It’s hard to describe the experience of reading this book without using superlatives. It’s one of the most beautiful, influential things I have ever read – my life was made better by it.
Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist in Vienna when the Second World War began. He chose to remain there, with his aging parents, until his family was arrested and deported to a concentration camp. Of his family, he alone survived – a total of four camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau. Man’s Search for Meaning was in one edition titled Say Yes to Life in Spite of Everything; it describes Frankl’s philosophy that people are inherently valuable and life inherently meaningful, and every person has the opportunity and the responsibility to find the meaning of their life and live it. He writes from both psychiatric theory and personal experience in the camps. He is at once candid, tragic, and hopeful – for our capacity to hurt, and for our capacity to overcome with grace.
My favorite parts:
“Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
“It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future – sub specie aeternitatis.”
“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. 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.”
“There are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.”
“We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
What I did with my copy: I’m keeping it, heavily highlighted and dog-eared. While this copy has a permanent place in my library, I want this book to get around, so I also bought a copy to give to a friend.
Big thanks to Maggie for suggesting I prioritize this book.