Teaching Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning over the last decade, I’ve concluded that what we’re really searching for is not meaning per se but character or a noble spirit.
There is no absolute meaning and the idea of “Meaning” with a capital M is an absurdity because meaning finds us in our individual circumstances only when we can receive it.
We cannot receive meaning if we’re bogged down in the diseased spirit of self-pity, sloth, selfishness, greed, entitlement, vanity, narcissism, etc.
We do find meaning, Frankl argues, when we choose to have a salubrious or healthy spirit, one that affirms that we were put on earth to sacrifice our convenience and comfort for the betterment of others. Frankl’s altruistic message is radically different than our culture of consumerism, self-gratification, and self-interest, a culture, Frankl observes, that encourages the “existential vacuum,” an emptiness that defines a life wasted on baubles, fool’s errands, chimeras, etc.
So in Frankl’s vision of humanity there are two races of people, those that choose to waste their life on vanity, self-pity, and entitlement (always resulting in nihilism and despair) and those who choose to be “worthy of their suffering,” embracing suffering with courage and dignity and living their life in such a way that death cannot take away the meaning of it.
Some of my best student essays have been written by those students who love Viktor Frankl and find his book fascinating but disagree with his binary vision. Some of my students argue in their essays that there is an “in-between” world where people can live with a modicum of self-interest but still have meaningful connections with their friends and family even while accepting the essential meaninglessness of life.
Two areas of dispute with Frankl that arise in some of my best essays are Frankl’s vision of only two kinds of people, those animated by a diseased or a healthy spirit, and secondly his argument that we “choose” our attitude. This latter assertion speaks to the age-old debate about free will: Did Frankl choose to be good and courageous in the concentration camps or was he hard-wired to be good and courageous?
I’m still struggling with these questions with a decade of teaching this book.