Book Review: Yes to Life by Victor E. Frankl

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One of the most fundamental truths in life is that we all will face our respective share of hardship, difficulty and suffering. We are fragile mortal beings subject to illness, loss, heartbreak and disappointment.

Given this shared fate, how can we best endure and embrace our adversities?

Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything is a compilation of lectures given by Victor Frankl in 1946, after he survived the horrors and dehumanizing conditions of the Holocaust. Speaking from direct experience from his time in the concentration camps, as well as from his insights working as a psychologist, Frankl reflects on the importance of finding meaning and purpose in life.

This short yet profound book reminds us of the power of perspective, demonstrating how we can always find the resilience we need within to keep on moving forward in any circumstance.

In this post I want to look at three key themes from the book.  

Meaning Is More Important Than Pleasure

Pleasure itself cannot give our existence meaning

Victor Frankl, Yes to Life

Our modern consumerist societies try to sell us on the idea that happiness can be bought. Savvy advertisements persuade us consumers that contentment and fulfillment in life can be realized only when we purchase that luxury car or piece of clothing.

After all, just look at how happy that family is driving the latest Mercedes SUV in that commercial?

Although these consumer goods may give us short-term satisfaction, the excitement quickly dissipates as we are left craving for more.

Frankl argues that while pleasure comes and goes, it is meaning in life that allows us to endure and overcome the challenges we succumb to. By having an overarching purpose or meaning in one’s life, we can find long lasting fulfillment. This is what truly nourishes and sustains us.

Frankl notes that although meaning can be found in a wide range of circumstances, it generally falls into three broad categories:

  1. Active: Creating, acting upon or bringing something into existence. This can include devoting oneself to their work, or pursuing one’s hobbies and passion projects.  
  2. Passive:  Appreciating the world around us, namely through art, nature or by loving others.
  3. Acceptance: Finding meaning and growth through accepting one’s difficulties and putting them into perspective. Frankl echoes the Stoic maxim that while many of the circumstances in our life are outside of our control, we always have the freedom to decide how we react to and interpret these events.  

Authenticity

In his specific life circle, every single human being is irreplaceable and inimitable, and that is true for everyone. The task that his life imposes are only for him, and only he is required to fulfill them.

Victor Frankl, Yes to Life

For Frankl, meaning in life is not an inquiry that can be answered broadly or generally. Given the difference in life situations and demands for every individual, there is no ‘one’ answer that is adequate or applicable to everyone.

Rather, each of our lives poses a distinct set of questions that require answers. Every new beginning, adversity or challenge presents an opportunity to find meaning. It is through our unique answers to life’s questions that we find purpose and become authentic human beings – separating ourselves from the crowd.

We must therefore always be aware of how we can use each occasion we are presented to in life as a potential learning experience or lesson. Each of these moments, offers us chance to use it as fuel in working towards a greater goal.

As Frankl writes,

We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life. 

Through becoming authentic individuals, we can come to a greater appreciation of what we can distinctly offer the world.  

Being irreplaceable, it is only ‘you’ who can offer humanity your unique gifts.

Taking Responsibility for Life  

At every moment I bear responsibility for the next; that every decision from the smallest to the largest is a decision for all eternity

Victor Frankl, Yes to Life

We all desire freedom, but very few of us want to take on the responsibility for our actions.  

It is true that each of us are dealt different cards in life. We all have experiences where things don’t go our way, when we are treated unfairly or succumb to an illness out of mere chance.  

However, in each of these circumstances what can be more powerful than embracing, overcoming and saying ‘yes to life’. Of course, you didn’t choose this, maybe the predicament you are in wasn’t even your fault, but nonetheless you have two options – you can either change it or accept it.

By accepting the responsibility and burdens of life’s duties, we gradually become more resilient. We grow in courage and in character – one small step at a time.

Conclusion

Yes to Life is a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit. Amidst even the most dire of situations, we can always find a reason to keep pushing through.

In an increasingly complex and fast-paced world, the future remains riddled with uncertainty. Rather than placing our hopes on external things which we don’t control, Frankl reminds us that we are always free to cultivate one’s inner life. Finding meaning, purpose and perspective in every situation is something that cannot be taken away from us.

To say ‘yes to life’ is to nurture an attitude of acceptance, and continue to hold your ground in the eye of the storm.

This of course is not for the faint of heart, but we can all look to Victor Frankl for inspiration.

 

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

A wonderful review on Yes to Life which inspired me to read this book can be found on brainpickings.org here.

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Stoicism: You Always Have a Choice

Writing about the horrors he endured during the holocaust, Victor Frankl reflects on a principle that is at the heart of Stoic philosophy. In his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl states that:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. 

Frankl writes about the immense suffering that he and his fellow prisoners experienced in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War. He nonetheless maintains that even in the most dire of situations, we still have the freedom and autonomy to decide how to react to external events.

This idea aligns with the Stoic notion of the ‘dichotomy of control’ which I explored in an earlier post. That is, we should focus our efforts on our inner dispositions, namely what is in our power. We ultimately can not dictate how the events in the outside world will unfold. However, the value judgements and perspectives that we assign to our circumstances is something that is up to us.

As the modern Stoic writer Ryan Holiday notes, difficulty does not have to be seen as a sign of weakness or defeat. Rather, challenges and obstacles offer unique opportunities to develop new skills and may provide us with the wake-up call we need to change our course of action. Sometimes what we initially perceive as failures may turn out to be ‘blessings in disguise.’ One of the more notable examples of this is the case of Apple founder Steve Jobs who was initially ousted from the company he created. Jobs didn’t let this define his life however. He used this as an opportunity to create and reshape existing companies (NeXT and Pixar) and critically examine his leadership style. Upon return to Apple in 1997, he led the charge in making Apple largest companies in the world.

The ability to step back from our emotional impulses and view things from a rational and objective viewpoint is an important skill to develop to navigate the ups and downs of life. Furthermore, we must always be aware of what we can and can not control. If one considers the key aspects of their lives, they will realize that many things are outside our scope of influence. We don’t choose our parents, our up bringing, the country or socio-economic status that we are born in. Stoicism can help us make the best out of the hand that we are dealt with in life.

Stoic philosophy can act as an antidote to a world that can sometimes feel chaotic and unpredictable. In fact, many principles of Stoicism are used in modern day cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to treat mental health issues including anxiety, substance abuse and depression. Some of similarities between the ancient school of philosophy and CBT[1] include:

  1. Using logic to question our irrational beliefs, assumptions or emotions
  2.  Accepting our circumstances, and refraining from assigning value judgements to events.
  3. Understanding what you can and can not control

In sum, both CBT and Stoicism emphasize the importance of constantly challenging your initial impressions or reactions towards events or circumstances. Furthermore, both doctrines advise us to slow down, look at events from a rational perspective and refrain from impulsive behaviour.

I will end this post with a quote from the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius which provides a good summary of key points in this article:

“If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now. But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost thou not rather act than complain?” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VIII

Hope you enjoyed this week’s post. I will dedicate one more post on Stoicism and then move on to the philosophy of mindfulness.

AA


[1] If you would like a deeper dive into the similarities of CBT and Stoicism I recommend reading The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy