The seminal book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankel explores how one can find meaning in life, no matter what the circumstances. Frankl himself survived as a prisoner of 4 concentration camps during the time of Nazi Germany in World War 2.
In his book, he describes the lessons that he learned as a holocaust survivor, and how his traumatic experiences in the camp shaped his understanding of meaning. The true meaning of life is thoroughly explained by Frankl in his book, and if you haven’t read it yet, I couldn’t recommend it more.
As someone who has returned to Frankl’s book many times in my life, I want to share the 5 best quotes from the book with you today, so that you too can hopefully find meaning in them.
1) ‘It is easy for the outsider to get the wrong conception of camp life, a conception mingled with sentiment and pity. Little does he know of the hard fight for existence which raged among the prisoners.’
This first quote is a super important lesson for us to learn about the problems with pitying someone when they have experienced something upsetting, unfortunate, or traumatic.
As Frankl said, the prisoners were not pitiful, weak beings, but fiercely brave individuals who fought daily battles that deserved so more than our pity. This goes for anyone in life that overcomes adversity or misfortune. Whether it’s an illness, the loss of a loved one, or a financial strain — by going through such suffering, pity should not be the reaction.
Why? Because although pity may come from a place of sympathy, pity is more spectator-like. This allows us to pity people while maintaining a safe emotional distance from them.
By leading with compassion, one is expressing something that is much more substantial. Compassion involves the willingness to become personally involved, while pity usually does not. Compassion believes in the equality of humanity.
So, next time someone you know has been through misfortune, or maybe you have been, try to lead with compassion because sometimes mere acknowledgment is not enough; real assistance, patience, and understanding are often required.
2) ‘A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life, I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.’
What a beautiful and heartfelt message; one that never fails to stop me in my place and pull me back to the things that truly matter in life.
There are many challenges that life will throw at you. By stopping for a second to truly contemplate the abundance of love in your life — whether this love comes from a partner, pet, or from deep within you — you should always remember that you are loved. The best part? You can return to this blissful realization whenever your heart desires.
Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.
3) ‘We were grateful for the smallest of mercies.’
In life, we search for perfection. We look to find ‘Happiness’ in our lives and feel defeated when things don’t go to plan.
For so long, the media has sold us the concept of the ‘Happiness’ principle, making us believe that our lives lack meaning if we aren’t ‘Happy’. So, we search for ways to fill our lives with happiness such as buying a house, taking a loan out for a car upgrade, working in job roles that offer high wages, etc.
Of course, happiness is a large part of our everyday lives, but so is a colorful array of emotions. Instead of trying to catch feelings of consistent ‘Happiness,’ think of Frankl’s quote and be grateful for life’s simple pleasures — ‘the smallest of mercies.’ A good cup of coffee, a beautifully written book, an exchange of conversation with someone you value in your life.
This quote is a reminder that being happy all the time isn’t a realistic or sustainable goal in life. Try not to put too much pressure on ‘Happiness,’ but to embrace the small things that make us humans.
4) ‘No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.’
How can we know what we would do if we were in the same position as someone else?
We can analyze their situation and choices and put ourselves in their shoes, yet we can still not make a calculative and truthful judgment on someone else, because we are not them.
‘If I were you’ is a common phrase we use when offering others our advice or opinion. We must remember that we can speculate as to what we would have done, but until we’re actually in that position and making that decision we can’t be 100% certain.
By judging someone else, you are actively attempting to put your set of morals, standards, and opinions onto someone else; but we are all unique individuals, and the choices we make are due to the paths that only we have walked.
At the end of it all, you are the most important thing in your life, so although it is important to listen to others and offer support, it is also important to honor your own decisions.
5) ‘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 way.’
Do you look out of your window and see the specs gathering dust, or do you see the sunset? Your perspective and attitude is a choice.
This is an amazing part of being human. We hold the power to our freedom no matter what external forces try to diminish or take that away from us. Frankl embraced this innate freedom and that’s what he believes kept him and other individuals in the camp alive. They found meaning in the suffering that can only be diminished or repressed by one’s self.
6) ‘Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.’
Like it or not, Frankl’s right. Human suffering is here to stay and comes in many shapes and forms throughout our lives, such as a rejection from a job you wanted, a bad knee injury, heartbreak; we cannot escape suffering.
Frankl has taught us that we can find meaning in this suffering and seek hidden opportunities for achievement from it. Maybe the job you wanted, you would have hated. Maybe your knee recovery will encourage you to embrace exercise more in your life and live a healthier lifestyle. Maybe the heartbreak happened because the person was holding you back from growth.
So, the next time you are suffering, I encourage you to read through this blog post again and remind yourself of Frankl’s teachings:
There is meaning in suffering.
Many opportunities will open up before you, but it’s up to you to find them out.
By: Katie Malone
Like this post? Check out our full review for Man’s Search For Meaning! Or checkout some of our other books reviews like Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Who Moved My Cheese? Quotes, Characters and Lessons.
Amazon: Man’s Search for Meaning
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