"Man's Search for Meaning" Review
“And the other quilt was called Attic Windows; it had a great many pieces, and if you looked at it one way it was closed boxes, and when you look at it another way the boxes were open, and I suppose the closed boxes were the attics and the open ones were the windows; and that is the same with all quilts, you can see them two different ways by looking at the dark pieces, or else the light.”
–Margaret Atwood in “Alias Grace.”
In “Alias Grace,” Margaret Atwood challenges readers to determine whether Grace Marks is guilty of murder or not, to choose whether to look “at the dark pieces, or else the light.” This concept is useful not only in contemplating the slippery nature of truth. It’s also a useful way to approach many of life’s challenges, big or small.
Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian psychologist and holocaust survivor, takes this concept to a new level in “Man’s Search for Meaning” by proposing that there is meaning, light pieces, even in the most impossible suffering. The first half of “Man’s Search for Meaning” specifically discusses Frankl’s time in concentration camps. The second half discusses logotherapy, Frankl’s theory, which posits that we can find meaning by creating a work or doing a deed and though love and suffering. Quoting Nietzsche, Frankl explains, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
Frankl’s writing is easy to follow, despite dealing with such an existential topic. If you’re looking for a simple answer to the question, “what is the meaning of life,” however, you won’t find it here. Frankl proposes that you ask a different question instead: what is life asking of me? “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment,” Frankl writes.
Frankl, for obvious reasons, largely focuses on suffering to illustrate his point. If anyone survived the holocaust at all—the light pieces in the otherwise dark quilt of the 1930s and 40s—there must be meaning in suffering. Frankl explains, “even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.” To triumph over tragedy Frankl writes that we need to choose our attitude when dealing with our own unique burdens.
Overall, Man’s Search for Meaning is a good book for anyone who wants to learn how to suffer gracefully. That sounds bad or like something no one would want to do but hear me out. Everyone suffers, why not do it with your head held high? I don’t know whether Frankl is right or not, but logotherapy offers an alternative way to look at the world and ourselves, an opportunity to choose to look at the light pieces. Ultimately Frankl advises, “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!”