Meaning Of Life Essays
When life is going well we generally don’t ask questions. We carry on with our everyday lives without pause. It’s when people begin to struggle that they ask themselves the big philosophical questions. What is the purpose of life? Life can seem to feel empty, pointless, and even useless. People begin to search for something deeper and greater. Although at times it can seem that life is about seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, that is not the reality. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl discusses how meaning is the main thing humans strive for; what gives us meaning in a meaningless world is something we each decide for ourselves. Even during the worst moments of suffering it’s possible to find meaning, and once we find that meaning—in a sense—the suffering ceases to exist.
Viktor E. Frankl was born in Vienna, Austria in the year 1905 into a Jewish family, and this is where he subsequently grew up. From the young age of three he decided he wanted to be a physician. As a teenager he grew a great interest in psychology and philosophy. At the age of sixteen, Frankl wrote a paper that was seen by Sigmund Freud which prompted Freud to request permission from Frankl to publish it. The article was eventually submitted to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis and was accepted for publication. That same year, the instructor of an adult-education philosophy class that Frankl was attending, invited Frankl to give a lecture on the meaning of life. (Afterword pg. 156) Frankl’s intellect and brilliance are evident from a young age. His work and capabilities were admired by leading professionals of the subject matters. His deep interest in such topics is also visible.
In 1930, Frankl received his degree in medicine from the University of Vienna Medical School. As a young doctor, Frankl founded a counseling program for students, to prevent suicide. The program had a complete success rate the year it started. Not a single high-school student in Vienna committed suicide! Upon completing his education, he began working as a neurologist and psychiatrist at multiple hospitals and eventually opened his own practice. With the breakout of the second world war, Frankl was refused from treating anyone and was only allowed to treat Jewish patients. He became the director of the Neurological Department of the Rothschild Hospital, a clinic for Jewish patients. In 1942, Frankl, along with his wife, his parents, and his brother were all arrested and deported to Nazi concentration camps.
Man’s Search for Meaning was written in only nine days, in the year 1946—the year after Frankl was liberated from the concentration camps. Originally, the book was written in German but later translated to 24 other languages; the English version was published in 1959. The book is written as two separate essays. In the first essay, Experiences in a Concentration Camp, Frankl gives an autobiographical account of what he witnesses in his fellow inmates and the sources of strength that give him willpower to survive. The second essay, Logotherapy in a Nutshell, is an abridged version of the thirty-volume therapeutic doctrine he founded, called Logotherapy. Logotherapy is based on the premise that a need for an existential meaning is at the core of a human’s psyche. In contrast to other forms of psychotherapy, it is a futuristic therapy that attempts to help a patient discover and pursuit something that they find meaningful in life. After further research on the subject matter of Logotherapy, a second edition of the book was revised and published in 1984.
The two essays in the book complement each other. Where the second essay explains his theory, the first essay is the empirical evidence to his theory. (Preface pg. xiii-xiv) With this intent, Frankl writes the book like a scholarly article. Even in the first essay—where talking about events that must be traumatic for some prisoners—Frankl speaks in a tone of voice of plain speech. He refrains from appealing to emotion as a way to attract the reader. He maintains a detached and objective mannerism towards his surroundings. Unlike a story, Frankl is telling what happened as a psychologist studying his subjects. Unnecessary emotional information is left out. “This tale is not concerned with the great horrors but with the multitude of small torments that affected the mindset of the average prisoner.” In addition to his lack of emotion, he refrains from making any judgment about other prisoners and even the guards. “No man should judge unless….” This shows not just his writing that he didn’t judge but his overall personality and way of thinking.
Instead of appealing to emotion, Frankl uses logos to try to prove his points and theory. In argument to the ideas of his contemporaries Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler—that pleasure and power are the primary things humans seek in life—Frankl reasons that people are not willing to die for such things, yet they are willing to die for something they value and has meaning. (pg. 99) In his second essay a lot of technical jargon is used as he describes his therapeutic approach. The discourse community it is written for is psychologists / psychotherapists.
Paradoxically, Frankl states that the reason for writing (what motivated him to write) the book was to help people who are prone to despair. With what he went through he felt the responsibility to convey with concrete example that life holds potential meaning under any conditions. If that was the case, he should have written the first essay with more emotion and greater details of the horrors he witnessed. This would allow the reader to feel the horrible conditions they were going through yet were able to persist.
Although shunned at times by Freudian scholars who he argued with, his ideas still were known as the ‘Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy’. With all his accomplishments, Frankl is very credible in the subject matters he writes about in the book. In addition to some of his accomplishments before the war that are discussed above, he continued to lecture at two hundred and nine universities, was a visiting professor at Harvard and Stanford, and received twenty-nine honorary doctorates from universities around the world. Frankl fails to establish his credibility of the subject matter. As a reader this also brought into question how much of his theory he formulated before the war. Was it his experience in the camps that actually shaped his ideas? His failure to inform the user of all the patients he treated with Logotherapy before the war, made his ideas feel like they were bias and just influenced by his experience. Additionally, in describing the behavior of inmates in the camps, he says how he learns that Freud was wrong in his idea that humans are all the same when they are stripped of everything and left to survive. This showed how he was learning things oppose to just witnessing evidence to his ideas.
The author brings out multiple themes in his work to support his idea that meaning is the primary force that motivates people. One such theme is man’s ability to use hope as a means of coping and ultimately surviving a difficult or painful experience. Hope has the ability to allow man to withstand brutal conditions and defy the odds of survival. He describes in the camps how the only ones to survive were those who maintained hope and believed in a future. “Although many who wanted to live did end up dying, the main cause for the death of the others was giving up and the lack of a foreseeable future more so than a lack of food, or medicine”. (foreword pg. ix) A second theme Frankl brings out is the idea that meaning is inevitably the only thing that will make man feel truly fulfilled and provide him with a sense of purpose. Finding meaning and having a sense of purpose can carry someone through harsh times.
The two themes of hope and meaning felt like they were being confused and swapped for one another at times. The first essay of the book was supposed to provide the evidence to his idea about meaning, yet, it discusses what helped him and others survive—hope. It wasn’t finding meaning that helped them survive. Frankl fails to make any connection between the two. A possible answer could be that the only things that helped them survive was hope for a future where they could once again have what they felt was meaningful. Hope for anything else would not give them the strength to fight and not give up. For Frankl, those meaningful things he hoped for was to see his wife again and to lecture to people about the psychological effects of the war on the human mind.
“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you respond to the situation.”. This is the hardest thing to understand from all that Frankl mentions. Frankl gives three examples of where a person can find meaning: in work, in relationships (love and caring for another person), and in courage in difficult times. Frankl contends that even during the worst times when nothing in life is accessible, you can find meaning by responding with dignity; the way you cope and react can provide meaning. From all the stories and from all the cases of patients he treated, Frankl doesn’t provide any accurate examples. He uses instead the concept of “finding meaning in suffering” instead. On one account he gives an example of an elderly male he treats that his wife recently passed away. Suffering in grief and depression from his loss he can’t seem to find a reason to go on. Dr. Frankl asks him “What would have happened had you died first?”. The patient realized that his suffering was in order to save his wife he cared about from suffering the same way. Frankl himself doesn’t use such a method fight through the concentration camps. Instead, he found meaning in life in which he hoped to be able to experience again. We can see this from a letter he sent after the war in which he describes his despair after returning to Vienna and learning about the death of his wife. “I am all alone. I am terribly tired, terribly sad, terribly lonely. I have nothing more to hope for.”
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