October 20, 2021
11 Minutes

Yes To Life In Spite Of Everything

Book summary of Yes To Life In Spite Of Everything by Viktor Frankl. Read this book summary to review the important takeaways and lessons from the book.

Table Of Contents

1. Introduction By Daniel Goleman

2. On The Meaning And Value Of Life I

3. On The Meaning And Value Of Life II

4. Experimentum Crucis

5. Afterword By Franz Vesely

Introduction By Daniel Goleman

  • They never forgot that life was a gift that the Nazi machine did not succeed in taking away from them. They were determined, after all the hells they had endured, to say yes to life, despite everything.

  • Suppose the prisoners of Buchenwald, tortured and worked and starved nearly to death, could find some hope in those lyrics despite their eternal suffering. In that case, Frankl asks us, shouldn't we, living far more comfortably, be able to say 'yes' to life despite everything life brings us?

  • We postwar kids were, by and large, aware of the horrors of the death camps. At the same time, today, relatively few young people know the Holocaust occurred.

  • Propaganda relies on lies and misinformation and distorted negative stereotypes, inflammatory terms, and other such tricks to manipulate people's opinions and beliefs in the service of some ideological agenda.

  • Hitler had argued that people would believe anything if repeated often enough and if disconfirming information got routinely denied, silenced, or disputed with yet more lies.

  • Throughout the centuries, as today, the same disinformation playbook has been put to use by authoritarian rulers worldwide. The signs are clear: shutting down opposition media, quashing dissident voices, and jailing journalists who dare to report something other than the prevailing party line.

  • The kind of lesson I had in spotting propaganda has long since dropped off the school curriculum. Yet it seems the time has again come when simple truths and fundamental human values need defending against the dangerous tides of hatred-spewing propagandists.

  • For instance, there can still be an inner success in the face of death, whether in maintaining a particular attitude or given the fulfilment of that person's life's meaning.

  • Frankl's contribution to the world of psychotherapy was 'logotherapy'. It treats psychological problems by helping people find meaning. Rather than just seeking happiness, he proposed, we can pursue a sense of purpose that life offers us.

  • If we can't change our fate, at least we can accept it, adapt, and possibly undergo inner growth even amid troubles.

  • In short, our lives take on meaning through our actions, through loving, and through suffering.

  • The scope and range of our actions matter less than how well we respond to the specific demands of our life circle.

  • He points out that the underlying motive for not-knowing is to escape any sense of responsibility or guilt for those crimes. People in general, he saw, had been encouraged by their authoritarian rulers not to know - a fact of life today as well.

  • Frankl saw that a materialistic view in another timely insight: people end up mindlessly consuming and fixating on what they can buy next, epitomizes a meaningless life, as he put it, where we are 'guzzling away' without any thought of morality.

  • Add to that the degradation of human dignity created by a system that had relegated working men and women into 'mere means', degrading them into 'tools' of making money. Frankl saw this as an insult to human dignity, arguing that a person should never become a means to an end.

  • For instance, having a sense of purpose in life offers a buffer against poor health. People with a life purpose, data shows, tend to live longer.

  • 'Whoever has a why to live can bear almost any how', as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared.

  • Those who found a larger meaning and purpose in their lives, who had a dream of what they could contribute, were, in Frankl's view, more likely to survive than were those who gave up.

  • Despite the cruelty visited on prisoners by the guards, the beatings, torture, and constant threat of death, there was one part of their lives that remained free: their minds.

On The Meaning And Value Of Life I

  • However, we cannot move towards any spiritual reconstruction with a sense of fatalism such as this. We first have to overcome it. But in doing so, we ought to take into account that today we cannot, with cheerful optimism, consign to history everything these last years have brought with them. We have become pessimistic. We no longer believe in progress in itself, in the higher evolution of humanity as something that could succeed automatically.

  • In the past, activism was coupled with optimism, while today, activism requires pessimism.

  • As soon as we notice any pedagogical tendency in a role model, we become resentful; we human beings do not like to be lectured to like children.

  • Everything depends on the individual human being, regardless of how a small number of like-minded people there are. Everything depends on each person, through action and not mere words, creatively making the meaning of life a reality in their being.

  • Pleasure in itself cannot give our existence meaning. The lack of pleasure cannot take away meaning from life, which already seems evident to us.

  • Kierkegaard told the wise parable that the door to happiness always opens 'outwards', which means it closes itself precisely against the person who tries to push the door to happiness 'inwards'.

  • It is not we who are permitted to ask about the meaning of life; it is the life that asks the questions, directs questions at us - we are the ones who get questioned. 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 towards - life.

  • As to what awaits us in the future, we don't need to know that any more than we can know it.

  • It is not only through our actions that we can give life meaning - insofar as we can answer life's specific questions responsibly. We can fulfil the demands of existence as active agents and as loving human beings: our loving dedication to the beautiful, the great, the good.

  • Imagine that you are sitting in a concert hall and listening to your favourite symphony. Your favourite bars of the symphony resound in your ears, and you get moved by the music. It sends shivers down your spine. Now imagine that it would be possible (something that is psychologically so impossible) for someone to ask you at this moment whether your life has meaning. I believe you would agree with me if I declared that in this case, you would only be able to give one answer, and it would go something like: 'It would have been worth it to have lived for this moment alone.'

  • Do we not know the feeling that overtakes us when we are in the presence of a particular person: the fact that this person exists in the world at all, this alone makes this world, and life in it, meaningful.

  • We give life meaning through our actions, but also through loving and, finally, through suffering.

  • So, how we deal with difficulties indeed shows who we are, and that, too, can enable us to live meaningfully.

  • What do athletes do but create difficulties for themselves so that they can grow through overcoming them?

  • It is not advisable to create difficulties for oneself. Suffering due to misfortune is only meaningful if this misfortune has come about through fate, thus unavoidable and inescapable.

  • Those who rebel against their fate - that is, against circumstances they cannot help and which they certainly cannot change - have not grasped the meaning of fate.

  • Suicide is in no way the answer to any question; suicide can never solve a problem.

  • Let us imagine for a moment: a chess player gets faced with a chess problem, and he cannot find the solution, so what does he do? He hurls the pieces from the board. Is that a solution to the chess problem? Certainly not.

  • Suicide also disregards the rules of the game of life; these rules do not require us to win at all costs, but they do demand that we never give up the fight.

  • Conversely, the fact, and only the fact, that we are mortal, that our lives are finite, our time is restricted. Our possibilities are limited; this makes it meaningful to do something, exploit a possibility, become a reality, fulfil it, use our time, and occupy it.

  • It may prove to be entirely irrelevant to us how long human life lasts. Its long duration does not automatically make it meaningful, and its possible brevity makes it far from meaningless.

  • We also do not judge a particular person's life history by the number of pages in the book that portrays it, only by the richness of the content.

  • From this, we can see just one thing: death is a meaningful part of life, just like human suffering. Both do not rob the existence of human beings of meaning but make it meaningful in the first place.

  • The finite nature of our relationship with another person also makes each individual's life not meaningless but only meaningful.

  • Let us not forget that each person is imperfect, but each is imperfect in a different way, each in his way. And as flawed as he is, he is uniquely imperfect. Expressed positively, he becomes somehow irreplaceable. Unable to be represented by anyone else, unexchangeable.

  • Life itself means getting questioned, means answering; each person must be responsible for his existence. Life no longer appears to us as a given but as something given over to us. It is a task at every moment. Therefore it means that it can only become more meaningful the more difficult it becomes.

  • And to sum up, what could we say about the question of the 'value' of life? The view that presented itself to us is perhaps most aptly expressed in Hebbel's words, who says: 'Life is not something, it is the opportunity for something.'

On The Meaning And Value Of Life II

  • A person can suffer without being ill, and they can be ill without suffering.

  • The mind cannot get sick. The cognitive dimension can only be true or false, valid or invalid, but never sick.

  • The only thing that can become sick; that can fall ill is the psyche.

  • There is a unique form of melancholy, which does not occur along-side depression in the sense of sadness or anxiety, unlike the usual form. Patients complain that they cannot be happy, nor can they suffer. They are not capable of any emotion at all, whether about pleasant or unpleasant experiences: their moods get dulled, and they feel emotionally cold.

  • We have already heard that the fulfilment of meaning is possible in three main directions: human beings can give sense to their existence, firstly, by doing something, by acting, by creating - by bringing work into being; secondly, by experiencing something - nature, art - or loving people; and thirdly, human beings can find meaning even where finding value in life is not possible for them in either the first or the second way - namely, precisely when they take a stance toward the unalterable, fated, inevitable and unavoidable limitation of their possibilities: how they adapt to this limitation, react towards it, how they accept this fate.

  • The question that life asks us changes both from person to person and from situation to situation.

  • For somehow all our lives are ultimately unsuccessful, to the extent that we understand success as only being an external success: no external success, no effect, that is to say, no biological or sociological influence out there in the world, guarantees to outlive us or even to last forever.

  • The doctor also tends to treat the disease and not the person, not the sick person. And repeatedly, one hears the expression 'that is a case of'.

  • A good doctor, who we all know to be a good person, will therefore always call himself back from objectivity to humanity.

  • The doctor, as such, is certainly not a judge over the 'being and nonbeing' of the sick people entrusted to him or who even entrust themselves to him. Therefore, from the outset, he has no right - and should never presume so - to pass judgement on the apparent value or worthlessness of the lives of allegedly or incurable patients.

  • A state that is already economically so badly off that it relies on eliminating the insignificant percentage of its incurable citizens, such a state has already reached the end economically.

  • The fact that incurable patients are no longer useful to society, that caring for them represents 'unproductive' care, should be remembered that usefulness to society is not and can never be the only criterion that we justify in applying to a person.

  • Indeed one cannot earn love; love is not a reward but a blessing.

  • It is the nature of love that makes us see our loved ones in their uniqueness and individuality.

  • One could argue for the world's total meaninglessness with the same justification as one could argue for its ultimate meaning.

Experimentum Crucis

  • That inner ability, that real human freedom - they could not take that away from the prisoner. Even if, in there, they could take everything else away from him and, in fact, did so. This freedom stayed with him, even when the spectacles they let him keep were smashed to pieces by a punch to the face, and even when one day, he got forced to exchange his belt for a bit of bread. Yet, that freedom stayed with him. It stayed with him until his last breath.

  • So you can see that spiritual and mental decline due to losing one's inner hold, especially due to the loss of a grip on the future, also leads to physical deterioration.

  • No human suffering can get compared to anyone else's. It is part of the nature of suffering that it is the suffering of a particular person. It is his or her suffering. Its 'magnitude' is dependent solely on the sufferer, that is, on the person; a person's solitary suffering is just as unique and individual as is every person.

  • But a difference that truly matters is that between meaningful and meaningless suffering.

  • The individual, and only that individual, determines whether their suffering is meaningful or not.

  • But if we ask about the cause of this misunderstanding, then we may discover that this 'not knowing' is, in fact, a 'not wanting to know. What lies behind it is wanting to escape responsibility.

  • The average person today is being driven to flee responsibility.

  • Holding someone to account because of their nationality, native language or place of birth must seem as ridiculous to us today as making them responsible for their height.

  • If I suddenly get appendicitis, is it my fault? Certainly not, and yet, if I have to have an operation, what then? I will nevertheless owe the fee for the operation to the doctor who operated on me. That is, I am liable for the settlement of the doctor's bill. So' liability without guilt' definitely exists.

  • No talking, no lectures can help us get any further - there is only one thing left for us to do: to act, namely to act in our everyday lives.

  • Suppose we delve into the nature of human responsibility. In that case, we recoil: there is something terrible about the responsibility of a human being - and at the same time, something glorious.

  • To say yes to life is not only meaningful under all circumstances - because life itself is - but it is also possible under all circumstances.

Afterword By Franz Vesely

  • Frankl published a newspaper article on 'Vienna and Psychiatric Care'. At the end of the article, he states: But in Vienna, the spirit of psychotherapy is still alive, and despite everything, and hopefully as soon as possible, we can expect that Vienna, the birthplace of psychiatric healing, will also be the site of its rebirth. The rebirth of psychotherapy that is aware of its role in society - especially in times of internal and external distress - and its responsibility to a world waiting for spiritual and material rebuilding.

  • In fact, through the 'Report Action' movement initiated by him, there was no single student suicide in the summer of 1931.

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