learn new things for free online (one of my favorite platform for learning is Coursera). You could also try to join a community, adopt a pet, start online dating if you’re single, find a job that inspires you, or move to a new city/ country. Maybe you don’t even need to look so far. When you have this mindset of searching for negotiated meaning, you can even start by finding ways to improve whatever you’ve been doing. Any current or previously neglected hobby may come to light in a completely different way.

There is one very simple quote that I personally keep as reminder to keep searching:

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

Jim Rohn

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.

What endeavors are you doing in your life to search for your ultimate meaning and eventually, happiness? If you’ve got a story to tell in your search for meaning, please share it in the comments below!

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