Book Discussion: Man's Search For Meaning
A discussion on the major themes and learning lessons from part 1 of Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.
In February 2021 I founded a book club called Mindset Mastery. I approached 5 people that I viewed I could really learn from, that would provide unique perspectives and a group that would be committed to a 12-month journey. Yesterday, April 25th, 2021 we had our first book discussion and it was better than I could've ever imagined it to be.
My biggest takeaways:
Meaning and purpose are not the destinations that sit on top of the mountain of life. There is no grand moment of elation where you will scream out and declare "I have meaning! I have a purpose!" in fact, Frankl speaks of finding meaning in the here and now; for one can't predict the future let alone what happens one hour from now. Further, life must contain suffering for life to have meaning. Therefore, finding meaning in your suffering is just as important as life itself. As such, we must own the meaning in our everyday moments because we're worthy of them, we're worthy of meaning, of purpose and of our suffering.
You always have a choice. The choice comes in how you react to the circumstance you face. This choice is what brings us all together. The choice is what gives us humanity in every situation. Make the conscious effort to choose the actions of the decent person.
The people in the book club provided so much depth in conversation that reading this alone could have never brought out. I'm so grateful to each of them for their commitment, participation and insights. You make this journey so meaningful.
The author is writing this book over 8 successive days in 1945. For context, this is shortly after having been liberated from the concentration camp he was in. In the first half of the book, the author writes about the experiences of the prisoners and himself in the concentration camps, what he witnessed, what happened to him, and how he's finding meaning in all the suffering. He walks the reader through the three stages of the prisoner's behaviour/experience in the concentration camps.
The period following camp admission
The period of being well-entrenched to camp condition
The period of liberation from the camp
The first period
The author dealt very candidly with the loss of identity and the shock that a new prisoner would face. You can imagine going from being the president of a company to being forced into labour where your sleeping condition is next to 9 other men, with only two blankets in the freezing winter would shock the body. However, that's not even the worst.
He describes how the camps forced the prisoners to strike out their whole former lives and become a number. When they arrived in the camp they took all their belongings, shaved their bodies to nakedness, took their nice clothes and gave them rags, the only thing Frankl was able to keep was his belt and his glasses. They did not care to know who you were, what your experiences were, to SS officers the prisoners were a number, unalive and inexistent.
It left me wondering the effect that this sudden loss of identity could have on a person and moreover, made me reflect on my identity. I identify as a man pronouns he/him that is Canadian and Jewish. However, I came to the question, what other labels and forms of identity do we take? To many in my high school, my name wasn't Daniel, people called me Bielak. During my 3rd year of university, many acquaintances knew me as "the guy involved in everything". To my sister, my identity is "thinks he's a comedian and is a caring brother". Our identity is fluid and dependant on the person and things were doing.
Identity is nuanced.
Imagine then, every single identity you've had up until this point in your life being removed in an instant. No longer VP of a company, no longer a sister, no longer a human being. Imagine your existence being defined as a number.
The loss a person would feel, I imagine, would be nearly unbearable.
The second period
Frankl describes this period as "The phase of relative apathy where he has achieved an emotional death". It's brought out by the apathy the prisoner faces when becoming well entrenched in camp life. He writes that apathy is the main system of the 2nd phase and was a necessary emotion to preserve one's life and that of one's fellow.
He writes about the apathy that stems from physical fatigue but also from mental challenges like the inferiority complex. Many people in the camps were former executives of companies and now they're being treated as complete nonentities.
Throughout the next 50 pages or so he touches on themes of love being as powerful as death, suffering and what it means to own one's suffering and be worthy of it too, responsibility, optimism, hope, success, meaning but most of all, choice.
The choice is the one thing that can never be taken from us, he writes:
That 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.
I find myself returning to this idea of choice over and over again. Like a wave continually returning to shore. In every moment, every hour and every day of your life you have the ability to choose how you will react in any given situation. As I process through that, I gain a sense of liberation in knowing that no matter what distraction or influences we have in our life, at the end of the day our attitudes are always ours to choose.
The third period
He describes this as the period of liberation from the camp. I won't touch on much here as many of the lessons in the book for me came prior to this section. Except I'd like to present you with a quote that, very much, is staying with me.
"after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear anymore - except his God"
I value this because in all the challenges that God provides us we can find gratitude in our ability to overcome them. To, as Frankl says, be worthy of our suffering.
Our next steps
Have you read this book? What do you think about Frankl's words?
Our book club will be reading the 2nd half of this book and reconvening on May 30 and I'll be sure to share the newest takeaways from that discussion with you at that time!
If you want to join the conversation comment below!