Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl
Essay by Donald Miller
In 1942, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, along with his parents and pregnant wife, were taken by Nazi soldiers into the concentration camps, where his family would eventually be killed. Frankl survived the camps, including Auschwitz, and in the most dire of human circumstances realized a personality theory involving man’s need for meaning—a theory that would contend with Sigmund Freud, who was alive at the time and positing that man’s primary desire was not for meaning but for pleasure.
Tested in the concentration camps, Frankl realized no amount of torture could keep a person from living a fulfilling life, if only they had three elements working for them: a project in which they could contribute, a person to love, and a worthy explanation for their suffering.
His finding interestingly mirrors the Teacher’s search for meaning captured in Ecclesiastes. The Teacher argued that one should find enjoyment in his work and in his wife, that one should fear God, and that while, technically, meaning is hard to prove, experientially it is possible within this framework.
Frankl rightly argues meaning is experiential, and his three elements provide a recipe, if you will, to experience that meaning. His emphasis on worthwhile suffering stands in contrast to an American culture obsessed with comfort. One might say our lack of suffering fuels a cycle of meaninglessness.
What makes Frankl’s argument so important for the church is its invitation to suffer for the sake of the gospel, indeed, to suffer for something worthwhile, thus providing a sense of meaning to life. Christian leaders, then, should not try to make their congregants more comfortable, but call them into challenges that, by necessity, involve discomfort and even suffering if they are going to shepherd their congregants into more meaningful lives.
Frankl’s book is no more religious than the Teacher’s essay on meaning, and yet both have a masterful religious subtext, delving into the complex nature of fallen man, resistant against exposition at odds with their intended purposes.
Frankl’s book has now sold more than twelve million copies and is considered one of the ten most influential books in America. He died in 1997.
Thought to ponder: Does my life feel meaningful & worthwhile? Why or why not?