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This Unknown Book Written by the Author of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ has Quietly Changed My Life

‘Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything’ will help you deal with the worst in life


This Unknown Book Written by the Author of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ has Quietly Changed My Life
Image: Wikipedia

When life hits us hard, we lose faith.



Faith that things will get better. Faith that our life still has purpose and meaning. Faith that we can make a difference.


Now imagine losing all your family in war. The pain of such a loss is unimaginable.


This happened to Victor E. Frankl who is the author of the book we are going to discuss today.


Who was he and how did he overcome such adversity?


Keep reading to find out!


Who is Victor Frankl?


A psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust.


Victor Frankl was born to a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria.


In high school, he developed an interest in psychology and started building his knowledge. Frankl went on to do a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Vienna. He started working as a psychiatrist.


In 1942, 9 months after his marriage, he, his wife, and his parents were taken to a concentration camp.


Frankl spent 3 years in different camps and lost his parents, his brother, and his wife during this time.


After being freed, Frankl published his experiences in a book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. The original title of the book in German was “A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp”.


He went on to write many books. Some say he wrote 39 of them.


The book we are going to discuss today is “Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything”.


It is based on the public lectures that Frankl gave in Vienna 11 months after being freed.

It is a short book and an easy read. It has amazing quotes, some of which I have included in today’s article.


Daniel Goleman has written the introduction to the English translation of this book. He explains Frankl’s story and tells us about the book’s publication. He says:

“It’s a minor miracle this book exists.”

On pleasure and happiness


Do they even matter?


Frankl gives an example of a man who has been sentenced to death. When asked for his last meal, he rejects it. The man considers the meal irrelevant because he is on the brink of death anyway.


“… the whole of life stands in the face of death, and if this man had been right, then our whole lives would also be meaningless”

Using this premise, the author makes us realize that pleasure cannot give our lives a sense of purpose. If we survive for pleasure only our lives will be meaningless.


“Pleasure in itself cannot give our existence meaning; thus the lack of pleasure cannot take away meaning from life, which now seems obvious to us.”

Similarly, happiness shouldn’t be our goal, says Frankl.


“Happiness should not, must not, and can never be a goal, but only an outcome…”

It doesn’t mean happiness cannot be desired. I see it as… focus on the cause, and happiness will follow.


Finding Meaning in Life


If the pursuit of pleasure and happiness isn’t the goal, then what is?


Frankl places a huge emphasis on being responsible as humans.


“…the great fundamental truth of being human — being human is nothing other than being conscious and being responsible!”

He says that we are not the ones to ask questions about what life means.


Life is asking us these questions. We are responsible to answer them and live by them.


When we accept this responsibility, nothing can scare us.


But how? How do we find that fuel that lights the fire in our life?


Frankl tells us three ways to do so.


  1. Doing (working towards a cause, creating something)

  2. Experiencing (nature, art, loving people)

  3. Suffering (unavoidable limitation)


“It is not we who are permitted to ask about the meaning of life — it is life that asks the questions, directs questions at us — we are the ones who are questioned!”

Working towards a cause is what sustained Frankl through the ups and downs of life.

He was committed to his work as a psychiatrist. Before the war, he was already a committed member of the community.


He organized free suicide prevention camps, bringing the suicide of students in Vienna down to a zero. He was also working on his manuscript.


The war took away a lot from him.


But he persevered. Through his commitment, he survived. When in Terezin Ghetto (Theresienstadt concentration camp), he worked with suicidal patients.


“One could also say that our human existence can be made meaningful “to the very last breath”; as long as we have breath, as long as we are still conscious, we are each responsible for answering life’s questions.”

If you think about the ways Frankl tells us to find meaning, all of them are directed outside. Perhaps, we weren’t meant to live for ourselves only. We were meant to live for others.


“It is the nature of love that makes us see our loved one in their uniqueness and individuality.”

Can we survive through suffering?


Surviving the worst… is it possible?


When we read about the atrocities of the Holocaust, they leave us astounded. We cannot begin to imagine the suffering of those who lived through it.


Yet, there are people like Victor Frankl, who not only endured all that but went on to do great things.


Why didn’t they spend the rest of their lives in depression and in wishes of what could have been?


“Many of you who have not lived through the concentration camp will be astonished and will ask me how a human being can endure all the things I have been talking about. I assure you, the person who has experienced and survived all of that is even more amazed than you are!”

Frankl says that humans can find meaning in suffering. He says that in suffering, the human soul strengthens by experiencing a burden.


Still, he doesn’t condone comparing the suffering of different people. The magnitude of suffering is unique to each individual.


Suffering determines how humans behave in the face of limited possibilities. How do they fulfill human values… How do they love…


“We give life meaning not only through our actions but also through loving and, finally, through suffering.”

The author also quotes Nietzsche.


No matter what we face, if we have the ‘why’ to our life figured out, we can get through it.


“‘Whoever has a why to live can bear almost any how,’ as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared.”

Now think about an extreme hardship that you have faced in life. How did you survive?


I often think of people saying, I got through it because of my kids. That is surviving through love.


I have also heard of people reflecting on their loss and saying that it made them stronger. That is what Frankl says. The human soul becomes stronger.


Well, yes, there are many who think that the worst in their life left them broken and unfixable.


I do think while everyone has their own journey in life, Frankl’s words can offer hope to anyone.


The role of Fate


Our very existence is dependent on fate.


When we are down on our luck, it is so easy to blame fate for everything. However, Frankl shows us a different view.


He asks us:


“What would have become of each of us without our fate?”

Frankl thinks it is misguided to complain about fate. Because it is the very thing that shapes and forms us.


He considers fate an integral part of the sum of our lives. If a small part of what is destined will be broken away, it will destroy the whole.


If changing fate isn’t possible, we should accept it, he says. And through that, we will experience growth.


“We are not able to direct fate — we describe fate as whatever we have no influence over, whatever escapes the power of our will.”

I agree with the author on this.


There are many things that were destined for us. Our parents, our sex, height, color, facial features, our birthplace. And then there are circumstances that befall us.

Oftentimes we have no control over them.


We cannot fight with what was written for us. And doing so will only lead to more psychological suffering.


It doesn’t mean however one cannot strive for better or work on improving his/her life. That is the very thing that gives our life meaning.


Leaving a Legacy


The author calls death and suffering a source of meaningfulness.


“…death is a meaningful part of life, just like human suffering.”

It’s true. Human life and all its pursuits exist because death is certain.


Our bodies will rot and turn to dust, or ashes. But what remains?


“What remains of it [life], what will remain of us, what can outlast us, is what we have achieved during our existence that continues to have an effect, transcending us and extending beyond us.”

Frankl compares this survival of legacy to ‘radium’. What we do in life, we radiate outwards. It doesn’t return to us.


And that will remain a part of this world even when we pass.


This makes me reflect. What have I radiated into this world? Was it something useful?

Will it continue to benefit people after my passing?


What if I die today?


I had a phone call with a friend yesterday. She was worried about something which I personally have experienced as well. So, I used my experience to guide her to the best of my abilities.


Now that is something I have radiated into the world.


Saying Yes to Life…


Where does the title of the book come from?


The title of the book comes from a song that the prisoners in the Buchenwald concentration camp sang. Its lyrics said:


“We still want to say yes to life”

The author says that those prisoners and many more achieved that many times under dire conditions. There are people who have said yes to life despite all the difficulties. So why can’t we all?


He asks:


“So shouldn’t we all be able to achieve it today in, after all, incomparably milder circumstances?”

This is something to reflect on, for all of us.


Frankl is relentless in urging us that we can say yes to life despite the circumstances.


“To say yes to life is not only meaningful under all circumstances — because life itself is — but it is also possible under all circumstances.”

What can we learn?


Life can be embraced, no matter what.


The author says:


“…ultimately that was the entire purpose of these three parts: to show you that people can still — despite hardship and death (first part), despite suffering from physical or mental illness (second part) or under the fate of the concentration camp (third part) — say yes to life in spite of everything.”

The wisdom in this 1946 book is timeless. We can extract many lessons from this book to apply in our lives.


I’d like to summarize some of them:


  1. Being human is about accepting responsibility.

  2. You can survive through anything if your life has meaning.

  3. Pleasure alone cannot give our life meaning.

  4. Death and suffering are a meaningful part of life.

  5. Accepting fate leads to growth.

  6. Work on what you are ‘radiating’ into this world.


 

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