Book Review: Man's Search for Meaning

On the recommendation from a co-worker, I picked up Man's Search for Meaning and promptly breezed through the book. The first half covered the author's time in Nazi concentration camps during the second World War, which was quite sobering to read. The second half delved deep into Logotherapy and how the author applied in clinical practice.

As practiced in my previous book review, I've pulled out several of my favorite bits of the book, with my response following. I highly encourage a reading of this book if you have the chance.

[E]verything 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.

Man's Search for Meaning was the first of two books I read regarding the harshness of life for a World War Two prisoner (the second being Unbroken). It amazes me to think of the suffering so many, many people lived through. Logically, one could easily say that death, and in it the absence of suffering, would be vastly preferable to a life of torture. Yet many prisoners kept going, even with their brutal captives.

I've found freedom to be a central theme to my personal happiness. It's one of the greatest blessings I've been afforded in my life. To think that this same freedom still endured, even in the most restricted of lifestyles, reminds me how powerful it can be.

Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. "Yes." What did it say to her? She answered, "It said to me, 'I am here – I am here – I am life, eternal life.'"

I just love this. I love the idea that we find eternal life not in ourselves, but in the planet and the universe that we're part of. Our atoms will someday compose a tree, or perhaps a shark or a bear, or even a bacteria travelling on a spaceship headed to another world. While our consciousness will pass, the parts that made our body will continue on, morphing into other living things. Humans will cease to exist, but the atoms that made them will continue to give life for millions of years to come.

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

What a way to put things in perspective. As I said before, all of our lives are tough. All of us struggle with something, whether it's internal or external. No matter how spoiled the life, there is always a struggle.

How do we face that struggle? One of my favorite Zen Pencils comic contains a quote from Stephen Fry: "Stop feeling sorry for yourself and you will be happy". It's a great reminder that we all have reasons to feel life has dealt us a bad hand. And many of those reasons are completely valid. But that doesn't change the fact that if you let yourself be consumed with self-pity, your life will never improve.

It's up to you to face your challenges and shrug off your burdens. Accept the suffering for what it is and let it go.

[S]uffering 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.

I highlighted this text specifically because it relates so well to me. I have a tendency to focus on the negatives in my life. I also have a tendency to let little issues become big in my mind.

Many times I feel we try to disregard our feelings based on how lucky we are relative to other's circumstances. While we shouldn't take our blessings for granted, we do need to realize that our minds are built to be discontent. We're always striving for better, to be happier, to do/make more than we currently do.

I don't think this notion gives us permission to wallow around in self-pity, talking of how hard our lives are (all lives are hard to live). Instead, it says that it's okay to feel like some little inconvenience or suffering is the worst thing in the world. It's natural to feel that way. Do not feel guilty for that. Accept the feeling and decide how you will act upon it.

[T]ears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.

Along the lines of the last quote, this really strikes home what it means to accept suffering. I think what makes it so difficult is how hard-wired our brains are to avoid suffering, even if it means languishing in self-pity.

To accept suffering as a fact and let go of it is truly couragous. While suffering can only be owned by the person facing it, they certainly don't have to go at it alone. We should constantly encourage and help each other face our struggles bravely.

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.

My dream job is not a job at all, but rather the ability to work on whatever project my mind is entertained with at that moment. This may mean a day spent outside planting vegetables. Or maybe a day in front of the computer screen editing film for a short film or writing blog posts. And yes, even a day doing what I already do now for my full-time job.

The ability to freely create, to freely challenge myself to create something meaningful, that's my dream vocation.

I'll never understand the laments of those who say they are bored for lack of things to do. There is always something to work on. There's always something to create.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.

The author really brought the Zen with this. We should not ask life what its purpose is, but rather find a purpose for it. We should not sit around waiting for life to reveal its meaning to us, we should go out and make one. I don't think there's much more that can be said than that.

[T]oday's society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness.

As someone who is lucky to still be in his 20s (that ends this year), I've been fortunate to have a relatively healthy life so far. With that luck comes a bit of privilege. In general, physical and mental tasks are easier for me right now. But that won't be the case 30 years from now, yet I'll still be the same human with the same need for meaning.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the concept of utility. The idea that what a person produces is their sole contribution to society. This misses out on so much of the human experience though. To be human is something truly unique to the entirety of existence. There must be an underlying respect for any person out there, no matter their ability. They are human and that's enough.

It is we ourselves who must answer the questions that life asks of us, and to these questions we can respond only by being responsible for our existence.

This reminds me of a quote from Richard Dawkins, "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born."

It's tempting to say that since nothing exists for us beyond the day we cease to exist, we have no obligation to life or this universe. While there is a certain truth to that, it greatly minimizes the fact that we're the lucky ones to have a chance at being alive for this briefest of moments.

It is our purpose then to make the most of our time; to accept the challenge for all those who don't have this chance.

There are many parts of the book that I wasn't able to cover in my highlights. I really enjoyed the entirety of its contents. It definitely calls out for a second reading at some point in the future for me.

I find the subject matter quite interesting, as meaning in life is something I'm curious about. I don't believe in an afterlife, which to some (both religious and non) means that I find life meaningless. I disagree; I believe that we create our own meaning, something this book covered well.

Overall, Man's Search for Meaning is a wonderful short read that provides a valuable reminder to find meaning in life, despite the inherit suffering in it.