“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.”
-Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor, survived 3 years in Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau. After his liberation, and over a 9-day period in 1945, he wrote a book detailing his experiences. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes, in vivid detail, the process by which the Nazi’s shipped millions of people to concentration camps, stripped them of their humanity, and worked them to death in the name of racial superiority.
Numerous passages iterated and reiterated the message that “everything not connected with the immediate task of keeping oneself and one’s closest friends alive lost its value. Everything was sacrificed to this end.” And by stripping people of their values, the Nazi’s stripped people of their individuality; creating a void for the value and dignity of the individual human life at the altar of simply seeing the mass of numbers enslaved in the camps—”herded, from place to place, like animals.”
Pursue meaning above all else
Man’s Search for Meaning is meant to be an example to readers that there is meaning to be found in life. At all times. And in the most abhorrent conditions. Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist, said that “man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything,” and Frankl writes this into clarity through the glimpse he gives readers into how he, and others, survived unimaginable conditions. Following this experience, Frankl developed a type of therapy called Logotherapy. Logos is a Greek word which denotes ‘meaning,’ or ‘reason.’
It was Frankl’s position, echoing Nietzsche, that ‘he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” and that one must have an aim for their lives in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Thus, searching out meaning in our lives may be the healthiest thing we can do for ourselves. It may even be the purpose of life itself. What’s more, in the event that we are faced with unchangeable suffering, we have the freedom to choose the stance we take and the perspective we have about that suffering.
Coping with difficulty
Throughout our lives, we are going to be faced with difficulty. It is all but guaranteed. Knowing that we are strong enough to deal with any situation, and that we can deal with the most difficult situations in life by focusing on our ability to pursue meaningful activities, is Frankl’s recommendation. Keeping in mind that “pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself” will support each of us in focusing on what is meaningful. Not what we believe is pleasurable.