I recognized immediately that Mr. Gerry Murphy’s legendary Humanities class at Wellesley (MA) High School would be different from any other course that I had ever taken as a student when we began breaking down Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in September 1972.
In his elongated classroom on the top floor of the old Wellesley (MA) High School building, Mr. Murphy began the class by handing us all copies of a relatively narrow volume with an intriguing title. We all nodded affirmatively. Several seniors from the previous year had already enlightened us that this text would change our lives. As one former student told me at the time, “Books can be dangerous. The best ones, like Man’s Search for Meaning, should be labeled ‘This could change your life.”
After the well-worn copies had been distributed, Mr. Murphy then explained to us that Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Jew, studied neurology and psychiatry with a focus on depression and suicide years before being arrested and deported by the Nazis in 1942. Dr. Frankl defied odds by lasting three years in a handful of concentration camps including Auschwitz. He ultimately lost his parents, his only sibling, and his beloved wife, who was pregnant at the time.
As doctors were in short supply in the camps, Viktor Frankl, after working as a slave laborer for some time, was able to work as a physician in Auschwitz and Buchenwald until his liberation in 1945. For the next year, the author wrote nonstop until he felt that he had crafted the psychological narrative he wanted to publish. In the fall of 1946. Frankl published Man’s Search for Meaning. It remains an enduring bestseller and has never been out-of-print.
As his work before the war had focused on depression and the prevention of suicide, Viktor Frankl turned his focus to his own survival story and the people with whom he interacted in the camps before he was liberated. Why did some survive and others perish? What gave people the will to live? And, then the kicker of all questions – what gives life meaning? This all formed the basis of his lifelong work in a new psychological form of analysis, which he called logotherapy.
Over the next five weeks in our Humanities class, Mr. Murphy provided a heady mix of antidotes, humor, insight, and grace in order to bring Frankl’s prose alive to the class. Through the framework of both perspective and dialogue, we concluded that Viktor Frankl believed that life was not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud held, or a pursuit of power, as Alfred Adler taught, but an enduring quest for the significance of one’s life.
One particular morning, our teacher outlined what Dr. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person) and in courage (during arduous times). Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it. As Mr. Murphy saw it, forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you. And then he touched upon on even more significant truth: love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Ultimately, the salvation of humankind is through love and in love.
“Does anyone have anything to add?” Gerry Murphy asked us.
I hurriedly raised my hand and sang out, “All You Need Is Love!”
“Exactly, Mr. Lennon!” Mr. Murphy responded, without blinking an eyelash.
Now, more than forty-five years later, and after a lifetime spent on the other side of the desk as a longtime teacher, I believe that the message of Man’s Search for Meaning is one of those narratives that are relevant no matter when you read it, how old you are, or what your circumstances are in life. Ultimately, it is a volume that smacks you right between the eyes. It is also the most influential book I have ever read in my life.
As a result of its message, I became a lifelong humanist, someone who at least cares about people on both a concrete and an abstract level. I chose to teach because of the intrinsic value in nurturing and opening doors to discovery but also as a vehicle to openly participate in the give-and-take of human dialogue that forms each day for both teachers and students alike.
This kind of active empathy was also addressed by in Stephen Crane’s allegorical short story, “The Open Boat,” a tale that I have had ninth graders read and chew over since 1994. The story’s narrator, a New York correspondent, who is hanging on for dear life in a lifeboat at sea after their freighter has sunk, recalls when he was a boy reading Caroline E. Norton’s classic tale, “Bingen on the Rhine,” which describes a young soldier in the French Foreign Legion who is dying of war injuries in far-off Algiers. Crane writes:
“In his childhood, the correspondent had been made acquainted with the fact that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, but he had never regarded the fact as necessary. Myriads of his school-fellows had informed him of the soldier’s plight, but the dinning had naturally ended by making him perfectly indifferent. He had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. It was less to him than breaking of a pencil’s point.
Now, however, it quaintly came to him as a human, living thing. It was no longer merely a picture of a few throws in the breast of a poet, meanwhile drinking tea and warming his feet at the grate; it was an actuality—stern, mournful, and fine. He was now sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers.”
For nearly five decades, I too have cared for the soldier who lay dying in Algiers. As Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels/I myself become the wounded person.”
After reading Man’s Search for Meaning the first time, I began to consciously ask myself, “Will this be meaningful to me?” If the answer was “no,” I would normally shuck it. Frankl’s message emphasized living as meaningful a life as possible.
As I learned over time, life was not so much as about the product as the process. It’s all about the journey – and not the end result. After all, some enthralling paths can’t be found without at first getting lost. In the end, every human being is a work in progress. Frankl recognized that and said, “Humanity has only scratched the surface of its vast potential.”
In director John Carpenter’s 1984 film, Starman, featuring the great Jeff Bridges in the lead role, a curious alien comes to earth for three days and learns a lot about human beings in a brief time. When he chats with a NASA scientist on his last day before escaping back to outer space, he is asked why he has come to earth, after admitting that he had visited earth previously. He responds: “You are a strange species. Not like any other. And you’d be surprised how many there are. Intelligent but savage. Shall I tell you what I find most beautiful about you? You are at your best when things are at their worst.”
Viktor Frankl himself emphatically makes this point in the opening chapter of Man’s Search for Meaning: “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.”
Given the profoundly helter-skelter times we live in these days, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is not a 280-character tweet, but a 180-page sermon to the power of the human spirit. As the founder of logotherapy reminds us in the last passage of his masterwork:
“Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz. However, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”