Sometimes a book can make a difference. In recent years, the work of the Viennese psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) has gained ever greater popularity as a touchstone of a field of psychology that has its very own name: resilience psychology. (No matter that Frankl had already given a name to his approach to psychology, calling it logotherapy.) Now, his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning, will this month be published for the first time in a young adult (YA) and classroom-ready edition. And that’s good news for teaching a subject we’re sorely in need of these days: tolerance.
Frankl is best known for is his extraordinary first-person narrative about his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, as told in Man’s Search for Meaning, and the YA edition includes that section of the book in full. As for the book's more technical second half, which details the psychological theory of logotherapy, that’s abridged. And that's appropriate, I think: I have my doubts about how many adults through the years have actually completely made their way through that. As so often happens, it's the story itself—Frankl's story—that makes us see the importance of his ideas. And it’s a chilling story.
Even before the Nazi regime deported him to Thereseinstadt in 1942, Frankl, a Viennese Jewish physician specializing in neurology and psychiatry, had begun to formulate his thesis: that the search for meaning is the single most powerful motivational force we possess; indeed, when what gives meaning to life is lost, the very will to live is lost as well, he posited. He’d seen the phenomenon in his work with suicide-prone patients in pre-war Vienna, and had brought this insight to bear in Thereseinstadt, where he (along with the first female rabbi, Berlin-born Regina Jonas) had organized a suicide watch to help fellow inmates. And then, in the bunkers of Auschwitz (where he was deported in 1944), he bore witness to the need for meaning even in the face of atrocity. Again and again, he observed that those prisoners who managed to conceive an inner goal or meaning (such as to live and bear witness, help another inmate, or remain religiously faithful), were better able to endure the unendurable than those who had lost their “will to meaning.”
Frankl survived (though his first wife and other family members did not), and devoted the rest of his professional career to communicating the importance of the psychology of meaning (which he called logotherapy) through numerous books, articles and lectures. Among those writings, Man’s Search for Meaning is Frankl’s masterpiece. It inspires because it allows for—indeed encourages—a philosophy of spirit and possibility that urges us forward, even in the midst of uncertainty and suffering, doubt and despair. The YA version (which includes a foreword by John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), will convey these lessons to younger audiences. For the most part, I suspect it will find its way into Holocaust studies classes. But it seems to me that it could be particularly resonant among adolescents struggling with issues of meaning and purpose in their lives, especially at a time when different forms of bullying (including cyber-bullying) are all too prevalent in schools, and hate speech and hate crimes targeting any number of groups are on the uptick.
From my own experience, I know Frankl’s book can make a difference for any generation. I first encountered his work when I was in my early 20s. In a period of less than a handful of years, my then college sweetheart (and subsequently my husband) underwent radical surgery and radiation treatment for cancer; my mother died of colon cancer; and then, in 1977, I faced the possibility of my own death when I found myself among the more than 100 hostages held for 39 hours at Washington’s B’nai Brith International building by an armed group of Hanafi Muslims who’d also seized the Islamic Center of Washington and offices at the District Building, where two men were killed and Marion Barry, then a city council member, was shot. Some at B’nai Brith suffered severe injuries, but all of us lived. In the aftermath, the memory of being bombarded by nonstop death threats was hard to still, but even after 40 years, a terror flashback can be easily triggered.
Which brings me back to Viktor Frankl. All these experiences had left me with a chorus of uncomfortably unanswerable questions: Why? Why me, my mother, my husband-to-be? Why any of us? Was there a meaning or purpose to my being, beyond my day-to-day existence?
Frankl’s book helped me understand that I was far from alone in asking these questions. And he helped guide me in wrestling with my own answers to those ineffable questions. His was not the only influence, but it’s in keeping with his psychology and philosophy that I retain an enormous well of gratitude that I’ve received 40 additional years (and counting) to think about—and more importantly, to act on—these questions to attempt to craft a life that does some good in the world, in personal relationships as well as in communal and professional projects.
And that leads me to my take on what’s raised the adult paperback edition of this classic to a high rank (below #300) on the Amazon bestseller list. It’s not only the emergence of resilience and positive psychology that’s brought Frankl's work to a larger audience. It’s the aging of a population of Boomers who are approaching retirement, have grown out of many consumerist goals, and are wondering what more there is to life, beyond what Wordsworth described as “getting and spending.” With this new YA edition, making Frankl's work available to younger audience, those lessons become part of the legacy from one generation to another. We’re never too old—or too young—to learn, not just the importance of meaning, but the meaning of tolerance and meaningfulness.
Contributing Editor Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges, and writes for many national publications, including The Wall Street Journal and NPR online.
Did you enjoy this article? You might also enjoy our interview with mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn, "The Reluctant Guru," in which he discusses how mindful awareness can help us change our self-narrative about our life and purpose. Or check out our issue on trauma, Treating Trauma: What Are We Missing?, including reflections from trauma experts Mary Jo Barrett, Noel Larson, Janina Fisher, and more!