The memoir will feel slight in your hands, only 165 pages long. Even so, for sheer insight per page, “Man’s Search For Meaning” has no rival among books written in the last 100 years.
It is the story of Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist from Vienna, and how he survived the Nazi death camps. It is a tale of extreme struggle, despair, loss, grief and the many ways in which life can challenge us.
In other words, a perfect book for life in the face of COVID-19.
I first read Frankl’s book while slogging through the crash of a marriage in my early 30s. The end of that relationship left me bitter, ashamed and feeling toxic on a daily basis.
Reading about the victims of Auschwitz and their suffering provided some much-needed perspective.
The Nazis took away everything Frankl valued: his wife, his mother, his father, his brother, his possessions, everything down to the manuscript he considered his life’s work.
What they could not steal was what Frankl describes as “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Over the years, that quote has crossed my mind thousands of times: at the bedside of my mother as she wasted away in the hospital; in the face of professional disappointments and losses that made me angry, frustrated or despondent; while driving along the freeway and getting cut off by a moron; and over this past week, dealing with the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak.
There’s liberation in the idea: that ultimately we all get to choose our own attitude, no matter what happens around us or to us, no matter how life tests us.
Of course, Frankl wasn’t done dispensing wisdom with one quote, which is why I have read his book at least once a year since the first time I picked it up.
He writes eloquently about surviving the icy cold march to a work site by fixing his imagination upon the face of his wife as he stumbled along for miles.
Her face, he explains, allowed him to grasp “the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief” hold for us.
“The salvation of man,” Frankl writes, “is through love and in love.”
Re-reading the book again over the past few days, I found myself thinking, of all things, about a spat I witnessed in the grocery store: a grown man threatening an elderly woman for adding what he believed to be too many cans of soup to her shopping cart. Profanities flew. The old woman gave as good as she got.
Eventually they went off in separate directions trailing f-bombs in their wake, but not before the man delivered this pearl.
“B---h, you’ll be dead soon enough anyways.”
Frankl, whose book covers far greater deprivation than a lack of Campbell’s chicken noodle in a can, writes with insight about suffering and how it can lead us to find meaning in our lives. Suffering pushes us to live in one of two ways, he writes.
“(We) may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.”
For Frankl, finding meaning in life is the ultimate goal. Twice he quotes Nietzsche on the subject: “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how.’”
My thought: If the COVID-19 crisis tests us in the most profound ways, you’ll be glad you read the book. If not and I’m just being overly dramatic, you’ll be glad anyways.
There are far worse ways to spend a couple hours in quarantine.