Hope Floats: On Reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning

By Samya Verma

Some time in September 2021, I found myself enthralled by Viktor Frankl’s ’46 classic Man’s Search For Meaning. It is a testament to Frankl’s prescience that his question, on what the bestseller status of such a conspicuous title implies for the state of humanity, echoes down the years into the river mouth of the pandemic. 

Frankl wrote amidst the desolation of the post World War II years, rebuilding life, and meaning, on the barren soil of the distant past. Having lived through the very worst of what man is capable of doing to man, his words were as much a salve for a collectively-wounded civilizational psyche then as they can be now. Hope is a succulent of muddy waters; it grows out of your broken ways, winding around your cracks like a lining of gold. Your very own Kintsugi. 

The lesson to be learned is not that ‘the magnitude of my suffering pales yours by comparison’; a person who drowns in three feet of water is as dead as someone who drowns in seven. Rather, Frankl’s conjecture is a philosophy to guide us through the very worst of our times — the prospect of facing the debris of our pre-pandemic lives and still finding the ‘why’ to thrust ourselves to the surface; or, as Frankl quotes Nietzsche, “He who has a ‘why’ to live for, can bear almost any ‘how’”.

I had long held onto a stale breath, turning purple-faced with the unrelatability and chaos of surviving… until I turned the pages of Man’s Search For Meaning. I now realize that love is crucial to anything you do, the most important ingredient of meaning, of survival. You take love out, and education becomes a hustle, a business; you add it in and education becomes knowledge.

The surest decision I ever made in my life was to chase history on a wing and a wish. I just knew that nothing else could appease my soul. But the long jump from school to university ‘broke my back’, so to speak. I laboured through a long period of illness during my higher secondary; come the dream sequence that was my four months at college, even the verdant campus couldn’t quite make up for the pain of the years past. In short, I was plagued by apathy and acute meaninglessness during my college days. The process of waking up, showing up for class and penning papers was almost a mechanical detachment from the emptiness of reality. For someone who had dreamt incessantly of poring over historical tomes in hallowed college classrooms of the country, the shock of having made it was almost too much to bear. Passion slept a fitful sleep, and I lost my ‘will to meaning’. 

When I awoke it was dusk, and I, another blind conspirator of the future, ran out into the dark with candles of hope. In Dickinson’s words, “I am [still] out with lanterns, looking for myself.

Bit by bit, as the long months of the lockdown dragged on, I taught myself the art of hope. Meaning-making is a perpetual process; as long as you take responsibility for your life, each new dawn will find you hopeful and in anticipation of whatever the next 24 hours have in store for you. I tided over a point of crisis in my life by appraising every word that I read, and every verse that I bled, with placid hope. 

Slowly, but surely, everything began to seem meaningful once more.

In hindsight, I realize that all through my school years, I was running on autopilot. I was compartmentalizing my studies while focusing on a far-off goal of ‘studying history at a good college’ in order to give meaning to my suffering and to survive the trauma of my schooling from one excruciating day to the next. For years, there was one cautious step after another, one small goal and then the next, in my quest for the biggest Goal of all. You wouldn’t dare misstep at the gallows, would you?

The machine of my life was conspicuously broken, and the damage was only compounding with each new session. Today I ask, just how far was I planning to fly on a wounded wing? Wraggled and drenched, I washed ashore at college, the bitter taste of Nothing in my mouth. 

There was no balk on ideas here: everyone spoke a dialect of your soul. Now, when people ask me why I gasp for air while talking incessantly, I tell them that to speak and to be understood is a luxury that makes my lungs gape with relief. 

But there was a catch (there’s always a catch). For years there had been a Goal, a Meaning, and now it had ceased to be a potentiality. It had, instead, transmuted into what Frankl calls an ‘actuality’ frozen in my immediate past. I was sitting at the seat of ideas in a sun-soaked history classroom. How would I distract myself from my pain now? With nothing to hold it back, the void, the black hole of my being, grew at an exponential rate. College was loud, vibrant, sunny and summery, a carnival of sorts. But it couldn’t fill the void. Frivolity couldn’t fill it either.

“What next?” For someone who had been compartmentalizing her life for a significant portion of the last seven years, there was no answer, there was no meaning. And the pandemic forced me to live through this meaninglessness, face myself, really take responsibility, and rebuild hope.

For years, there had been one day after another — a short-sighted, tunnel vision-esque focus on surviving from 7:30 AM in the morning to 3:00 PM in the afternoon. And suddenly, the pandemic meant that there was no new day anymore, just the same 24 hours on an endless loop. The pandemic forced me to stop, contemplate, and face the broken machine. To quote the preface of Man’s Search for Meaning, I had to weave these slender threads of a broken life into a firm pattern of meaning and responsibility.

I have now realized that knowledge, an inexhaustible quest, gives me meaning. I love the mental dynamics involved in the process of learning, the ease with which I understand, the occasional click of ideas, and the intertwining of interdisciplinary knowledge into a conceptual clarity of the world as it really is beneath the veneer of daily life. I stagnated for a while because all my life I was forced to study under the duress of report cards and weekly tests. Thus, the sudden emancipation from a lifelong pressure to excel ‘deformed’ me. As I stumbled beyond boundaries, it took a while but I came right home to books and knowledge, evermore in love with the process. I do not wish to adhere to a herd mentality that would make me hate the process of knowledge acquisition and studying. To me, knowledge is a lamp burning away into the night with no concern for the morning.

 I owe a great deal to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning in helping me piece together the emotional turbulence of the past few years into a precious belief: hope floats.

Author bio:

Samya Verma is a final year student of history at Hindu College, DU. She is an aspiring international journalist. She swears by caustic sarcasm, political satire, and dark humor. You can reach out to her at samyasverma.work@gmail.com.

Empty Vessels

By Sandhini

This year, my mother told me that the silence following Diwali haunts her. She told me that she used to carry a knife on the bus on her way to college. She showed me the bedsheet she had painted and said that she couldn’t stand the smell of paint any longer. She told me that she didn’t have the same relationship with her father as I do with mine, and that they didn’t really talk. She told me how she wrote her PhD thesis by hand because there were no computers at the time, and how that thesis is now in the storeroom.

She told me all of this, and I felt as if I had never met this woman before. I never thought of her as a woman; I think of her as a mother.

Is it possible to love someone without knowing anything about their past? As if my history is my mother’s history, and her life began with mine. I keep a journal, post on Instagram, and write opinion pieces for a student newspaper; I’ve begun to immortalise myself. My stories can be found somewhere in the universe. But the women in my family, my mother and grandmother, will never have the chance to be immortalised. What happened to their stories? It’s not in a journal, it’s not on the internet, and it’s not in my memories.

My mother can converse with complete strangers. She always converses with the woman who keeps track of every piece of clothing taken for trial while I try on outfits inside the changing rooms. I’m not sure I’d ever be as open to others as she is. When I asked her about it, she replied with a wistful look that said, “We’re all living lives we don’t want to live.”

Maa, are you living a life you don’t want to live just to give us a life that we want to live?

Maa, are you living a life you don’t want to live?

I was asked to write a column for my college magazine. For the first issue published in August 2021, I described how my mother sits in the Chauth Pooja draped in a red dupatta and recites religious passages. Now that I think about it, it’s strange that I found that single incident worthy of mention out of everything she does. Seeing her as the embodiment of Marwari culture — I belong to Rajasthan — as she has been conditioned in this for fifty-four years. Not only am I perceiving her as if she has no past, but I am also constructing my own image of her — one which is directly influenced by how my culture moulds me. 

But is this a universal phenomenon or a cultural one? Is it true that all Marwari families regard their women as empty vessels to be filled with culture and traditions? Do all Marwari women perform poojas, memorise mantras and fast for their families? And are all Marwari women expected to be everything their mothers and mothers-in-law were, and perhaps even more?

In ancient Rajasthan, a woman who committed sati was deified and worshipped by the local people. After the act of sati, she loses her identity as a woman with a name; she is referred to as sati mata. In fact, her identity was lost even earlier, when her ancestors decided that her existence would cease with the end of her future husband’s existence. 

In my culture, women are spoken of in terms of their relationships with men. This culture constructs temples for women who died at the hands of the patriarchy, whose empty vessels were filled to the brim with sanskaar. My culture has produced women who have experienced a collective trauma.

But who will tell these women’s children that their mothers are more than the ‘cultured’ women they are, that their mothers could have been rebels like them, that their mothers are still looking for freedom in their faces? Who will ever tell their children that they were never empty vessels in the first place? Their children will never be able to speak their languages. Not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t understand the rules of their language, its vowels, syllables and rules of grammar. Do they themselves know the language that could speak of their past?  If they do, why haven’t they articulated it yet?

I’d ask my mother whether she remembers the tree that grew in her courtyard. Was it mango or imli? I’d ask her if she remembers something of the first friend she made as a college student. Have you ever thought of looking them up on Facebook, which you keep scrolling on nowadays? She once told me that I should always have a person in whom I can confide about anything; I’d ask her who that person was for her. I’d ask if she ever wrote poetry, if she even fell in love. 

I’d ask and keep asking until I knew who she was, who she could have been. I’d keep asking until I knew how much like her I am. I’d keep asking until her heart was full of the aroma of whichever tree was in her courtyard. 

I’d keep asking until she knew she wasn’t just a muse.

Author Bio:

Sandhini is a literature student at University of Delhi, originally from Rajasthani city of Ajmer. She is a Kathak dancer with a passion for gender and culture studies. A wannabe writer, she concentrates on penning personal narratives, much of which is pondered when out on a walk. Sandhini is a literature student at University of Delhi, originally from Rajasthani city of Ajmer. She is a Kathak dancer with a passion for gender and culture studies. A wannabe writer, she concentrates on penning personal narratives, much of which is pondered when out on a walk.