The person hosting our recent book club meeting picked Viktor Fankl’s Man In Search For Meaning, because it caught her attention on the reading list of her child’s Ethics course. I read an earlier edition (1962) of this book many years ago when I was a Psychology Major. It also became a reading I assigned to my students in my psychotherapy course. I have not read it in recent years, but I sometimes mention this title to some of my clients when they ask for a book on the meaning of life.
I looked forward to re-reading the book and the meeting. In particular, I was interested how the book would be discussed in a book club as different from an academic or a therapy-oriented setting.
I bought the latest edition (1992), which had a new preface by the author in the same year. There was also a Postscript (1984), “The Case for a Tragic Optimism” based on a lecture delivered by the author a year earlier.
I told DH, who picked the book, that she had chosen a little book which was bigger than life. She agreed and first posed the question about Frankl’s decision not to publish the book anonymously. Everybody preferred to know the author, because the name,provided a sense of reality as well as accountability to the contents.
People started to wonder what kind of a person Frankl was: “nice”, “calm”, “deep”, “complex”, and probably “non-judgmental” as a psychotherapist? These qualities were contrasted with the personality traits of those inmates in the concentration camp who had given up hope and died, and those of the kapos. What would one do to survive? Choosing between survival and integrity must be truly difficult indeed. There were some personal acknowledgement of what the individual would do under trying circumstances, and that was with reference to Frankl’s description of a former kapos whom he met years later and who seemed to have rehabilitated and redeemed himself.
The fact Frankl wrote that he decided to stay with his parents instead of moving to New York also intrigued us. It transpired that Frankl did not mention that he was Jewish in the first part of the book, and little did we know about his upbringing in a Jewish family. How much had the values his parents instilled in him played a role in his decision, when he remembered the commandment to “love thy parents”? Regardless, when he was describing his concentration camp, being Jewish or not did not matter. His account was one human being watching other human beings suffer. Ethnicity was irrelevant there.
Source: Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes; USHMM archives.
It was felt that in order to be able to endure and survive extreme hardship, based on what we had inferred from the book, a person had to have an inner life or spiritual freedom. I opined that we were all capable of attaining an inner life, yet in this world repleted with material cravings, many people were misled into thinking that happiness was an entity to be acquired, as promised by the so-called “ways to happiness” in many “how to” books. There was a comparison between Buddhism and Frankl’s idea that sufferings were inevitable in life. Then it was felt that Frankl proposed a more optimistic outlook which recognized choice, responsibility, love and meaning. The story of Jerry Long provided an inspirational vignettes in the book. What was revealing though was the universal theme of “Man’s Search”, be it the Holy Grail in western culture or the Sacred Book in the Chinese legend of the Monkey King.
The majority of us liked the book. There were many quotable quotes. One of mine was, “…it did not really matter what we expected form life, but rather what life expected from us” (p.85). An observation was that if Man considered himself to be supreme, he would have nothing to anchor himself when he was reduced to bare nakedness. However, either a religious or a spiritual orientation which allowed for a higher explanation for one’s existence might lend meaning to life. Or perhaps, in the apparent nothingness, there could be a sense of “being” which paradoxically enabled one to “be”. Other favorite quotes included “The solution of man is through love and in love” (p.49); “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” (Frankl quoting Nietzsche); and “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems…” (p.85).
We had a lively discussion. I enjoyed it because I could relate to the book from an experiential angle. Years of scientific training, and asking questions about evidence-based methods has led me to be concerned more about the effectiveness of logotherapy, and the logical relationship between its techniques and its conceptual framework in the past. My re-reading of the book for the book club and the discussion that ensued had given me the opportunity to connect with the book at a different level. I knew there were many levels from which this book could be analyzed. As for my book club experience, I was pleased that I could ask questions about myself and my life in a non-judgmental way. I also had the openness in the sharing of my book club members to thank for.