My summer reading has found a theme that I hadn’t set out to fulfill. I had actually intended on reading a few more classics on my very long TBR list. And I did read a few of those, before the summer started. But then I started writing again, and with that I started to want to hear other writer’s stories, and then I started to dig up any books I had or could find about what this life is about, and where my life is going. I am at a point now where a lot of the big to-dos are being checked off the list: University, career, house, relationship, baby--and now I am thinking back to who I was at twenty, and who I had wanted to become. These are existential questions. Big ones. And I teach an entire unit on existential questions and crises when I read Hamlet with my seniors, but I don’t often give myself time to ask these questions of myself.
I had just finished reading Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning a few days before the reports from Charlottesville flooded the screens. Frankl’s wisdom echoed in my head as the images of Nazi flags took over the news. Man’s Search for Meaning is a significant historical text that reiterates the need for education about our past. It is books like Frankl’s, one that shines light not just on the past, but on one’s own search for purpose, that we need more of in schools, and perhaps with our political leaders.
When I left school in June for the summer, my co-worker handed me this little book. She teaches the book in her history class and said: You have to read this. I teach English literature to many of the same students, so I was happy to read what they were. I sat down to read what I thought was a historical memoir about the Holocaust. And it is that, but what I hadn’t expected was a discussion of existentialism that really inspired me. Frankl’s book reveals his wisdom, his observations, and his thought-provoking quest for meaning in life.
Before Frankl and his family were arrested and sent to the concentration camp Theresienstadt in 1942 he had been working with suicide prevention in Vienna. His career is a staggering one, and inspiring; his life’s work was to help others. He counselled people who were giving up and helped them find hope. And that is what his book does.
I really can’t expressed my feelings for this book any better than by using Frankl’s own words. So, I dug through my many post-its and flags and found a handful that really speak to his purpose in this book. Here are a few:
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”
“Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.”
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth - that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Although an important historical text, this book points its reader towards those existential questions we should all be asking in order to live a full life. I finished the book feeling oddly encouraged and comforted by asking myself: what is the meaning of my life? Is it to love? To share my stories? To help others reach their own potential? I think that often in life we can get stuck in daily activities: work, eat, sleep, repeat. And often it is easy to lose sight of the “why”. But if we keep these existential questions always on the ready: to think about, to talk about--then maybe life starts to feel a little more full, a little less like a battle. I hope for some to read this book to search for their own meaning, and perhaps others to read it for its historical value.
These writings are comprised of my creative nonfiction, and books, books, books. This blog is a exploration of the books I read, the people I meet, and my life as a backyard homesteader.