Dr. Viktor Frankl’s classic is as relevant today in helping with bereavement and grief as it was when he wrote it in 1946
Title: Man’s Search for Meaning
Author: Viktor Frankel
Publisher: Beacon Press
Genre: Popular Psychology Psychotherapy
Release Date of this Edition: June 1, 2006
“We should not ask ourselves what we want from life. We should ask ourselves, what does life want from us?” –Viktor Frankl
Many of us lost loved ones last year. Some through the natural aging process but a significant number due to COVID-19. Pandemic rules dictated that funerals be limited in size so only a tiny number of relatives and friends could attend and support the bereaved. Added to that, traditional mourning customs often had to be modified or abandoned due to virus concerns. Following the funeral, people had to face the business of going on living, and with so many job losses and furloughs, together with travel restrictions and limit on family gatherings, they were deprived of the usual coping mechanisms.
Dr. Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian-Jewish neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, and author. He was also a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. He is the author of the classic Man’s Search for Meaning. I first read it in college and reread it recently for help with my own bereavement and grief.
Dr. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy. Verywellmind.com describes it as “…a theory that … through a search for meaning and purpose in life that individuals can endure hardship and suffering.”
In the first section of Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Frankl describes the stages of shock an inmate of the concentration camps endured once they got off the cattle trains. Some people gave up while others found the strength to go on through thoughts of reuniting with loved ones and/or going back to their professions. Survival in the camps depended quite a bit on luck: finding a sympathetic guard to offer assistance, having a skill the Nazis found useful, and/or finding a fellow inmate for support. But diseases like typhoid were rampant, the prisoners performed hard physical labor from early morning to night, and they were undernourished. Dr. Frankl was one of the lucky ones who survived. However, upon his liberation, he found out his pregnant wife, his parents and his brother had perished.
The second section of the book is about logotherapy. Here are only three takeaways from the book’s treasure trove of useful advice:
1.) Human beings need a certain degree of tension in order to maintain their mental health. By tension, he is referring to “the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task” (p. 105). Being in a tensionless state with nothing to be preoccupied or involved in is actually unhealthy.
2.) The concept of meaning in life is different for every individual. In fact, it can differ from day to day, even at different times during a day. Frankl describes it best: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. . . Everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it” (p. 109).
3.) Many of us need a change in attitude toward life. Instead of focusing on what we expect out of life and what is the meaning of life, we should be asking what life expects of us. This means taking responsibility and pursuing the right course of actions and behavior.
I close by retelling a story from the book. It was the only thing I remembered from reading it in college. After the war, Dr. Frankl stayed in his native Austria to practice psychotherapy. One day an elderly doctor came to see him. He had lost his beloved wife and was so overcome with grief that he could not go on. Instead of counseling him, Dr. Frankl asked him what would have happened if he died before his wife. The man replied that his wife would have suffered terribly. Dr. Frankl then told him “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who now have to survive and mourn her” (p. 113). The doctor then shook his hand and left the office, needing no further treatment.
Idelle Kursman is the author of two novels, True Mercy and The Book of Revelations.
The year 2020 needs no introduction. Many people will agree it was the year from hell. Job losses, schools going remote, and worst of all, losing loved ones. My father passed away in June (non-COVID related) and my mother passed in December (COVID-related). This has put me in a new cold stark reality along with the hassles of wearing a mask every time I go out, continually washing my hands, and coping with an extremely restricted social life. I know countless other people have their stories as well.
But there were a few bright spots: I wrote and published my second novel, I took online courses in copyediting, proofreading and SEO copywriting. I also took on a few projects in these areas. And I read some books that helped me stay sane and grateful. I would like to share my list of books that gave me comfort and consolation during 2020.
The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley
An elderly artist who once enjoyed a prominent career now lives as a recluse. When he leaves his personal journal behind in a cafe, Monica, the café owner, finds it and adds her own innermost thoughts. Other characters find it and add their own entries. They meet the artist, who ends up teaching art lessons in the café where the characters bond as they learn how to draw.
The Authenticity Project is the perfect book to read when you are forced to stay at home and need some cheering up. It can also restore your faith in the goodness of special people.
The Friendship List by Susan Mallery
Two lifelong friends find they are in a rut and dare each other to try new things and actually learn to live. One of the women is 34-year-old Ellen Fox, who accidentally became pregnant at 17 and was abandoned by her boyfriend before the baby’s birth. She has been raising her son and supporting him while never venturing back into the dating world. Her friend, Unity Leandre, also 34, married her husband at 18 and became a widow at 31. She is still keeping vigil for her late husband and has never dated since. These ladies make a pact: Each writes a list of things she wants to do and whoever actually accomplishes the most on her list will pay for the two of them to go to a luxury spa for a weekend. A few of their goals include having a serious relationship with a man, getting a tattoo, and skydiving.
The Friendship List is about overcoming challenges and the highs and lows of taking chances in the quest to live a full, satisfying life.
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas
Joseph, an English graduate student at Berkeley, receives the news that his father in Egypt has passed away. He lives with his mother and stepfather and has only visited his father a few times. Joseph has a Jewish mother and a Muslim father and has never felt particularly connected to either group, yet when he receives a mysterious package that his father directed to be sent to him, it propels Joseph to travel to Cairo, Egypt. There he learns about his father and his dedication to being the last in his family’s line to serve as watchman of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue, a job that has been in the family for over a thousand years. After his journey Joseph not only understand his father but also finds himself.
Losing my own father and mother, I was able to relate to Joseph’s sadness, introspection, and the realization of how special my parents were.
Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything by Victor Frankl
The Austrian Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl was the author of the classic Man’s Search for Meaning. Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything is from the author’s series of lectures he gave almost a year after the holocaust. His message still resonates today: it is essential to find purpose even after experiencing setbacks and tragedies. Having a purpose in everyday living sustains a person and allows them to be productive and happy so as not to give in to despair. This is coming from a survivor of the holocaust who lost his wife and unborn child in the death camps.
Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything gives the reader a newfound appreciation of life and strength to carry on.
The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui
In the early years of Syria’s civil war, the Assad regime bombed the town of Daraya daily and cut off basic supplies in order to force out the inhabitants. A group of young Syrian men resisted and hid in a library. They read books such as Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, discuss their ideas and beliefs, and talk and communicate with a journalist via the computer about their plight. The journalist then wrote this book to capture their spirit and strength while their lives were at risk on a daily basis.
The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War was a reminder that although we are suffering from the COVID lockdown, there are people in the world who are enduring even worse trials.
The Book of Revelations by Idelle Kursman
This is my own women’s fiction book that I wrote and published this year. It is a story about self-acceptance. After going through much upheaval earlier in her life, Christine Goldberg is married and works as a representative for a modeling agency. Her husband adopted her twins, a boy and a girl who want to learn about their biological father, but Christine refuses to divulge his identity. But her past catches up with her and she is forced to not only deal with the challenges she has worked so hard to escape but also deal with new ones. Christine must face her old demons now, including her estrangement from her parents and her children’s questions about the mystery of their biological father.
For those who feel like they failed to live up to their life-long dreams and goals, this story is about being easier on yourself and looking at all you did accomplish.
This year has been heartbreaking. I lost both of my parents. Countless other people have lost loved ones. There were many job layoffs and jobs furloughed. Families and friends could not get together, even for Thanksgiving. Reading Anxious People is just what I needed. A bank robber on the verge of losing everything holds people hostage at an apartment viewing the day before the New Year. Readers learn the backstory of most of these characters, including the policemen who rescue them.
Swedish author Fredrik Backman combines insights about life, adding humor and some absurd conversations as he chronicles the hostage drama. The theme is life is a struggle and everyone carries their own pain and anxieties. We often cannot create the life we desire but should instead try to get through as best as we can while hopefully cherishing some good memories along the way. At the heart of the story is the despair we often experience when things do not go our way or we cannot save our loved ones from themselves.
We meet a father and son police officer team working on the case. The father is a widower who misses his wife, attempts to boost his son’s confidence in his police skills, and despairs that he cannot help his drug-addicted daughter. The bank robber recently experiences job loss, is in the process of getting divorced, and cannot pay the rent for an apartment. In addition, the robber’s spouse wants full custody of their children. The hostages have their stories as well.
Many of the keen observations about life come from the police officers reminiscing about their late wife and mother. She was a priest and this is just an example of what she used to tell them:
We can’t change the world, and a lot of the time we can’t even change people. No more than one bit at a time. So we do what we can to help whenever we get the chance…We save those we can. We do our best. Then we try to convince ourselves that that will just have to…be enough. So we can live with our failures without drowning” (p. 203).
The witness interviews consist of absurd conversations between the various hostages and the police officers that I found too annoying to be funny, but the dialogue and background information gave the story depth and insights. Backman builds a fascinating character with Zara, one of the hostages, in detailing her meetings with her psychologist prior to the main action.
The writing is superb, the plot is brilliantly woven, and the story is peppered with sharp observations about life.
I must be frank. This has been an all-out crappy year. But reading Anxious People reminds me we must get through these times and try to be there for each other.
Idelle Kursman is the author of the novels True Mercy and The Book of Revelations. They are for sale on Amazon and many other places.
KAPLAN, ARLENE, 87, passed away Saturday, December 5, 2020 with her daughter Hillary by her side and holding her hand. She was the beloved wife of the late Stanley S. Kaplan, who passed away just 5 months ago. Born in Providence, she was the daughter of the late Harold and Sadie Rosen and the sister of the late Simon Rosen. Arlene was a lifelong resident of the city.
She was a high school graduate, but should have been awarded a doctorate in common sense. Everyone appreciated her wisdom, wit, and keen observations of life. She was a quiet person but those who knew her felt her kindness and love. Arlene was truly the cornerstone of her family by her dedication to her loved ones. She enjoyed cooking, reading, and spending time with her grandchildren.
She, Stanley and Hillary shared weekly breakfasts and dinners and every Sunday made Kosher chicken together. The time spent with the three of them was very much loved and will be greatly missed.
Some of my mother’s favorite sayings:
It is better to leave the table a little hungry than to overeat.
If men were the ones who had the babies, abortion would be legal and every family would have only one child.
Thoughts have wings.
You never know what other people are going through–people don’t wear signs.
Some people are book smart, but when have to deal with life, they fumble around.