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Man's Search for Meaning: Revised and updated

Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl We've been studying the Holocaust lately. It started with a cd we fell in love with by Neutral Milk Hotel, a sort of love letter to a young girl long dead, to Anne Frank. The songs are wonderful and sad, with the most original arrangements for strange combinations of instruments; tuba and saw and who knows what. But just lovely. Heartbreaking and beautiful.

So we bought Anne Frank's diary on Amazon, and also this book by Viktor Frankl that I'd been wanting to read for a while. I have to say it's quite unusual in that the first half is his memoir of his experiences in the camps, and the second half is an introduction to his psychotheraputic system called logotherapy. The memoir part isn't just a narrative of the brutality and torture of life in the camps, which you can find in a number of places like Elie Wiesel's "Night". All the incidents in this narrative illuminate the central question of how is it that human beings can respond to such horrible conditions. His narrative lends support to his theory of mind.

He says humans have a will to meaning that is central to our being. It's stronger and more fundamental than either the will to power, or the will to pleasure. I understand and believe what he says is true. Logotherapy is the only psychiatric theory of mind I've heard that acknowledges the full dignity and moral agency that humans possess. I'm intrigued by his ideas, and many of the things he said resonated with me and rang true. I think I want to read more about it.

He shows that we may choose to respond to horrors of life on the basest level, as mere animals, or on the highest level with dignity and understanding, fully choosing our actions. Life can throw at one any number of horrors, everything may be taken from us against our will, but the one thing that can't be taken away is our choice of how we will respond.

The book itself is quite interesting, both parts of it. I've read it through twice now, so I can understand and internalize it better. The three paths he sees to various meanings in our lives are:

1) By doing, working, making, building, or creating something... that is, by achievement of some sort.
2) By seeing, appreciating, loving, enjoying, or understanding people or things... in other words, through our experiences.
3) By how we choose to respond to unavoidable suffering.

He asks us to live with responsibility for our actions and choices. He suggests to Americans that the Statue of Liberty on the east coast should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast. I hope someone has erected one!

He asks us to choose our actions right now as though we had already lived to the end of a long life, and were looking back on ourselves. He wants us to make the choice we would make then, if we had chosen this time as we are about to choose. It sounds kind of weird and self-referential, but applied iteratively, it tends to bring forth our best response according to the light and knowledge we currently have. I think that's the very best we can do, morally. We will still make mistakes. We'll still be learning and growing our whole lives long, and coming to a better and better understanding of life as we live it. So we can't always know what the best long term answer should be. But if we give ourselves time and space to think out exactly what we want to do, if we want to live a fully realized, fully examined life, this suggestion can help us do it. We do generally act better when we think it through.

Because the body of this book was written right after WW2, there's a lot of what we now think of as sexist language, just as one sees in the title. He speaks of Man rather than Humans, and uses masculine pronouns throughout, even when the immediate examples he cites happen to be female. Of course, such was considered proper usage, and isn't evidence that he was any more sexist then than anyone else at the time, (which is to say, quite a bit).

Our other holocaust studies involve reading the contents of the US Holocaust Museum site, and various other holocaust history sites on the web. We've yet to reread Anne Frank's diary. For me it's particularly horrific to see engineering drawings of the death chambers designed for gassing and cremating the maximum number of people in the least time. I wonder how any engineer could bring himself to work on designing such a thing without continually having to stop and retch up the contents of his stomach. I know I couldn't. Maybe the biggest lesson to me in this whole thing is to be brave enough always to act in accordance with my conscience, be it at work or at home, in any interaction with others.

Frankl closes with this thought, "Man is that being who invented the gas chambers, however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."

Logotherapy is as much a religion as a system of psychotherapy. I think it's the first such idea that doesn't clash with my idea of what a human is, of this clever fiendish animal with a divine spark. In the end, I love Frankl as a man who fully lived the ideas he preached. He was an amazing person, one of the great heroes of the 20th century.