Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning

Published Categorized as Non-Fiction Review Tagged

Vik­tor Fran­kl lived, as we do now, through a his­tor­i­cal and trau­ma­tiz­ing era. Since the pan­dem­ic start­ed, I have often thought of his most famous book, Man’s Search for Mean­ing. Years ago, it gift­ed me with a per­spec­tive which nev­er left me, and which I find espe­cial­ly rel­e­vant to the strug­gles of the present and to my work in the legal industry.

Man’s Search for Mean­ing, part Holo­caust mem­oir and part psy­cho­log­i­cal tract, is based on the the­o­ry that hav­ing a sense of mean­ing in life is nec­es­sary for men­tal health and even sur­vival. Fran­kl, who was founder of the third Vien­nese school of psy­chother­a­py, named his the­o­ry logother­a­py. As an out­sider to the field of men­tal health care, I can­not com­ment on the valid­i­ty of his the­o­ry. Instead, I read from the per­spec­tive of my own phi­los­o­phy and life experience.

Mean­ing, accord­ing to Fran­kl, is not fixed and uni­ver­sal, but spe­cif­ic to the tran­sient state of one’s life right now: “[W]e can dis­cov­er this mean­ing in life in three dif­fer­ent ways: (1) by cre­at­ing a work or doing a deed; (2) by expe­ri­enc­ing some­thing or encoun­ter­ing some­one; and (3) by the atti­tude we take toward unavoid­able suffering.”

Because Fran­kl was a sur­vivor of geno­cide, he had a unique author­i­ty to com­ment on the pos­si­bil­i­ties we might find in our own suf­fer­ing. When suf­fer­ing is inevitable, Fran­kl point­ed out, we have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to refine our human­i­ty, to “turn one’s predica­ment into a human achievement.”

Post-apoc­a­lyp­tic fic­tion such as TV series The Walk­ing Dead is premised on the notion that in times of cri­sis, peo­ple will turn against each oth­er in a bru­tal, amoral, and sup­pos­ed­ly Dar­win­ian strug­gle to sur­vive. The real­i­ty is that in dis­as­ter, com­mu­ni­ties often pull togeth­er. This truth may not be ter­ri­bly vis­i­ble due to the way the atten­tion-based econ­o­my dri­ves news media sen­sa­tion­al­ism, but if you look for it, you will find evi­dence that many peo­ple are strug­gling to serve their com­mu­ni­ties. This spring and sum­mer have brought out in many a desire to vol­un­teer, join a spir­i­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty, give to char­i­ty, reg­is­ter vot­ers, become polit­i­cal­ly active, or invest more of our­selves in the social­ly ben­e­fi­cial poten­tial of the work that we do. If you are hun­gry to find more ways to help oth­ers, you are not alone.

Frankl’s call for us to seek the poten­tial for mean­ing in our lives is above all a call to be aware of the tests that life places before us and to face them respon­si­bly, as moral and car­ing beings, even under the worst circumstances.

Per­haps that sounds exhaust­ing. Months of ongo­ing cri­sis can cause any­one to feel over­whelmed. If so, remem­ber that car­ing for your­self or allow­ing your­self to be cared for are also respon­si­ble actions. Fran­kl dis­cour­aged unnec­es­sary suf­fer­ing: “I only insist that mean­ing is pos­si­ble even in spite of suffering—provided, cer­tain­ly, that the suf­fer­ing is unavoid­able. If it were avoid­able, […] the mean­ing­ful thing to do would be to remove its cause[.]”

After tak­ing the time to replen­ish your­self, it may be time for a mean­ing­ful­ness audit. Here are some ques­tions I ask myself peri­od­i­cal­ly: How can I find more mean­ing in my paid work, vol­un­teer work, and oth­er activ­i­ties? Do I reserve time in my cal­en­dar to seek mean­ing­ful expe­ri­ences through art or nature? Do I give enough atten­tion to my pro­fes­sion­al rela­tion­ships, friend­ships, and fam­i­ly? What change of per­spec­tive or focus is required?

I find inspi­ra­tion in the val­ue that is served by legal work, work aimed at pre­vent­ing or alle­vi­at­ing the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers. This val­ue can get lost among the mun­dane details of one’s day-to-day duties. How­ev­er, our work offers us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to per­form ser­vices for our clients and our cowork­ers. It is a com­fort to reread Fran­kl and affirm that we are called on not only to per­form well in the tech­ni­cal sense but also to cul­ti­vate our best selves in our work.

“Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a tar­get, the more you are going to miss it. For suc­cess, like hap­pi­ness, can­not be pur­sued, it must ensue, and it only does so as the unin­tend­ed side-effect of one’s ded­i­ca­tion to a cause[.]”

Book review pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished in the Sep­tem­ber 2020 issue of the Los Ange­les Para­le­gal Reporter, vol 48, issue 9, titled, “Para­le­gal Work and the Search for Meaning.”

Re-pub­lished on in 2021 and back­dat­ed accordingly.