20 Life-Altering Quotes From "Man's Search for Meaning," A Book That Has Inspired Me In Ways I Never Imagined

My favorite line of all: “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning."

Feb 20, 2014 at 5:30pm | Leave a comment

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I have a lot of books that I've purchased in the name of bettering my life, but more often than not, I find I'm not in a frame of mind where I feel like I can receive them the right way. Sometimes, life feels so frantic or stressed or fly-by, and I'm afraid I'll be distracted or impatient and I'll miss something so... I put it off entirely.

Ultimately, the book never gets read at all. Such is the dance of self-defeating perfectionism.

But lately, I've been trying to push myself past mental blocks like this ("I can't focus right now," "I'll do it later," "Some day") to see what happens when I stop making excuses and just do it.

With this mentality at the fore, I picked up for the first time in many years Dr. Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning," a book that was first assigned to me as a sophomore at my Catholic high school in San Diego in a class called "Prayer & Parables." (I find it telling that I can't remember the names of certain former co-workers but I can name almost every high school course — "Reverence for Life" was my personal favorite — that I took at University of San Diego High School, or "Uni" as most people call it.)

The first part of the book relates Dr. Frankl's survival in a concentration camp, which is harrowing and riveting and provides unbelievable insights through some of the the darkest hours and the most crushing situations imaginable.

Skim past anything I write in this piece, but do me a favor if you will, and actually linger on and digest and savor his insights if you can. They are heady and heavy at times (he's an academic after all) but ultimately remarkable.

Dr. Frankl says of his qualifications to write the book: “As a professor in two fields, neurology and psychiatry, I am fully aware of the extent to which man is subject to biological, psychological and sociological conditions. But in addition to being a professor in two fields I am a survivor of four camps — concentration camps, that is — and as such I also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable.”

When Dr. Frankl gets into an explanation of "logotherapy," his contribution to the world as an alternative to psychotherapy to help man reconcile meaning and his place in the world, I was most impacted of all.

Here are 20 of the passages that affected me the most from "Man's Search for Meaning." Tell me what you think — or if you've read the book, or if you disagree entirely.

1. "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."

2. “At such a moment, it is not the physical pain which hurts the most (and this applies to adults as much as to punished children); it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.”

3. "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 personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run — in the long run, I say — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it."

4. “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

5. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

6. “But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”

7. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

8. “It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”

9. “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.”

10. “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

11. “The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

12. “Man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health. There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that so effectively helps one to survive even the worse conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.”

13. "The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It 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. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not."

14. “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” — Nietzsche

15. “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.”

16. "...the story of the young woman whose death I witnessed in a concentration camp. It is a simple story. There is little to tell and it may sound as if I had invented it; but to me it seems like a poem. This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. 'I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,' she told me. 'In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.' Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, 'This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.' Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. 'I often talk to this tree,' she said to me. I was startled and didn't quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. 'Yes.' What did it say to her? She answered, 'It said to me, I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.'"

17. “One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

18. “Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.”

19. "Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him."

20. "A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, 'The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.'"