Sunday, July 3, 2011

Book review: Man's search for meaning

I was pointed to this book by a friend who rides into work with me. This book held special meaning to him as he had recently met a relative who had survived the same tragic events of living through World War II in a concentration camp. I am so glad that he pointed me in this direction. 

This is not a typical memoirs book, though there are personal stories sprinkled throughout it. Viktor Frankl was a survivor of some of the worst camps and treatments that the Germans put the Jews through. Rather this is a book that examines the mental and psychological effects that such an experience has on an individual. 

In many cases this book reinforces the thought that it is not what is done to you but your response, your attitude to it that really determines who you are and what you will be. 

As stated in the book:
"We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece 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 the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way."

There are also some interesting thoughts around the fact that our lives are meant to have and contain tension. We should not be trying to find a frictionless existence but instead Viktor writes:
"I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygeine 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 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"

While short, this book took me awhile to get through because there is a lot to ponder. The book is divided into two parts - the first about the suffering and mental phases that a person goes through in a concentration camp, the second about his theories of psychology. This is an important book because the suffering and the pain that was inflicted during that time - while not completely unique (there has been a lot of evil done to others throughout history and it continues in different parts of the world) - the generation that lived through this is fading and as the completion of the book states:
"So, let us be alert-alert in a twofold sense:
Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.
And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake."

To know that meaning in life is not what it gives us but by what we give to it. That is a powerful thing.

I strongly recommend working your way through this book and pondering the implications in your own life and how it changes (if any) your reactions to those around you. 

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