A Question that Burns Under Their Fingernails

I got back to Man’s Search for Meaning today, making time only for the “Preface to the 1992 Edition,” but in it, Viktor E. Frankl writes plenty that’s worth remembering. In 1992, the book had gone through nearly 100 printings in English, with more than three million copies sold, and had been translated into 21 other languages. Whenever he was asked in interviews about such success, Frankl would report, “I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book an achievement and accomplishment on my part but rather an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.”

Frankl says that he wrote the book in nine days in 1945 and wanted to publish the book anonymously. He would have gotten away with, too, if it hadn’t been for his meddling friends. “In fact, the first printing of the original German version does not show my name on the cover, though at the last moment, just before the book’s initial publication, I did finally give in to my friends who had urged me to let it be published with my name at least on the title page.”

Frankl was not looking for fame. He was just trying to help those prone to despair by showing them “that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.” He goes on:

And so it is both strange and remarkable to me that—among some dozens of books I have authored—precisely this one, which I had intended to be published anonymously so that it could never build up any reputation on the part of the author, did become a success. Again and again I therefore admonish my students both in Europe and America: “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 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 and carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

Frankl ends his preface by relating the story of why he hadn’t left Austria during World War II when he had the chance, for he had received a visa allowing him to emigrate. Doing so would have allowed him to work on his theory of logotherapy and write books about it, but it would also mean leaving his parents behind. They urged him to go, but he feared for their safety. Wishing for “a hint from heaven,” he got one:

It was then that I noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at home. When I asked my father about it, he explained that he had found it on the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. He had taken the piece home because it was a part of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. One gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the piece: my father explained that this letter stood for one of the Ten Commandments. Eagerly I asked, “Which one is it?” He answered, “Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land.” At that moment I decided to stay with my father and mother upon the land, and to let the American visa lapse.

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