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A Life Lesson From Victor Frankl

“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose ones attitude in any given circumstance.”  Victor Frankl

 

I’ve put off talking about Victor Frankl as long as I could because it’s hard for me to stop once I start.  One of my primary reasons for hoping there’s a Heaven is the thought that I might get to meet Kurt Vonnegut, Victor Frankl, and Mark Twain–although Mark might choose Hell out of pure spite.

Victor Frankl

Victor Frankl

But it’s time.  I’m reading one of his books again and once again I’ve been knocked off my feet.

 

I do not get to use words like “beautiful” and “profound” and “wonderful” and “lovely” and “inspiring” often enough, at least not with sincerity.  And still, to call Frankl merely “inspiring” is like saying the surface of the sun is “a bit warm.”  I felt the same way about The Last Lecture, but in a different way, if that makes any sense at all.

Victor Frankl was all of these things in all of their possible definitions.  I’ve never been so inspired by anyone in my life. Words cheapen what he means to me, but words are all I’ve got, so here we go.

Taking Offense

For anyone who isn’t familiar with Frankl, he was a doctor who survived the Holocaust and a lengthy stint in Auschwitz.  His experiences there led to a career in what he named “Logotherapy,” an alternative to Freud’s psychoanalytic approaches.

His book, Man’s Search For Meaning, takes the view that sex is not behind every single behavior, thought, and action of man, but rather that the pursuit of meaning is at the core of each person.

One of the most striking lessons of the book is the theme that when you have nothing–and when others control your body and fate–you can only control your mind.  Nobody can take your thoughts and nobody can force you to feel a reaction that you do not agree to feel.

I’ve heard this before and it seldom rings true to me until I read Frankl’s work again each time.  It’s certainly easier and more convenient to blame our reactions on others.

But I believe the good doctor when he says that if we are offended, we choose to be offended.   I have no choice but to believe it.  If he learned to choose his reactions while being hideously  mistreated at the hands of his captors, how arrogant must I be to think I can’t help but be irritated when someone cuts me off on the highway?

If I don’t stop now, I really will be here typing all night.  Frankl is that good.  I believe that each person has the innate ability to recognize truth when they see it.  I have yet to meet the person who can hear Frankl’s words and find anything false in them, even if they wish it were otherwise.

If you aren’t familiar with Frankl, please start with Man’s Search For Meaning. If you have already read it, I’m reading it again right now and you should too so we can talk about it.

Who’s familiar with Dr. Frankl?  Do you believe we choose how to react to circumstances and other people?

Josh


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Psst: Have you gotten a copy of The Knot yet?

 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gubernatrix August 28, 2009, 7:29 am

    I hadn’t heard of him at all but I will definitely check him out!

    • Josh Hanagarne August 28, 2009, 8:43 am

      Mme Guber, you won’t be sorry. Let me know what you think.

  • Casey August 28, 2009, 7:45 am

    I wasn’t familiar with his book, but with his theory that people choose how they respond, and that humans are driven by a pursuit for meaning.

    I prefer the idea that we truly are a self-aware species driven not only by our base instincts. (Sorry, Freud)

    • Josh Hanagarne August 28, 2009, 8:43 am

      Casey, thanks. There is a passage in Man’s Search For Meaning that I think you’ll love. He spends a lot of time thinking about his wife during the worst times. It’s so moving that anything more moving would kill you. Freud was too coked-up anyhow.

  • Leah August 28, 2009, 10:03 am

    I read this a zillion years ago in college and was very awed by it… Your post makes me realize it’s time to read it again.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 28, 2009, 10:13 am

      Leah, I’m trying to come up with a list of books that I think I should reread every five years. It’s fascinating to see how our opinions change with age and experience. Rereading a book at 25 that I first read at age 20 was like opening it for the first time. It’s even more pronounced now that I’m past 30.

  • Jessica Marie August 28, 2009, 12:02 pm

    Finally, someone else who loves this book. Every time I describe or recommend it to someone, I get a strange look. I first read it in high school and have read it 5 times since. It changed my way of looking at the trials in my life. Sadly, my perspective refuses to remain in it’s changed state after I read it and I slowly revert back to a person who thinks thoughts such as”he made me angry” or “she made me think about ……” From the age of 16 to almost 30, it has remained relevant and interesting. Thanks for writing about it.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 28, 2009, 1:50 pm

      @Jessica Marie. You’re not alone in loving it and you’re not alone in reverting to “he made me angry” behavior. This is why people roll their eyes when we say “this book changed my life!” You (me) might not actually change in a way that everyone can see, but it still changes you. Enough momentary changes may eventually lead to the big one.

  • Lori August 28, 2009, 12:37 pm

    Wow, Josh, you posted today about a book that has saved my life. I know that sounds dramatic, but I’m being honest.

    Just yesterday, I recommended this book to TWO friends (separate incidences). Also, a dear friend sent me the book last last winter, knowing it was exactly what I needed. Thanks for honoring Dr. Frankl today! 🙂

  • Beth L. Gainer August 28, 2009, 1:07 pm

    Oh my gosh, I am sooooo glad someone else is giving Frankl his due: He’s a GENIUS!! I’ve read the book five times, and it has saved my life, getting me through the hard times. It really sheds light on the universal truth: that people are willing to suffer if they know there is meaning to that suffering.

    This is the book I most frequently buy for people as gifts and one of my most recommended books. It’s a real piece of gold.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 28, 2009, 1:50 pm

      Beth, you’re the second person who has said this book saved your life. I wonder how many people out there would say something similar?

  • Boris Bachmann August 28, 2009, 2:32 pm

    “Man’s Search For Meaning” is one of the most moving books I’ve read in the past 10 years. Good post.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 28, 2009, 2:57 pm

      Boris, thanks. I absolutely loved your post on Entitlement over on Squat RX a couple of weeks ago. I’m trying not to be one of the entitled.

  • Helen Hoefele August 28, 2009, 5:44 pm

    Like Casey, I am familiar with the concept, though I don’t recall ever hearing it being attributed to him. And, like Jessica Marie points out, it is tempting to want to disagree with it. I agree that we can choose how we react to things, but I do believe that other people’s behaviors do trigger natural reactions in us (especially when people intentionallly want to make someone feel bad or guilty, etc ; or in a positive way, to make someone feel loved.) I’ll definitely have to check out his book. Thanks for posting about this.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 28, 2009, 8:01 pm

      Helen, I think you’ll like it. And also, I’m sure Frankl was realistic enough to know that saying “this is true” and people actually following through on it all the time were two very different things.

  • Allison Reynolds August 28, 2009, 9:58 pm

    I am familiar with the idea but not the man.

    I certainly learned that all I do and all I think are mine alone after spending many years learning how to deal with myself in Al-Anon after marrying an alcoholic.

    Since then I recognise that 90 seconds after an event is pure animal reaction, and after that there is no excuse for me to indulge in immature thought practices.

    While this doesn’t help with clinical depression, it sure does help with daily life like working where I don’t enjoy, and with people who don’t know better.

    Off to borrow Frankl on your recommendation!

    • Josh Hanagarne August 28, 2009, 10:46 pm

      Allison, I’m going to try to keep the 90 seconds in mind. Sounds reasonable.

  • Tim August 28, 2009, 10:27 pm

    Josh:

    I’ve heard this book recommended many times, but I have not read it yet. I absolutely love the idea –it sounds like a very powerful story. I’m also glad to read about your powerful emotional connection to this book – I feel even more motivated to read this. Thanks again.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 28, 2009, 10:45 pm

      Tim, you’re welcome. Please let me know if you read it and what you think about it.

  • Jessica Marie August 28, 2009, 10:51 pm

    So the question is this: is there another book out there that has equally impacted lives? What other books are in the same vein as Man’s Search for Meaning and The Last Lecture?

  • Gordie Rogers August 29, 2009, 6:45 am

    I haven’t read the book, but will one day after I get through my current list. By meaning in life, does he mean it in a spiritual sense? Does he say that someone has to be spiritual or religious to get through bad circumstances in life?

    • Josh Hanagarne August 29, 2009, 7:35 am

      @Gordie Rogers. No, he doesn’t necessarily mean anything spiritual by it. One interesting thing is that as a doctor and a survivor of horrible events, Frankl doesn’t discount the possibility of God or religion or whatever you would like to call it. It’s a very profound conversation in the book that he says way way better than I can even parrot, so I won’t say anything else.

  • Hey Josh – so I haven’t yet read Frankl, but you have convinced me (like you did with Todoodlist and that has worked wonders for me, so thank you). I place an Amazon order almost every weekend so this is going on there. Can I come back and comment about Frankl after I’ve read it? 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne August 29, 2009, 7:30 am

      Laura, yes you can come back and comment later. What a question!

  • Ayelet August 29, 2009, 10:05 am

    Funny thing, but your post immediately made me think of how people deal with their in-laws. How many Thanksgiving dinners and vacations could be saved by keeping his philosophy in mind?!? Sorry, off on a tangent….it’s now on my Goodreads list.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 29, 2009, 11:16 am

      Ayelet, that might be the best laugh I get all day. Sad, funny, but true.

  • Scott September 29, 2009, 8:39 pm

    Write all night then. I first read Man’s Search for Meaning about 15 years or more ago now. I was hard up for a book and found it on a friend’s bookshelf. The title didn’t grab my attention but I started reading it and didn’t put it down. I was blown away and have reread it or portions of it several times. I am just about due for it. Everything you said and more is true. A definitie 5 year reread book, probably my all time number one choice.

  • Danielle October 25, 2009, 9:08 pm

    I happened upon your discussion by chance. What a pleasant surprise. I consider “Man’s Search for Meaning” & it’s author as a modern day Aristotle or Cicero. A few comments/responses on some of your various comments: First, to clear up a myth which makes Frankl’s story even more powerful. He actually wrote his book on Logotherapy (Logo=Meaning) BEFORE he entered the the Nazi death camps. He had a manuscript of it hidden in his coat which the Nazis discovered and destroyed. Frankl realized that now he had to put his own theories to the test, because his book was like his child, it was a devastating loss. Yet He found even greater meaning in surviving so that he could introduce his theory to the world, and throughout his days in Aushwitz, he made it his mission to rewrite the book on hundreds of little scraps of paper which later helped him reproduce the book when he was freed.

    Allyson comented that she felt logotherapy could not help clinical depression. Mr. Frankl would disagree in some cases. He says that one can find great meaning in suffering, if they enoble it, by the way they bear their suffering. In simpler terms, the best attitude they can possibly muster under those circumstances makes suffering a very human, worthy and noble meaning that can support life. From personal experience, I know this is easier said than done, but I’ve had glimpses and times when I was able to practice this for short periods- but as someone else here commented, maybe enough of those short victories can amount to greater possibilities.

    Frankl is also a BIG proponent of something else:RESPONSABILITY. (The ABILITY to RESPOND) He doesn’t believe in suffering just for the sake of suffering. He states that if there are any means at all to end your suffering you are response-able to take the necessary actions to do so.
    He has this funny saying that in America we have the Statue of Liberty representing the many choices we have open to us, which leads to finding meaning; hence it’s appropriate that in NY we have the Statue of LIBERTY. He then proposes that on the West Coast there should be a Statue of RESPONSIBILITY.

    When I have felt despair, and started singing the old Peggy Lee tune “Is That All There Is” I try to remember what I think is one of Victor Frankl’s most profound quotes. When he was in the concentration camp a couple he knew wanted to commit suicide. They told Frankl that under these circumstances they expected no more out of life and Frankl responded ” Was it really what we expected out of life…not rather what life expected of us”?

    He reminded the man that he had a book he wanted to write and reminded the woman that she had a daughter that had survived and made it to the US.
    I personally struggle with finding what my meaning is. He discusses this at length as well, and I am left hopeful.

    For those who asked about other great writers/thinkers in the vein of Victor Frankl: He was influenced by the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, German philosopher, poet and many other things Goethe. Others:
    Martin Bubber’s “I and Thou” , Eli Wiesel’s books.
    Let me end though with 2 contemporary writers who really take the best of all these people and their wonderful ways of thinking and being and present them in such a simple, entertaining, readable and unforgettable format. Harold Kushner: My 2 favorites are small paperbacks that can be read in a few hours: “Who Needs God” and “When All you Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough” Kushner wrote the famous “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. The other recomendation: Leo Buscaglia his first book “Love” was groundbreaking. I liked “Pesonhood” and “Living, Loving and Learning” also thin paperbacks full of wisdom. Both these men also have interesting personal life stories, albeit not as dramatic as Frankl’s; but unique in the way it shaped them. Kushner tells some unforgettable stories.

    Finally, the book that Victor Frankl originally wrote BEFORE entering the Nazi death camps which became his first published book Is called “The Doctor and the Soul”.
    A little more of a challenging read, but like Josh, I found this book so amazingly powerful that it would be difficult for me to begin to describe it. I’ve read both those books more times than I can count and coincidentally just reread them. If you haven’t alrady Googled Frankl Videos, do so. You’ll get to see a number of personal interviews Frankl gave over the years. Someone posted them on YouTube.
    Well, forgive me for being so long winded. I was just so excited to find this page. I hope I’ve added something to the discussion and that you will have me back.
    Thanks, Danielle

    • Josh Hanagarne October 25, 2009, 9:21 pm

      Danielle, not only will I have you back, you can become senior editor of WSL:) Thanks for the great comment.

  • Debbie Ferm December 9, 2009, 10:07 pm

    I have read “Man’s search for meaning” also and found it to be as powerful as you describe. Since my freshman year in college when I took a year long course called “The Nazi’s and Germany”, I have had a profound fascination with the people of the time period, particularly survivors of the Holocaust.

    The ability to rise above the destructive instincts we have as human beings, and be able to claim your own thoughts and your responsibility for them in the face of pure evil is definitely rising above the fray. I believe in Frankel’s theories regarding man’s search for meaning, but I also think there are precious few of us who would be able to control our thoughts the way he describes.

    I have read many, many survivor stories, and although they are not all doctors with theories, there is always a thread of commonality in their thoughts that convinces me that they are rare in their strength, and possess something in common. I feel that this is an area where I am lacking, which is why I am so amazed by it.

    I recommend books by Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, and a book about a 13 year old survivor called “I have lived a thousand years” for another look at Holocaust survivors. I realize that you were focusing more on Victor Frankel’s theory and thought processes than his survivor status, but that is what led me to his book so that was my frame of reference.

    Great recommendation Josh, and I hope lots of people go on to read the book.

    • Josh Hanagarne December 10, 2009, 10:26 am

      Fantastic. You become more of a genius to me by the second!

  • Matthew December 15, 2009, 11:55 pm

    A couple years ago I was having some kind of teen emotional discourse of sorts. Then one night, my dad walked in and gave me another one of his books to read. It was Man’s Search for Meaning. At first I was confused by this recommendation, but I read into a little bit and was intrigued by this man’s story, which encompasses the first half of the book. I read it in one night, I was so hooked on it.

    But when I read about Frankl’s last days at the camp, he mentioned the sunrise. He stated that was one of the few ounces of beauty he would see during the day. I got really choked up when the idea came to me.

    If I got anything from the book is this: “Ask not what life can do for you, but what you can do for life.”

  • Belinda Munoz February 19, 2010, 11:25 pm

    Ahh, I’ll assume Frankl is one of your top 5 favorite authors. I read Man’s Search for Meaning as a sheltered island girl and it stayed with me for weeks/months. To this day, he is an inspiration and an excellent reminder for me of our enormous capacity as human beings.

    I believe we always have a choice on how we react to circumstances/people but we don’t always. I’m a huge believer in choice — it’s in my blog tagline — and always strive to choose well.

    One last thing (for tonight at least), love your motto: don’t make anybody’s day worse. Mine is along the lines of “make a difference everyday”. It’s ambitious but at least I don’t feel guilty when I make someone’s day worse in my feeble attempt at trying to make a difference.

    You’re a lovely man!

    • Josh Hanagarne February 20, 2010, 11:25 am

      “A lovely man…” Now that I have never heard. I’m going to be laughing for a month. If we ever meet, you will see that I may be the least lovely person on Earth, but I do appreciate the compliment:)

  • Mendy March 19, 2010, 11:55 am

    I am just getting acquainted with your website and am so glad you highlighted a few of the best posts. I love how you describe this man who is a true hero of the human spirit. I read and studied him in college (part of psychology) as well as read Man’s Search for Meaning. It is a humbling book, and one that demands a response, not just feeling inspired, but action. Thanks for spotlighting Dr. Frankl.

    • Josh Hanagarne March 19, 2010, 12:46 pm

      You’re welcome. I could probably write a post about him every day:)

  • kevin September 7, 2010, 1:19 pm

    best book ever…..its life changing…

    • Josh Hanagarne September 7, 2010, 1:45 pm

      Right you are, Kevin. Thanks for dropping in.

  • Freddy Lejeune December 21, 2010, 9:44 am

    I met with Victor fRANKL FIRST IN L964 and later when he was awarded a lifetime achiement award in Washington Dc several decades later. I was absolutely impressd with his book , However i have learned recently that he spent onlly a few days in Auschwitz. Most of his incarceration was in the camp of Teresienstadt. Many of the Holocaust history scholars find fault with him for not disclosing that and leading the readers to think that he spent a long time in Auschwitz just as the writer here assumed. Franlkl used his experienvce in the concentration camp to write the book he alwaYS had planned to write long before the experience of his incarceration during the Holocaust yearas. Nevertheless it is worth reading, but beware of the fact that Frankl is not entirely truthful about his own experience.