Man’s Search for Meaning

Keerthana K
7 min readJul 13, 2022

Earlier this year Dostoevesky’s book posed a number of questions to ponder on- What is the purpose and meaning of pain and suffering? What is the justification behind suffering of a child? Why did God give us freewill when it further confuses human beings who do not know which path to take or what to do with their lives? — questions we comfortably brush under the carpet lest we shake up the very fabric of our existence.

I recently read Viktor Frankl’s- Man’s Search for Meaning, which is a very small book but it is as if it is in response to the existential questions posed by Dostoevesky. It is not a solution — it is more like a map(if you will), but you still have to walk the path, to find your own answers in the journey of life. It is what you make out of it.

As a longtime prisoner in bestial concentration camps, Viktor Frankl found himself stripped to naked existence. His father,mother, brother, and his wife died in camps or were sent to the gas ovens, so that, except his sister, his entire family perished in these camps. How could he — every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger, cold and brutality, hourly expecting extermination — how could he find life worth preserving? A psychiatrist who personally had faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to.

His book has been a bestseller, selling millions of copies and translated into 21 other laguages, which had lead many reporters to start their interviews after stating this fact, by exclaiming: “Dr. Frankl, your book has become a true bestseller- how do you feel about such a success?” Whereupon he reacted that he does not consider the bestseller-status of his book as an achievement or accomplishment on his part, but rather a misery of our times: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life then it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.

This is not a Holocaust book. Infact he consciously moves away from self-pity and covers the events only where it helps in showcasing state of mind of prisoners. What keeps a human being going in the face of adversity? What keeps him from seeing only emptiness and meaninglessness which drives many to end their lives?

According to logotherapy, we can discover the meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering.

The primary motivational force of an individual is his need to find meaning to his life. But questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form a man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Every person’s will to meaning is different to the other, and is different in every situation and every stage of life. But what is more important is that it does not really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us. We need 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. To live is to suffer. Suffering is unavoidable but it is our choice (or freewill) to decide our attitude in the face of any suffering.

Dostoevesky once said “ There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings”. It is only now that I understand what this statement truly means. To explain this with an example- One might imagine the life in concentration camps to be timid and pitiful. But it was far from that. Lack of food, basic needs and the direst of conditions where you are constantly facing death, makes you apathetic and monstrous. One more death in the camp means more space for others, someone else being sent to gas chamber means one more day of your survival. It is the cruelest of the prisoners who were made wardens, who were worse than SS commanders. In such circumstances where you are stripped of every human dignity and made to act like beasts, one could still find people who were like saints- who would still give their bread to a dying man. Although a man is stripped of everything, no one can take away the last of his freedoms, i.e. his attitude towards suffering. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful. Fundamentally, any man can, even under the worst circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually.

Most of the times a sense of meaning to one’s life is always beyond one’s own self. It is in helping or loving others that we try to find life’s meaning- life is sometimes rendered tolerable by closely guarded images of beloved persons, by religion, by a grim sense of humour, and even by glimpses of the healing beauties of nature — a tree or a sunset. But these moments of comfort do not establish the will to live unless they help us to make sense of our apparent senseless suffering. It is here that we encounter the central theme of existentialism: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying. But no man can tell another what this purpose is. Each must find out for himself, and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes. And as for the purpose of life, just like the fifth dimension in Interstellar —it cannot be said that it does not exist just because we cannot see or perceive it. Is it not possible that in our arrogance we dismiss anything which we cannot fathom, to be non-existent? What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos(meaning) is deeper than logic.

This is only a way of thinking which is proposed. How we walk this path is up to us. Ultimately it is our attitude towards life and and our choices as to how we face it with dignity is what gives meaning to it and makes it worthwhile.

Favourite Lines

  • Frankl is fond of quoting Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
  • To weave these slender threads of a broken life into a firm pattern of meaning and responsibility is the object and challenge of logotherapy, which is Dr. Frankl’s own version of modern existential analysis.
  • The latin word finis has two meanings: the end or the finish, and a goal to reach.
  • What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
  • Such security, like Paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).
  • The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. Now we can understand Schopenhauer when he said that mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom. In actual fact, boredom is now causing, and certainly bringing to psychiatrists, more problems to solve than distress. And these problems are growing increasingly crucial, for progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in the leisure hours available to the average worker. The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time.
  • “Sunday neurosis,” is a kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest. Not a few cases of suicide can be traced back to this existential vacuum. Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them. This is also true of the crises of pensioners and aging people. But if you look at it one may realise that there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past — the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the love loved, the sufferings they have suffered and the values they have realized — and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.
  • I said that someone looks down on each us in difficult hours — a friend, a parent, somebody alive or dead, or a God— and he would not expect us to disappoint him. He would hope to find us suffering proudly — not miserably — knowing how to die.