Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning has been called a life-altering book. And yet, it did not seem so to me. I did not find it giving me something revelatory; I did not find it giving me something I had never thought of.
Instead, I found it unbelievably, utterly relatable. Close to my heart and, incredibly, strangely familiar.
I discovered, to my great surprise, that in spite of never having been imprisoned or sent to concentration camp, I was already acquainted with a significant portion of the suffering reflected in it.
It would of course be highly presumptuous of me, not to mention disrespectful, to compare my own puny suffering with that of the ones who experienced the horrors of Auschwitz.
However, suffering is universal. The ‘types and patterns of suffering’ are universal.
There are wounds that are invisible to the naked eye, wounds whose pain is known only to the one that carries them. Suffering is immeasurable, and therefore, incomparable. There are no statistical tools available to measure and compare suffering – or we would perhaps have been boasting about that too: look how much thicker or heavier my suffering is, compared to yours.
But that is not so, and therefore, suffering can only be defined from the point of view of the person who experienced it.
The fact that this book has sold over 12 million copies, and continues to sell after 7 decades of first being published, means only one thing: all of us, whether or not we have known the inside of concentration camps, have known suffering very deeply, intimately. Maybe not the same kind of suffering, but the very same patterns of suffering.
Thus I found that I had gone through all of the stages of suffering described by Frankl, and could identify with them to an alarming level.
Curiously, every one of these stages of suffering made me think of my forthcoming book, The Reluctant Mother. It made me think of the three years recorded in my book: those three years when I became a person entirely different from who I had been so far.
And that is one of the impacts of trauma upon the human mind and personality, as defined so lucidly by Frankl. Severe and chronic trauma often brings about personality changes in people, making them behave in unprecedented ways, changing them from who they were under non-traumatic circumstances. That is one of the first stages of suffering.
Then there is the moment when, arriving at the concentration camp, Frankl is stripped of everything that has ever belonged to him, including his clothes–including the manuscript of his life’s work that he hid away in those clothes. As Victor writes, he understood in that moment that he had to let go of and say goodbye to everything that had defined his entire life until that moment.
In life we sometimes face moments when we are forced to say goodbye to the dreams and ambitions we had nurtured thus far. And yet, Victor made it out of the camp. As did I make it out of my ‘camp’ and found that, after a significant period of time, life brought back my dreams and meanings to me- in newer, different forms. Just like it did for Victor.
With every word of the book, I found an echo of my own experience.
In particular, the third stage of suffering, in which you imagine freedom as a moment of great and overpowering joy, and yet, when freedom has been withheld for far too long, you lose the capacity to fully experience that joy when it does come.
As Victor wrote of the time they were liberated from the concentration camp:
We wanted to see the camp’s surroundings for the first time with the eyes of free men. “Freedom”—we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it. We had said this word so often during all the years we dreamed about it, that it had lost its meaning. Its reality did not penetrate into our consciousness; we could not grasp the fact that freedom was ours.’
‘We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.’
How well have I known this! The numb void that appears when joy and hope have been dashed to the ground, repeatedly and for so long, that when they finally appear on the horizon, you find yourself unresponsive. Vacant. Blank.
I had suffered enough to be aware of these stages, though I am no psychoanalyst or logotherapist.
At the end of my reading of Man’s Search For Meaning, I felt a great sense of peace—a sense of peace that is detached from joy, for it is possible for peace to be devoid of joy.
I felt a sense of understanding that suffering is, as Frankl says, an inevitable part of life. And that we survive only by finding meanings to it. Were it not for the meanings we seek and find in our suffering, life would often become unliveable.
And yet, survival is not, ultimately, what brings meaning to life.
‘Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning?’ questioned Victor. ‘For if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance—as whether one escapes or not—ultimately has no meaning at all.’
Importantly, though, Victor stresses over and over throughout the course of the book, that a person’s first response to suffering must always be to find ways to remove it. To find ways to alleviate it –whether it be the suffering of others, or his or her own self. There is no courage or glory in suffering needlessly when suffering can be removed.
However, finding meaning in suffering becomes imperative for all those kinds of circumstances that life throws at us, from which we find it impossible to escape, even after our best attempts. When we find ourselves bound inescapably to suffering. In those times, the only thing that pulls us across is the search for meaning.
That perhaps is how a person may arrive at a place of peace with all their suffering—not necessarily happy, but at peace, for all the meanings it imbues their life with. Suffering shows you how much there is to learn from life.
This realisation made me feel a tad proud of myself, too, for I did, independently and through my own reflections, discover everything that Frankl speaks of in this book, which has brought meaning to the lives of millions of people for 7 decades now.
Perhaps I can hope, with some vanity and some naivety, that my book will also give hope and bring meaning to some people, especially since it speaks of the truths that are most often silenced.
Perhaps that shall be the ultimate meaning of all my suffering.