No matter how much we try to run away from this thirst for the answer to life, for the meaning of life, the intensity only gets stronger and stronger. We cannot escape these spiritual hungers. – Ravi Zacharias
So…you might have clicked on the link assuming…due to the title…that I’m about to drop some profound knowledge up in here. Well, you’d be right…it’s not my own profundity though.
Just like multiple occasions in the past I have to give a shout out to my friend, my brother from another mother, The Owl, who strongly recommended to me Viktor Frankel’s 1946 best seller Man’s Search for Meaning. I have a vague recollection of maybe sorta kinda possibly hearing about the book long long ago, but then again that might just be wishful thinking. Anyway, after hearing The Owl…a man with impossibly high standards who is perpetually unimpressed by most everything…heap praise upon this book as if it is one of the best things ever written I put it in my Amazon shopping cart. However, when he continued his profuse admiration I decided to take things a step further. My sister had given me a tablet last Christmas but I’m a bit old-fashioned & stubborn, so I still prefer my laptop and have dismissed “e-reading” ever since I bought a first generation Kindle years ago and used it no more than twice. At any rate, I concluded that I needed to take a baby step into modern times and also be appreciative of a very thoughtful gift, so I downloaded Man’s Search for Meaning on my Kindle app and spent a few nights winding down by reading what isn’t that lengthy of a book.
It turns out that it was a fantastic decision.
Author Joseph Campbell said that “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” Anaïs Nin stated that ““There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” Robert Louis Stevenson said that “To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” Leo Tolstoy believed that “the sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” The Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger says that “For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.” Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz admitted that “I don’t know the meaning of life. I don’t know why we are here. I think life is full of anxieties and fears and tears. It has a lot of grief in it, and it can be very grim. And I do not want to be the one who tries to tell somebody else what life is all about. To me it’s a complete mystery.” Douglas Adams, in his classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, opined that “the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything is…42!”.
Are they all right?? Or are they all wrong?? According to Dr. Viktor Frankl…yes.
Viktor Frankl is the founding father of a branch of psychology called logotherapy, logos being the Greek word for meaning. Logotherapy advocates the notion that life has meaning under all circumstances (even misery), our motivation for living is our will to find meaning, & we have freedom to find meaning in what we do, what we experience, or in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering. We can discover our meaning in life by a) creating a work or doing a deed, b) experiencing something or encountering someone, or c) in the attitude we take toward unavoidable sorrow. The first way…achievement or accomplishment…should be self-explanatory. The second way…experiencing…could be something general like goodness, truth, & beauty, or more specific such as experiencing nature, culture, or another human being “in his very uniqueness”. We might call that love. Logotherapy differs from other philosophies & schools of thought. For example, nihilism, which is the idea that life is meaningless. Or Sigmund Freud’s Pleasure Principle, which contends that man’s main concern is to find pleasure & avoid pain (you remember…the id, ego, & superego, right?) And then there is the teaching of Alfred Adler & Friedrich Nietzsche, both of whom advanced the notion that our driving force is power, ambition, &, achievement. Conversely, Frankl believed that “striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man”. He contended that humanity’s “main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts, or in merely reconciling the conflicting claims of id, ego and superego, or in the mere adaptation and adjustment to society and environment.
Dr. Frankl had been working on his theories since the 1930’s, but he was unfortunately derailed during World War II when he spent three years in concentration camps. Or was he derailed?? Being imprisoned actually provided an opportunity for Frankl to see his ideas in a horrific, very real situation. His description of life in the concentration camp makes up a large chunk of Man’s Search for Meaning, and it is a deeply impactful account. It is one thing to read about The Holocaust in high school history books, but it is an entirely different experience to read a first person perspective of the daily life of a prisoner who survived. It is a true blessing not only that Viktor Frankl made it thru such hell on Earth alive, but that he utilized lessons learned there to help people for decades afterward and write such a fantastic book.
Let me be clear…I have never been in a concentration camp or prison. I do not want to equate anything I have experienced in my life with those circumstances. However, many of the things Dr. Frankl says make a lot of sense to me and hit home in a very strange way. I once spent 6 months in a “skilled” nursing facility, have had a couple of longer than preferred stretches of unemployment, and have spent a great deal of my life feeling isolated & alone due to my disability. In reading Man’s Search for Meaning I felt like Frankl understood such conditions and how they affect one’s psyche and viewpoint.
Dr. Frankl talks a great deal about attitude. He calls humor one of “the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation”, indicating that it “more than anything else in the human make-up can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds”. He affirms the idea that we may not always have a choice about what happens to us but we can choose our attitude toward each situation, citing observances made in the concentration camps that “there were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed…Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress” and “there was an opportunity and a challenge…one could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate”. He says 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” and that a person “can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity”. Frankl believed that the way a person handles suffering can be “a genuine inner achievement…it is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.” The benefits of a life full of “creation & enjoyment” are fairly obvious, but Dr. Frankl also thought that “there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces”. He says that “not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life. Man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate”.
He says that “love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire”, that “the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart is salvation of man through love and in love.”
The U.S. Constitution talks about the “pursuit of happiness”, but Viktor Frankl believes that we may have that completely wrong. He says that “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy.”
He doesn’t buy into worldly value systems and advises “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 dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than yourself”.
Frankl’s ideas about “provisional existence”, “negative happiness”, and the “existential vacuum” are spot on:
Provisional existence is essentially living day-to-day, with no thought or hope for the long term future. He applies the notion specifically to institutionalized or imprisoned individuals as well as those who are unemployed. Both examples resonate with me. However, upon further reflection I believe that this is a bigger problem in 21st century America. There seems to be a growing sense of hopelessness and a negative outlook about the future wherein folks just try to get thru the day. I long ago learned to enjoy simple pleasures in life like seeing a movie, having dinner with family, or watching a ballgame because a) it often seems like a safer alternative to being disappointed by failure, and b) short term goals are manageable & realistic. Dr. Frankl says (speaking about prisoners in the concentration camp) that “a man who could not see the end of his provisional existence was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living for the future, in contrast to a man in normal life. Therefore the whole structure of his inner life changed; signs of decay set in which we know from other areas of life. The unemployed worker, for example, is in a similar position. His existence has become provisional and in a certain sense he cannot live for the future or aim at a goal. Research work done on unemployed miners has shown that they suffer from a peculiar sort of deformed time— inner time—which is a result of their unemployed state. Prisoners, too, suffered from this strange time-experience. In camp, a small time unit, a day, for example, filled with hourly tortures and fatigue, appeared endless. A larger time unit, perhaps a week, seemed to pass very quickly.” I can attest to that (minus the physical torture). I have experienced days that seemed endless yet weeks, months, & years that seemed to fly. Maybe we all feel like that to a degree as we get a little older, but it is certainly magnified under certain conditions. Frankl talks about retreating inward under such duress, indicating that “this intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence by letting him escape into the past…letting imagination play with past events, often not important ones, but minor happenings and trifling things. His nostalgic memory glorified them and they assumed a strange character. Their world and their existence seemed very distant and the spirit reached out for them longingly”. When tomorrow doesn’t seem all that great it can be comforting to relive the “glory days” in one’s mind. However, this can be unhealthy. Frankl says that “a man who lets himself decline because he cannot not see any future goal finds himself occupied with retrospective thoughts. But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It becomes easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of life. Regarding provisional existence as unreal is in itself an important factor in causing the people to lose their hold on life; everything in a way becomes pointless.” Hearkening back to the concentration camp the author reflects that “the prisoner who had lost faith in the future was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. Close the connection is between the state of mind of a man – his courage and hope, or lack of them – and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.”
Negative happiness is simply freedom from suffering. I kind of chuckled to myself when I read this because, for atleast the past several years, when asked a prosaic question like “How are you?” or “How was your day?” my answer is often “Well, nothing bad happened today, which is good.” It is the classic double edged sword. On one hand it is great that no kind of disaster or tumult totally wrecked the day, but on the other hand is that what we’ve come to?? Have we become so jaded that we don’t expect anything good from life and are satisfied with simply the absence of suffering??
Frankl defines the existential vacuum as a condition in which people begin to doubt that life has any meaning. He says that this can lead to noögenic neuroses (noögenic being the Greek word for mind). This despair about the “worthwhileness of life” is more of an existential distress than a mental disease and “manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom”. The author once again cites Schopenhauer, who said that “mankind is apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom.” Man’s Search for Meaning was written nearly 70 years ago, and Frankl astoundingly predicted (accurately) that “boredom is now causing more problems to solve than distress, and these problems are growing increasingly crucial, for progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in the leisure hours available to the average worker. The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time.” He wasn’t totally right…we do have ample ways to spend free time. The question is whether or not many of those outlets are suitable, healthy, or truly make anyone happy. Frankl talks about “Sunday neurosis,” which he defines as “that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest”, and says that “depression, aggression, & addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying”. Again this was ¾ of a century ago. I wonder what he’d think about the issues that we face with depression, aggression, & addiction these days??
So, what does Viktor Frankl think is the meaning of life?? Well, I’ll let him tell you:
“One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. It doesn’t really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us. We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. Life does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand. The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. Ultimately, Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
Absolutely brilliant. Citizens, I cannot recommend Man’s Search for Meaning strongly enough. It will change your perspective. It is undoubtedly one of the best books ever written, and at less than 200 pages it’s not a hard read. Seek it. Read it. Let it sink into your soul. You won’t regret the decision.