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Man’s Search for Meaning, a Book That Changed My Life

I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl when I was about twenty. In the four decades since, I have remembered his words as a guide to my conscience and an inspiration.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychologist, a Jew who was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, where he lost most of his family and his beloved wife, Tilly. He saw and endured atrocities from 1942 until he was liberated at the end of the war. He was then able to resume his practice as a psychologist, scholar, and professor; marry again; and live a full and giving life until he died in 1997 at age 92.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl recounts his personal experiences in the Nazi camps, “which millions of prisoners have suffered time and time again.” Frankl acknowledges that his survival depended heavily on chance; never does he assert that he survived solely through his own grit. Instead, he explains how several revelations gave him strength.

One revelation was that people “can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.” Another was that humans are motivated by a constant search for meaning in life: “We need to think of ourselves as those who are questioned by life – daily and hourly” and we must answer as well as we can through “right action.”

Still, he understands that people cannot always behave honorably, writing: “No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

What inspired me most was Viktor Frankl’s revelation that “The salvation of man is in love and through love.” During a nightlong march to forced labor, under cruel conditions, he had an epiphany. “[T]he stars were fading and the pink light of morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds,” he wrote. “[M]y mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.”

Betsy Rubin
March 2014