Man’s search for meaning
(Note:- Well, the faithful few who know me also know that I tend to ramble a lot before coming to the point. So those who would like to cut to the chase can feel free to skip straight to the main post in italics. The rest? Follow me! 😁)
So. 3 months it’s been without a post on this website. It’s definitely the longest that I have ever gone without blabbing even a word here, something which I am pretty sure you all were grateful for.
That blissful silence is now broken!
For here I am, back with a new post, and you have a very respected and eminent figure to thank for that. 3 of them, to be precise.
Whom am I referring to?
Well, unless you have been rudely woken up from your siesta, you must have noticed that the excerpt of the post clearly mentions that it’s based on a book.
And when you will read the actual (post ramble) essay, you will find out that the book in question is none other than a very renowned autobiography/psychology self help book written by an Austrian holocaust survivor, neurologist, psychiatrist and author, Viktor Frankl.
Okay. So that covers 1 out of the 3 aforementioned personalities.
Now who are the remaining two?
Just because I haven’t blogged about anything for 3 months doesn’t mean that I haven’t been up to anything, thank you very much for asking.
A couple months back I had submitted a written application for an annual workshop conducted by a youth empowerment organisation called NIRMAN. The brainchild of renowned Indian social activists and researchers Dr. Abhay and Rani Bang, NIRMAN is a part of a larger NGO called SEARCH which provides healthcare to the rural and tribal people in the district of Gadchiroli situated in the state of Maharashtra, India.
The written application was followed by an interview, after which I was given a set of assignments to complete in order to get selected for the workshop. One of the assignments was to read and opine on the book ‘Man’s search for meaning’.
Long story short, that was how I finally managed to force myself to write and churn out this essay that I have written below.
Not only did I get to read a great book, but I was also able to rejuvenate the dying spirit of the writer inside me, something for which I was really grateful for. A wittily crafted and delicately woven piece, the book navigates effortlessly through the gruesome experiences of a concentration camp and gradually transitions into a meticulous guidebook of logotherapy, a method of psychotherapy which was established by Dr. Frankl himself.
Personally, I would recommend everyone of you to read this book and try to inculcate it’s highlights in your daily lives. And I hope that my short essay on the book does it’s best to convince you for the same.
Now, without further ado, let’s get started with the essay itself!
One last thing. I have added several links of informative pages considering fact that several of the words/terminologies may be new to the reader. Feel free to click on any of the links in order to obtain a better understanding of the essay.
Man’s search for meaning:- An essay
(Disclaimer:- The essay written below is purely a reflection of my thoughts and views about the contents in the book as a layman. Nowhere in the text do I claim or suggest that this be taken as a reference or an expression of any kind of professional opinion. Thank you.)
Well, honestly when I was assigned this book to read, my first reaction was:–
“Oh dear, yet another self-improvement book to read”.
Not that these books don’t have a lot to learn from, it’s just that books of these kind often end up being long, tedious and heavy to digest. So the only silver lining for me, was that it was merely 130-140 pages long.
However, it took barely a couple of pages before my perception of the book changed drastically. For unlike several other philosophical/psychological texts, the author had chosen to write the book in layman’s language and had brilliantly incorporated bits and pieces of psychology and philosophical knowledge in his autobiographical storyline. Never had I come across a book which made reading such intricate topics not only easier to understand but also intriguing and left the reader eager for more.
Coming to the autobiography itself, though I was vaguely aware about the atrocities the Jews had gone through under the hands of the Nazis, reading it first-hand definitely had a different kind of impact. Immediately I realized that this wasn’t an author who was sitting in an air-conditioned room preaching facts that he himself had seldom applied to his own life, simply because he had enjoyed a lavish lifestyle all along. No. This was an author who had gone through 3 years of literal hell, enduring one of the worst physical and psychological tortures known to mankind and had risen above it all. This was a man who was worthy of respect. A man who had actually practiced what he preached before he preached it. And learning from such a man was perhaps the best kind of learning we could ever receive. I was hooked.
As the author continued to narrate his story, I began to think of something which the author himself stated later down the line. The book makes one realise that under the most dire of circumstances what a human being is truly capable of. Ranging from the kapos who were the prisoners themselves, yet felt no mercy for their own people and punished them ruthlessly simply to survive yet another day, to the few SS officers who saved a couple pieces of bread to offer to the prisoners whom they were supposed to be cruel to. From the numerous prisoners who gave up all hopes of survival and attempted suicide, to those choicest few like the author who not only found reasons to survive themselves but also preached others to find their own reason for survival, it took my understanding of the working of the human mind to yet another level altogether.
As humans, it’s always in our nature to find excuses. To find reasons for not doing something or worse, doing it wrong. But how can someone after reading this entire book believe that anymore?! Look at this author. He was already a renowned doctor with not just 1, but 2 specialities (neurology and psychiatry), was well on his way to become a published author before he was imprisoned and was treated worse than a mule. Like a common labourer, he was ordered to work day in and day out on jobs that were miles beneath his capabilities and talents. For 3 years he had survived on nothing but about 200 grams of bread and a bowl of watery soup (+/- a few peas) a day. Sometimes even less. But did that make him lose his faith in humanity? Did that make him depressed or psychotic or worse, a sadist? No. Then how can we, based on our petty grievances blame the circumstances for the people that we are today?
It’s simple. We can’t.
This, according to me is the most important takeaway message of this book.
Never blame the circumstances of a human being for the person he/she is today.
For their personality is their own to shape and prune.
Though, I as a layman can’t really comment on conditions as extreme as the ones described in the book, I can certainly inculcate this lesson in my daily life. And so can you. Take responsibility for your behaviour and actions.
And this is exactly how the writer slowly blended bits and pieces of advice in his story and prepared us for the next part of his book namely ‘Introduction to Logotherapy’
The very basic concept of Logotherapy made me feel as if I were home. For unlike the other two Viennese school of Psychotherapy which concentrate on finding pleasure and concentrating on oneself and one’s talents to earn respect and appreciation, this therapy hits us much deeper and reaches the very roots of our existence. Crudely put, Logotherapy simply urges you to find your own meaning, your own reason for existence.
Speaking about myself, I have often pondered over this question. I have seen people enjoy their mundane lives, doing nothing in particular and simply ‘living in the moment’. Apparently these were the people who were satiated by the first Viennese school of Psychotherapy by Sigmund Freud. The therapy of finding pleasure. I, personally never really agreed with this. Pleasure can’t be the reason for one’s existence. And neither can be the concept of self respect and appreciation. Although polishing one’s talents to make oneself feel better is definitely less superficial than Freud’s school of Psychotherapy, it’s still not enough according to me. People like me would definitely find Logotherapy interesting and satisfying.
For as the writer has rightly referred to a quote from Nietzsche,
‘He who knows the why to live can live with almost any how.’
If a person has a reason to survive, then they really don’t need anything else to make them live to see the sun rise again. Pleasure is fickle. And so is the concept of superiority and respect from others. Both of these Viennese schools of psychotherapy would have crumbled like a pack of cards in the concentration camps the writer spent years in. If he would have ran after pleasure, he would have been killed in a couple of days. If he would have hunted for respect, he would have had to ruthlessly insult and abuse his own comrades to stand a chance of becoming a capo. And even then he would have faced death threats almost daily. Instead, he chose to write keywords of his destroyed manuscript on whatever little pieces of paper he could find in the hope that if he were to get out of the camp alive, he would be able to be a published author. Even in those darkest moments of suffering, he gave his life meaning. A reason to justify enduring seemingly endless days of pain and suffering. And that’s what he encouraged others to do. Somebody had a wife waiting for them. A few had their children. And so on and so forth. It’s these fundamental things that give life meaning. Neither respect, nor pleasure .
And perhaps that’s why God rewarded him with boundless success when he did manage to make through the camp alive.
With over a couple dozen books translated in numerous languages and several million copies sold, Dr. Frankl is now a renowned author whom the entire world knows and respects. He built his own hospital and even better, his own version of Psychotherapy which we now know as the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy. He hadn’t asked for success. But he got it all the same. Because he chose to give meaning to his life. He didn’t run after success. Rather, he made it his mission to make his life meaningful. And that was how success came running towards him as a by product.
Numerous times in his book Dr. Frankl has stressed NOT to focus on pleasure. Not to focus on success. Because both success and happiness always need to be the by products of your dedicated efforts. The more you focus on making your life successful, the less you will succeed. The same applies for pleasure. I couldn’t help but agree more. Because this is exactly what is wrong with today’s world. Not just us, but our society and today’s ever growing, competitive world forces us to concentrate on success most of the times. And spend the remainder of our times chasing pleasure, making our living the perfect recipe for disaster. Why not focus on finding meaning in our own lives instead? For if we derive meaning for our existence, we could perhaps deal with our suffering better and be more at ease and more successful with what we do. What’s even better about this concept though is that it is completely subjective.
Since time immemorial, society has always defined our concepts for us. Since kindergarten we have been taught what is the right thing to do and what isn’t. As we grow older we have been taught the definition of success. And the ways to derive pleasure? Well, that is something we are already born with. However, when asked about the meaning of life, nearly everyone has a different answer. And this is where Dr. Frankl comes to our rescue.
Unlike many other psychiatrists, he does not force his own concepts of right or wrong upon us. Rather, he encourages us to think for ourselves and make our own definitions of the same. Including the million dollar question. The meaning of life. Since it’s a question everyone has to ponder for themselves, the reason for survival can’t be forced upon. Rather, it has to be discovered by us for ourselves. Only then will we truly believe in it and work towards the same.
With that in mind, I would now like to move on to the last part of Dr. Frankl’s book. The part that speaks about the ‘Triad of tragic optimism‘.
21st century is an era that likes to boast about providing quick and easy solutions to people’s problems both big and small. Though this has indeed made lives easier for many of us, it comes with numerous problems of it’s own. Because, what it forgets to teach us is that suffering, irrespective of it’s magnitude is part and parcel of our lives. Rather, it tries to eliminate suffering altogether, something which is far more dangerous.
In the past centuries, humanity has endured a lot of struggle and gone through a lot of pain. Then be it the black plague, the two world wars, colonization followed by the struggle for freedom or even Dr. Frankl’s life itself, who was one of the millions of people who had to suffer for no reason whatsoever. One may ask, what was the meaning of this suffering? Why did they have to endure so much pain when even God knows that they didn’t deserve it? This is where Dr. Frankl’s concept of the Triad of tragic optimism comes into picture.
This triad, rather than focusing on the why of suffering, encourages the person to derive lessons from it. According to Dr. Frankl, suffering is nothing else but an opportunity for a person to grow. To overcome the challenge posed to him/her and to change himself/herself for the better. Marvellous concept indeed.
To support his theory, Dr. Frankl gives us numerous examples of his comrades and his patients who used their suffering as an opportunity to learn more about themselves as a person. They used this analysis for their own betterment and brought out the best of their qualities to rise above their pain. Even in literature we find numerous examples of great people who didn’t lose hope in the darkest hours and made their worst moments of their lives the very reason for their success in future.
This is what we should remember when we find ourselves stuck and dwarfed by the magnitude of the problems in front of us. Even though we have found meaning for our existence, it really doesn’t mean that everything will be smooth sailing from that point on. It only means that we have understood the direction in which we have to proceed. The obstacles in the journey though? Those will always remain our own to overcome.
That being said, a moment always arrives in our lives at some point or the other , when, no matter what, we are unable to see the silver lining. When all hope seems lost.
The moment when we, despite knowing all this might still require Psychotherapy.
Dr. Frankl has made certain important contributions to this aspect as well.
Dr. Frankl, in his book states that previously Psychotherapy was a rigid device in the sense that it somehow assumed that the human brain was a machine to be fixed. What he meant was that Psychotherapies in the past usually went by the assumptions that the minds of all humans worked alike and hence would require an identical course of treatment to rectify them. Which was why not many people agreed with the Psychotherapy that was being administered to them and it didn’t help them resolve their issues.
In order to remedy this, Dr. Frankl made his own ‘humanised’ version of Psychotherapy. He would often first see and understand the mentality of a patient before deciding which approach would be right for him/her. And often he used a combination of therapies. What’s more, Dr. Frankl himself acknowledges that his brainchild, Logotherapy may not actually be the right approach for all of his patients. So there are times when he doesn’t advice Logotherapy at all.
This approach to psychiatry and psychotherapy was the cherry on the cake for me. I had already begun to respect the author a lot after reading the 1st 2 parts, but it was this concept of humanised Psychotherapy that stole the limelight.
Irrespective of whether we are a layman, or a doctor or a psychiatrist even, we should always remember the very basic fact that no two humans are ever alike. Humans were born to think in different ways. And that is the beauty of diversity. Not only that, we should also understand that human mind is not a machine to be simply rectified. Neither is it like any other organ such as the Liver or the Heart wherein the correction of an abnormality immediately rectifies the defect. No. It doesn’t work like that. Human brain is far more complex than simply a bag of neurons and chemicals which can be ‘normalised’ by a couple of drugs or shocks.
Being born and brought up in a country like India where psychiatry is still a taboo amongst many in metropolitan cities let alone rural areas, I have always found myself debating and even arguing with my own friends and family about their rudimentary and misguided understanding of the subject. People often use the term ‘mental hospital’ or ‘maniac’ or ‘you need help’ as deep insults while in fact they are terminologies that need to be used appropriately. Even today, people refuse to see psychiatric patients as genuinely ill patients and psychiatrists as specialist doctors. Which is why being a psychiatrist is definitely one of the few branches I would definitely consider specialising in. And Dr. Frankl has only encouraged me to pursue it more. For if I were to become a psychiatrist, I could at least play a role, no matter how small in eradicating this taboo out of people’s mind and w poulsractice ‘humanised psychotherapy’ to make the lives of the people going through such illnesses at least somewhat better.
P.S.:- If you were wondering about my selection, then yes, I have made it through and will be a proud participant of the workshop which will be conducted sometime next year.
Also, I know it seems like I skipped mentioning anything specific about SEARCH and Dr. Abhay and Rani Bang altogether, but that’s not actually the case. In fact, I will be writing another post in which I will cover their journey in detail, which as you might have aptly guessed was yet another assignment.
Until next time!