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90 second book review: Man's search for meaning

The subject of this book review is yet another Half Price books find: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  Unlike a lot of the books on my recently read pile lately, this one didn’t come from the Tim Ferriss podcast, but rather a recomendation from Bill Buppert over at zerogov from Porcfest a few years ago.  Like most of the books I have picked up at HBP over the past few years, I took it as a sign that it was time for me to read it when I happened to see it there.  It was actually a “double” sign that I saw it all since it was in the psychology section (reasonable, but not somewhere I normally browse) and its really short so its really narrow so hard to spot.
Dr. Frankl was a holocaust survivor who later developed a system of treatment called logotherapy.  The second part of the book goes over the logotherapy system in laymans terms.  That was interesting, but the part that captivated me was the firs, which describe his experiences in the concentration camps.  Early in the opening section, Dr. Frankl echoes Nietzche when he writes:

Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.

From there he goes on to outline the three basis “whys” people can adopt as their raison d’etre:

  • by creating a work or doing a deed;
  • by experiencing something or encountering someone;
  • by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

The first two he discards as relatively self explanatory / well understood, focusing on the third.  Dr. Frankl makes a clear distinction that for this third “why” to work, the suffering has to truly be unnecessary, meaning we have done everything we can do to alleviate it and it is truly something we can not avoid.  This “why” doesn’t help you if you simply have a victim mentality.
The focus on unavoidable suffering and the attitude you take towards it reminds me of the little bits I understand about Buddhism and Stoicism.  For example, this quote would be at home in any of the Buddhist or Stoic texts I have read:

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.

What makes Man’s Search for Meaning different from any of the other books I have read are the combination of being written by someone that tested their philosophy through the most demanding conditions imagined and came out the other side even more convinced of its merit and the recency of the events he had to live through.  All of the other accounts of those that had their philosophies put to the test are centuries old or are written by people who mostly have first world problems by first century standards.
Dr. Frankl was able to find happiness in one of the most grim situations that I can imagine.  Because he knew that:

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.

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