Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reviews - Man's Search for Meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

I don’t know where this title ranks now, but a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress lists it as one of the ten most influential books in America. Frankl wrote it shortly after his release from a World War II concentration camp. It presents theories he formulated during and shortly after his prison experience.

Frankl was interred because he was Jewish. Everything about his status was unfair and he had no recourse. While in camp he performed the normal debilitating labor duties of all prisoners. But because he had been a practicing psychologist prior to the war, he eventually also worked in a clinical setting, doing what he could to help the severely depressed patients interred with him.

He was also an existential psychologist, and he did not accept the Christian concept of Truth as an objective reality. Yet I believe Frankl did not undermine Christianity because he made room for the Christian experience. Understanding his theories can be a key to understanding and dealing with many of the theories presented today. And yet, it isn't simple.

The printing of the book that I read was 192 pages. In the first section (about three-fourths of the book), he gives an account of his concentration camp experience with stories of heroism and degeneracy. Some of the images of death—and people’s lack of response to death—overwhelm.

But Frankl’s training enabled him to analyze people’s lack of response as clinical depression. He observed his own depression and the despair/depression of those around him, and he concluded that although individuals do not choose their circumstances, they choose their responses. Their choices define their moral character.

Frankl observed that prisoners who found meaning had the will to live, and he said meaning comes from three sources: relationships, a vital life’s work, and ability to embrace meaning in suffering.

The second section titled Logotherapy in a Nutshell (just over one-fourth of the book) explains Frankl’s theories systematically. It’s not easy reading, but his experience in the concentration camp continues to provide his supporting evidence.

The emphasis is freedom of choice. He notes how the best often sacrifice to save others—and find meaning in their suffering while achieving moral greatness. In addition, he recognizes Christianity as a viable source of meaning. That fact alone makes it possible to receive Frankl's theories as non-threatening. In fact, I think it indicates Frankl's objectivity as a scientist.

When considering Frankl together with Christianity, we must recognize that traditional Christian doctrine is a dichotomy. While it states faith focuses upon objective fact, the journey of faith is subjective and personal.

Christians can intuitively live this paradox whether or not they analyze it, while no one outside of Christianity fully appreciates it. Yet Frankl’s scientific approach recognizes Christianity as a vital source of meaning on the subjective level. In fact, on several occasions he uses Christian terminology when he identifies suffering as accepting or as enduring the cross.

Although Frankl’s insider views of life in a concentration camp—and of human responses to the events in the camp—are disturbing, they are important and cannot be ignored. In addition, his theories impact on present-day thinking are huge. Even a cursory understanding paves the way for insight into a variety of schools of thought today.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

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