Man’s Search For Meaning — life lessons to take away

Aman Sharma
6 min readSep 27, 2020
Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

A book to be studied rather read.

Man’s search for meaning explores the most profound intricacies of human conscience. Viktor E. Frankl, a survivor of four concentration camps during the Nazi regime, tries to find the meaning in life from an experience that is undefinable by words. This narrative is not on the camps’ horrors but rather a reflection of everyday life on the inmates’ minds. Even after such an abysmally terrible experience, how did the author find meaning in sufferings and, consequently, life. To give a comprehensive summary of the book would be unjust to the worth of the book itself. It is up to the readers to understand and decipher the beautiful and exquisite learnings that the author intends to deliver. However, it would not harm to have some takeaways jotted down to relive this gem.

The author makes an intriguing comment in the preface, though simple but takes quite a lot to comprehend.

“Don’t aim at success- the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run- in the long run I say!- success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

With this, we move to the autobiographical part- “Experiences in a Concentration Camp.” The psychological reaction of the inmates is categorized into three phases:

  1. The period following his admission is characterized by a great shock and some curious consequences (I believe most of us have experienced this at some point in our lives)
    Delusion of reprieve”- The condemned man immediately before his execution gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.
    Humor”- Unexpectedly, the prisoners developed a grim sense of humor and joked about their tragedy.
    Curiosity”- How curious it is to think whether they would make it out alive or not.
  2. The period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; the phase of relative apathy, in which he achieved a kind of emotional death. The scenes of his fellow comrades being tortured, which pained him in the first phase, were now unable to move him. Apathy, the blunting of the emotions, and the feeling that one could not care anymore were the symptoms of the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions.
  3. The period following his release and liberation. “Freedom,” a word repeated so much during the imprisonment that it had lost its meaning. The man could not grasp the fact that lastly, freedom was offered to him. They had lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.

The Existential Vacuum

“The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. As to the causation of the feeling of meaninglessness, one may say, albeit in an oversimplifying vein, that people have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning. “Sunday neurosis,” that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.”

The Meaning of Life

“For 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 specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. 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; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

Finding the Meaning

The meaning of life can be discovered in three ways:
1. Creating a work or doing a deed.
2. Experiencing something or encountering someone.
3. The attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

“The first, the way of achievement or accomplishment, is quite obvious. The second and third need further elaboration. The second way of finding a meaning in life is by experiencing something — such as goodness, truth and beauty — by experiencing nature and culture or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness — by loving him. 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 — just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer — we are challenged to change ourselves.”

The Meaning of Love

“The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him.”

The Meaning of Suffering

“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice. Human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death.”
“To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

The Super-Meaning

“Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. This ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capabilities of man.”

“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

“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.”