The question as to why people suffer has been engrossing philosophers, theologians, and thinkers for millenia. Almost every religion tackles this fundamental aspect of our existence—from Zoroaster and Buddha to Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammed, and eventually to the philosophies of Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. Now that this pandemic continues to ravage our lives, we are even more pressed against the wall that we begin to philosophize our experiences and existence. “Why do I have to experience these challenges and hardships? Is there more to life beyond quarantine, lost opportunities, and grieving over our lost friends and loved ones? When will this suffering end? Is there hope?”
In the spirit of World Suicide Prevention Day every September 10 and Mental Health Awareness Month this October, I’m sharing about one of the most influential classics on survival and hope: Man’s Search for Meaning by psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. First published in 1946, the book is divided into two parts. The first part tells about Frankl’s experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The second part offers a short introduction about the psychotherapeutic method that he developed called logotherapy. It presents that the central human motivational force is to find a meaning in life.
The book has sold over 16 million copies and has been translated into more than 20 languages. It is often regarded by many as “a book that everyone should read.” Here are some of the reasons why Filipinos should read Man’s Search for Meaning.
As they say, philosophy is the grandparent of all enquiries as it asks the most essential and fundamental queries of humanity such as existence, knowledge, values, and reason. It is basic but we tend to view philosophy more as an academic or intellectual pursuit rather than an inherent part of our everyday lives.
But contrary to that notion, we actually do philosophy every day albeit oftentimes unknowingly. We do it when we choose and decide on simple things such as what to wear, what food to eat or to order, or whether to bathe or not. We also do it every time we share opinions about various things. Furthermore, the lines that we sometimes hear or utter like “I am having an existential crisis” or “I am lost and I need to find myself” mirror our introspection about ourselves and our being.
Reading Man’s Search for Meaning makes us realize that those deep inquiries about our experiences and existence are not mere abstractions that only happen in our minds as they also manifest in our overall health and wellbeing. They affect our physical and mental health, which also translates to the quality of our lives and our relationships. Since we have evolved into a thinking species capable of complex ideation and reason, we are wired not only to survive but to aspire for a meaningful life. Hence, we philosophize our experiences and the challenges we face. We don’t just ask the whats, whens, and whos; we also look for the whys. (Related: “Why Filipinos Should Read: Social Sciences and Philosophy”)
Human dignity and rights
In the book, Frankl tries to put the readers in the shoes of ordinary prisoners during the Holocaust. He vividly describes their harrowing experiences, both physically and mentally, in the hands of prison guards, and even their fellow captives—how they were stripped off of all their possessions, families, and identities and how they were enslaved for years without knowing whether or not they would regain their lost freedom and see their loved ones again.
Besides the gruesome details, what struck me the most is that all these horrifying events happened just a couple of generations ago. In fact, some of the people living during that time are still alive today. It’s terrifying to think about what humans are capable of doing to their fellow humans, and how human dignity and rights can be so violated and trampled on.
But these agonizing lessons of the past should never be forgotten. They should instead serve as our reminder that human dignity and rights are not mere floating and intangible concepts. We should be reminded that they are fundamental values and truths that every human being has. It is inviolable, intrinsic, and universal, which means nobody can take it away from us; we have dignity and rights regardless of our backgrounds and circumstances, and these should not be violated and compromised.
Finding meaning in our suffering
Many of us aspire for a happy life. Who wouldn’t want to be happy? As some philosophers say, the pursuit of happiness is the aim of human existence. However, life doesn’t always cooperate as to what we had hoped or planned. Bad things happen and those can stop us from being happy and content. Challenges, obstacles, and problems are always there to spoil the fun.
But for some philosophers, including Frankl, we can still find meaning even in our sufferings and hardships. In fact, reading about human experiences throughout history will help us realize that mental health issues are nothing new. Our struggles are inherent parts of our lives that make us who we are as human beings.
Realizing our potential
But that doesn’t mean I’m glorifying our struggles as human beings. We don’t want to live miserable lives. But what Man’s Search for Meaning gives us is a perspective that would help us find a deeper sense in our life amidst our struggles. All these negative feelings, when channeled appropriately, can still contribute towards a cathartic self-discovery and flourishing.
It is also important to point out that everyone has their own experiences. So, meanings vary from person to person. This serves as a reminder that there is no one definite way to live and we shouldn’t compare our lives to others. Maybe, we can just draw some inspiration from other people’s lives. But we don’t have to conform to their “standards” on how to live. We can do and achieve whatever we want in life for as long as we respect fundamental truths like the dignity and rights of our fellow beings.
While the book does not dwell too much on history as it is more focused on personal experiences, I still find it imperative to highlight its historical backdrop. As mentioned, we should learn and never forget the lessons of the past. We should never forget how our species was able to produce genocidal dictators like Adolf Hitler.
Hence, we should learn how to critically read history. We must view history beyond the forgettable dates and names, and focus more on why millions of Jews had died and suffered. We should also recognize the danger of forgetting. Thus, we should continue to interrogate our past to fight historical denialism and distortion. Interpretations may vary but facts don’t change. Thus, let’s learn how to fact-check, read from credible sources, and educate ourselves so that the mistakes of the past will never happen again. Furthermore, we must bear in mind that history doesn’t repeat itself, because it is us, the people, who repeat history. (Related: “Why Filipinos Should Read: The ‘Looking Back’ Series by Ambeth Ocampo”)
So beyond the self-help aspect, reading Man’s Search for Meaning can raise our social, historical, and political awareness. But if I have to condense it to its very essence, the most important message I got from Viktor Frankl is that every human life has value. Regardless of circumstances, all humans have dignity and all humans have rights. And with that, every Filipino should be reminded of that as we choose our next leaders in the upcoming elections. ☁️