More than one person has held this book in front of my face and demanded that I read it. And so I did. And now I’m holding it in your face and demanding that you read it. And when you’re done, you shall demand that someone you love read it too. And forever it shall be. This is the kind of book that gets passed along, person to person to person, until we are all better for it. It is the kind of book that earns a coveted spot of honor on an overstuffed bookshelf where it can be returned to time and time again until it is dogeared and torn and its binding breaks. It is the kind of book that is discussed in conversations littered with words like “life changing” and “paradigm shifting” and “humbling.” It is both emotionally devastating and tragic, and hopeful and uplifting. It is beautiful.
A bit of background: Viktor Frankl was an psychiatrist in Vienna at the beginning of World War II, until he and his family were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Frankl labored in four different camps (including Auschwitz) until the end of the war. His parents, brother, and pregnant wife all died at the camps. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl uses his experience in the camps as a sort of case study to illustrate his theory that man’s primary drive is not pleasure, but the pursuit of what we find meaningful. He argues that, although we can not escape suffering, we can find meaning it it – and in so doing, we are able to move forward with purpose in our lives.
A few of the bits that especially resonated with me:
“I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”
“We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life…”
“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation… we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“There are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.”
“We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
“For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best. So, let us be alert–alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”
This post’s song: impossible. Seriously. How does one come up with a song to complement this book. I have no idea. So I asked my fiance, and he suggested The Mystery of Man. Not quite right, but close. And I thought of Firewood, which also isn’t quite right but has some poignant moments that seem fitting. They’ll have to do.
Firewood by Regina Spektor
The piano is not firewood yet
and nothing can stop you from dancing
everyone knows it’s going to hurt, but at least we’ll get hurt trying
The Mystery of Man by Sarah Vaughan
The miracle is the mind asking the questions
Seeking to find itself if it can
Only to see itself endlessly echoed in mirrors
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