After struggling with "The Doctor and the Soul", I decided to hold off reading Frankl's more famous work, 'Man's Search for Meaning'. Well, I finally got around to it and it turns out this book is far more accessible than The Doctor and the Soul, although it is much more harrowing. Here, the focus squarely on Frankl's experience in the cold, brutal concentration camps, where existence for prisoners is nothing more than a provisional state of being.
Out of this horror comes an ultimately uplifting but challenging message, which is that it is up to each of us to create and lend meaning to our life, and that even in the worst of situations we have the freedom to choose our attitutdes and responses.
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 to 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. If he succeeds he will continue to grow in spite of all indignities. Frankl is fond of quoting Nietzshe, "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how."
...in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist. Regarding our 'provisional existence' as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoner to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives the man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of talking the camp's difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.
I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, 'homeostasis', i.e. a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
THE MEANING OF LIFE
I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms. For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to the chess champion: 'Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?' There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move ... The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, not can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.
In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.
By declaring that man is responsible and must actualise the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic 'the self-transcendence of human existence.' It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself - be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself - by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love - the more human he is and the more he actualises himself. What is called self-actualisation is not an attainable aim at all, for the some reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualisation is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.
Thus far we have shown that the meaning of life always changes, but that it never ceases to be. According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take to unavoidable suffering.
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into human achievement.
For as soon as we have used an opportunity and have actualised a meaning, we have done so once an for all. We have rescued it into the past wherein it has been safely delivered, and deposited. In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured.
To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.
... one may see that there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. ...instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past - the potentialities they have actualised, and the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realised - nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.