Man's Search for Meaning - written by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl shortly after World War 2 - is another one of those books that's never gone out of print. In fact - my copy says that there's 12 million copies printed world wide. It's printed in numerous languages and was written in German first - sadly - I have not yet read it in its original language.
This small book - barely 180 pages and many editions small enough to slip into a coat pocket - can be read in an afternoon - especially if you just want to read the 133 pages of the book itself - not the forward, or the post-script. But - I think after realizing how Dr. Frankl came to his life-changing thesis - you'll end up enjoyably reading all of it.
Dr. Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna, Austria in 1905 into a family of civil servants. Despite this bureaucratic atmosphere at the age of 3 Frankl decided that he wanted to become a doctor. when he grew up. By the time he was 12 he knew he wanted to become a psychologist and shortly thereafter launched into a pen-pal friendship with Dr. Sigmund Freud and even published research with Dr. Freud even before finishing high school. By this point he was determined to study medicine and become a psychiatrist with a particular interest in counseling. Between his early association with noteworthy professionals in the budding field of psychology which included not only Dr. Freud but Dr. Adler and others who were active in the hotbed of psychology that Vienna seemed to be in those days.
He had a strong drive to help people find a purpose to live meaningfully and while still a medical student started one of the first suicide prevention groups in 1928 which was within a short time credited with saving tens of thousands of lives. 1937 Frankl had completed his residency and was beginning his research in earnest when in 1938, due to his Jewish heritage, was banned from treating "Aryans" - but despite this his early work combined with his research goals gained him potentially life-saving attention - so much so that he and his wife were offered a passport out of Austria. Uncomfortable with the position this would leave his parents in - he went to their home to discuss the opportunity with them and found them sitting with an engraved stone-tablet from their synagogue. Upon inquiry he found that the synagogue had been vandalized beyond recognition and congregants - including his father - had gone to survey the damage and reclaim what they could. His father brought home this particular tablet engraved with Hebrew characters. Frankl asked his father what it said and learned that it was the 6th commandment: "Honor thy father and mother." That settled it for Frankl - he did not take the visa out of Austria but stayed on to look after his parents.
In 1942 the family was relocated to a ghetto - where Frankl - in typical fashion - immediately put himself to work establishing a counseling office to help the members of the community there deal with the trauma they'd already encountered and adjust to life in the ghetto. His work again attracted attention and he was allowed to practice in an official capacity there. This only lasted for a little over a year and by 1944 he, his wife and his parents were all shipped off to various concentration camps. Frankl rode the trains with his research documents under his coats and they were the last possessions to be taken from him.
Once in the camps he began attempting to recreate his work on bits and scraps of paper he found here and there. Though well - known at this time - as a person of great skill - he refused to work an "easier" job in the concentration camp clinics where he would be forced to undertake barbaric actions against his fellow inmates and instead let himself be put to hard-labor - working to dig ditches, tunnels and other back-breaking work on a starvation diet.
It took him no time at all to put these horrific experiences to the only use he could find for them - namely refining his theories even more - and began using his skills to help himself and those who could or would listen to him survive.
By the last months of the war he had finally taken a somewhat easier position as physician at a smaller camp affiliated with Dachau. It was either accept this move or die of typhus or exposure. The camp was liberated in 1945 - but by then his parents and wife had succumbed to their treatment by the Nazis.
Frankl's life is as fascinating as his most famous book, Man's Search for Meaning - which disagrees fundamentally with his early mentors Freud, Adler and others ... man was not living to find sexual fulfillment, or to resolve his inferiority complex - but rather man's life was best lived when he lived it in pursuit of meaning. Remarkably - though Frankl had experienced personally the devastation of his family during one of the darkest periods of human history - and returned to his home and neighborhood in Vienna to a cold and indifferent shoulder from long-time family friends over the loss of the vast majority of his family members as well as their family home and goods - yet due to his commitment to refining his theory through absolute horror - came out with a clear understanding of the vitality of optimism - not in denial of anything - but "despite everything". His first version of "Man's Search for Meaning" which was originally published as "Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen" (translation: "Nevertheless, Saying Yes to Life" - which Frankl wrote in days once his health was restored enough to allow him to - and he was back at work - counseling patients, re-writing his research - but now with the hard-won insights from his experiences - and reuniting with his sister - the sole member of the family to survive the war years with him.
Dr. Viktor Frankl lived in Vienna until the end of his life and wrote 39 books in all - which were translated into 50 languages - Man's Search for Meaning being translated into the most languages - 44 in all. Some of his most quoted words are
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
"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.”
But by far my favorite quote of his - which is rendered even more stunning in light of what he personally experienced - is this:
“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, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.” ― Viktor E. Frankl,