This is the first review of one of the many books I plan to read over the coming months.
Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” in which he recounts his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner during World War II, was so highly recommended from various sources that I decided to make it the opening book for my studies.
My reviews will be mostly geared toward my interpretation and actionable takeaways, rather than a traditional high-level overview. There are plenty of those out there. Especially for this book!
What is your purpose today?
People can overcome punishing circumstances if they have a crystal-clear greater purpose for their lives, whether that be a responsibility to others or to a creative work.
“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,” Frankl writes. “These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment.”
The meaning of life differs from moment to moment, and we “achieve” it by fulfilling the tasks life presents each of us. But how?
“No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes he may be required simply to accept his fate, to bear his cross.”
This paragraph jumped out at me. I’ve mentioned how I’m still struggling with the idea that productivity produces something tangible. I still have a need to measure time spent against something concrete, like a to-do list, to feel a sense of accomplishment.
The importance of sharpening the mind
Frankl makes the case that sometimes it is best to “make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way.”
That made me think of the wisdom — erroneously attributed to Abraham Lincoln — about how if one were given six hours to chop down a tree the first four should be spent sharpening the axe.
Upon looking up that quote, I found an even better one cited by the Quote Investigator and attributed in 1901 to Josiah Strong in “The Times and Young Men”:
“He will see that the necessary time spent in preparation for his life-work is better spent than as if he had rushed into it ill prepared. Time spent in sharpening the axe may well be spared from swinging it.”
There are interesting parallels between those words.
Only you can choose your response
Frankl also talks about the importance of one choosing his outlook on life regardless of the circumstances in which he finds himself.
“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.”
He recalled prisoners who engaged their fellow captives with a positive attitude and who gave away their meager rations to others, despite their own deep hunger. Even in such dire conditions they pressed forward with an optimism that could not be extinguished.
What I’ll take away from this book
Here are the nuggets I’ll try to keep in mind going forward:
- Circumstances are what you make of them from moment to moment.
- The “meaning of life” is fluid, and that is not only OK, but expected.
- Action, contemplation, and resignation are all equally viable options, but for each situation one will be the most effective. Learn to recognize which applies and be comfortable with the answer in any given scenario.
Have you read “Man’s Search for Meaning”? What about it struck you the most?