My Personal Highlights from Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”

This image was taken from my visit to the exhibit “Auschwitz: Not long ago, Not far away” at Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri.

I think it was Lessing who once said, “There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.” An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.

page 20

If I had to answer, “What does it mean to be trauma informed?” in one sentence, I would answer with the quote above. An “abnormal reaction” viewed outside of the context of “abnormal situations” can lead to very skewed assumptions–that the individual is overreacting, crazy, off their nut, delusional, and so on. I once read that typically when we react out of proportion to an event it means one of two things: it is related to a (big T) trauma experience or a family of origin injury (little t trauma). Part of trauma work is normalizing trauma reactions, exploring how they were useful at the time, and modifying the ways they show up in unhelpful ways today.

Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative. It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys.

page 44

Often times when exploring a client’s support network they will make comments like, “My friend is going through a hard time too, so I don’t want to be a burden.” or “Their problems are so much bigger than mine”. While there is something to be said for having perspective on what ails us, suffering is suffering. It does (if we allow it) consume our mind and steal our energy. To hear a holocaust survivor essentially say, “All suffering matters” is simultaneously humbling and validating. I appreciate that he added that small things can cause great joy. These “small things” can be a respite in dark moments.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity-even under the most difficult circumstances-to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.

page 67

Whew! It ultimately comes down to choice. On the other side of suffering can be: deeper meaning in life, bravery, dignity, selflessness, moral values, and worthiness. The question is can I choose to suffer well? Can you? I can tell you one thing- we are surely capable! I see countless clients practice this daily and see the other side of suffering.

A very strict camp ruling forbade any efforts to save a man who attempted suicide. It was forbidden, for example, to cut down a man who was trying to hang himself. Therefore, it was all important to prevent these attempts from occurring. I remember two cases of would-be suicide, which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both used the typical argument -they had nothing to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them (page 79).

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude (page 79-80).

He who knows the “why” for his existence will be able to bear with almost any “how.” (page 80)

page 79-80

This is such a good question: What is life expecting of you? You are the only “you” that will ever exist and you are responsible for your existence. What purpose is in your pain? Could someone else benefit or be encouraged by your experience? Could the power of your story point another towards healing? What and who is impacted by your love and affection? What have you/ do you still have to contribute to the world?

I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis,” i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

page 105

In a class I attend at the gym one of the instructors frequently says “time under tension” as a reminder that spending time under tension produces change in the body and strengthens muscles. This is true in many aspects of life. Trials, storms, tension, and pain produces things in us. It is when we are outside of our comfort zone where we grow the most (see previous post on the window of tolerance). The discomfort of “struggling for a worthwhile goal” can lead to freedom from strongholds, a stronger sense of self, emotional intelligence, building immunity against dysfunctional patterns, and more—making enduring the tension worth the meaningful outcome.

I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms. For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a give moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logo therapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.

page 108-109

Much of my time in session is spent in conversations around responsibility- the responsibility we have to others, the responsibility we have for ourselves, the consequences of being overly or underly responsible, and what we are and are not responsible for. We are not responsible for things outside our ability to control or influence, so this removes the past and the future. We are responsible for our life in the present moment. In the Christian life, we are responsible to honor and glorify God with our lives. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 states, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” What is the specific meaning of your life at this given moment? The specific meaning of my life at this given moment is writing this blog post to hopefully encourage and point you to the truth that your love, your actions, and your suffering has meaning.

But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.

page 138

Have you heard the phrase, “If you chase it, it will run”. I often say this to clients who chase their own healing. Their active participation in growing, learning, and applying new awarenesses is absolutely commendable and to a degree their initiative is required for healing to take place. However, we can chase healing so hard and so fiercely that we entirely miss experiencing the process. I think the same can be said for happiness.

In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.

page 150

As finite beings, we easily minimize any positive impact we have. We maximize any negative impact or potential that has not yet been fulfilled. In the hearts and minds of those around us our good deeds and love expressed is stored and treasured. Our sufferings weathered with dignity and courage model the power of resilience to others and mark us as trustworthy. We can, as bizarre and paradoxical as it sounds, come to treasure our pain points.

Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning (pp. 3-165). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

For a link to purchase this book, check out My Recommended Reading Library page!