The Why and the How

For a long time, I worked hard to keep my reading habits in line, reprimanding myself whenever I took another book off the shelf because I always have at least three or four in process at any time. I’d shun the books I was only a few chapters into, so I could finish off one in which I was nearing the end. I’d make up rules like: each month, you can buy only as many books as you finish reading that month.

I’m chucking all that now, thankful for what I can glean from any book, no matter how small a part of it. In my studio, at this very moment, there are twenty-one books that I am in the process of reading. Additionally, another eight I plan to read or reread soon are stacked above the washer and dryer, three tall stacks of recently acquired books take up space on my dresser upstairs, and I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of the four books I ordered yesterday.

So, without further ado, here is an excerpt from Harold S. Kushner’s foreword to Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, which I just started in on today:

It is first of all a book about survival. Like so many German and East European Jews who thought themselves secure in the 1930s, Frankl was cast into the Nazi network of concentration and extermination camps. Miraculously, he survived … Several times in the course of the book, Frankl approvingly quotes the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” He describes poignantly those prisoners who gave up on life, who had lost all hope for a future and were inevitably the first to die. They died less from lack of food and medicine than from lack of hope, lack of something to live for. By contrast, Frankl kept himself alive and kept hope alive by summoning up thoughts of his wife and the prospect of seeing her again, and by dreaming at one point of lecturing after the war about the psychological lessons to be learned from the Auschwitz experience. Clearly, many prisoners who desperately wanted to live did die, some from disease, some in the crematoria. But Frankl’s concern is less with the question of why most died than it is with the question of why anyone lived.

Terrible as it was, his experience in Auschwitz reinforced what was already one of his key ideas: Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it. At one point, Frankl writes that a person “may remain brave, dignified and unselfish, or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.” He concedes that only a few prisoners of the Nazis were able to do the former, “but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate.”

Finally, Frankl’s most enduring insight, one that I have called on often in my own life and in countless counseling situations: Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.

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