Man’s Search for Meaning is a riveting account by Viktor Frankl, chronicling his experience as a detainee in the Nazi death camps. The book is every bit as harrowing as it sounds. Frankl had the opportunity to flee the country before the camps started to operate but chose not to, opting instead to stay with his elderly parents. In 1942, he was captured along with his parents and his then-pregnant wife. He was moved between four different Nazi camps including Auschwitz before finally being released in 1945, at which time he found out that his parents and his wife had not survived. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book about finding meaning in life in the midst of incredible suffering and pain. Frankl argues that while we cannot avoid suffering, we can choose how we respond to it and the meaning, the value we derive from it.
Frankl, in the introducing the book, states that Man’s Search for Meaning is not concerned with the great horrors of the camps, but the multitude of small torments suffered by the prisoners. He seeks to answer the question, how was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner? He covers everything from their cramped up journey to the camp, to the separation of those deemed weak in order to be sent to the gas chambers, to their living conditions once at camp, where 1500 men lived in a shed designed to accommodate 200 men at the most.
He details how they were slowly starved, receiving one five-ounce piece of bread to last four days, the hard labour they were subjected to and the subsequent beatings from the SS soldiers whenever anyone fell behind. He records how they watched their comrades die and shares how they eventually began to make fun of themselves and each other, realizing they had nothing left to lose and documents how the experience changed them, how different people responded to different circumstances and just how much the human spirit is able to endure and get used to.
With every page I turned, my ‘hatred’ of the Nazis grew exponentially, then I got to the end of the first part of the book and his final analysis of it all stopped me right in my tracks. He asserted that the reader should put themselves in the shoes of the Nazi SS soldier, upon which time I realized that the entire time I’d been reading the book, I identified more with the detainees. But the truth is, the SS soldiers are/were people just like me. Just like me.
So the question is, how do you become that person? What is it you feed yourself that ends with you casually ushering thousands of people into a gas chamber? We all have that SS soldier in us, that potential for grave wickedness and the question is, are you feeding the SS soldier part of you or the loving human part of you? You get to choose that every moment of every day. That stood out for me more than anything, in part because, I think I couldn’t even begin to think of finding meaning in the kind of suffering described in Man’s Search for Meaning. I don’t do well with pain and suffering, so I guess, I just wasn’t ready to touch that.
Overall, life is not just a quest for pleasure or power but a quest for meaning. Man’s Search for Meaning is one of those books that goes on your perpetual reading list for all time. There’s absolutely no way to read it just once and be on your merry way. If you haven’t read it, pick up this timeless classic today.