Man’s Search For Meaning is one of the most important books I’ve ever read.
Viktor Frankl, psychologist and Holocaust survivor, describes with grim eloquence his experience in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
It is as horrifying as it is beautiful, and the ideas that arose from his experience are some of the most important in all human life. He questions the nature of human suffering, as well as how we uncover meaning in the darkest places.
“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such conditions of psychic and physical stress.”
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last pieces of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Imagine this: We wake up with all of our sympathies, all of our desires, all of our affections, all of our cares, all of our dreams—everything we have carried with us through all of our life experiences—and suddenly they culminate into the reality of living in a concentration camp.
This is our life now.
There is quite possibly nowhere worse to be. Our soul is tarnished. Everything we love has turned to ash, both literally and figuratively. Any sense of purpose has been ripped from us. Our world has been crushed and we are forced to go through the worst possible experiences day-in and day-out.
It is living, breathing hell.
Yet, there remains some glimmer of hope, some faint sense of integrity and sanctity everlastingly dwelling in the backdrop of our consciousness. There remains a sense of meaning, even in the darkness.
“And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision that would determine whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the play thing of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.”
There remains the super power of choice, the innate autonomy and sense of free will that is embedded in the fabric of human nature.
Even in the midst of hell, the deepest stages of the abyss, there is some ineffable force that allows us to maintain our humanhood, our aliveness, our dignity.
Frankl penetrates at the very essence of the human predicament. If life is suffering, then how are we to live? How might we contend with this fact? How are we to proceed with power and poise in spite of this?
“Dostoevski said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread, not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ Those words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
If we can truly be worthy of our suffering, then the door is opened to an influx of meaning.
This has certainly been the case through my dealings with chronic illness. When I’ve tried to wish it away, it gets much worse. The only right way to be, as far as I can discern, is to fully accept the situation at hand, and then do everything in my power to uncover the deeper dimensions of my being through the trials of hardship.
I want to be worthy of my suffering, and I can only do that by allowing grace into my life through embodying the good rather than growing bitter and hateful.
The following quote resonates strongly with my experience:
“An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, and nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior; namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”
When we cannot create, and we cannot enjoy, then how can life possibly be meaningful? It doesn’t actually make any sense, yet this is our truth. This is the case because meaning is intrinsic to life. Life is meaningful, and this meaning is illuminated through our suffering.
It is the oscillation between beauty and tragedy that makes human life so powerful. Of course, Dr. Frankl’s experience in Auschwitz may not reflect the severity of suffering that most of us experience in daily life, but it does convey the universal nature of the human condition and how we are all striving for a sense of meaning in spite of our suffering.
Oftentimes, the greatest understanding comes from the darkest of places, and to me this thought speaks to the very essence of the human experience.
It is through suffering that we learn who we truly are, and these truths are eternal.
Author: Samuel Kronen
Editor: Danielle Beutell
Supervising Editor 1: Travis May
Supervising Editor 2: Callie Rushton