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 isn’t my own profundity though.
I have to give a shout out to my old friend The Owl, who years ago 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, 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 and downloaded Man’s Search for Meaning on my Kindle app (which I rarely use) 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.
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.” Writer 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 opined “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, fears, and tears. It has a lot of grief in it and can be very grim. 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, proposed 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, and 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 (y’all 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, and 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 gratification of drives & instincts, merely reconciling the conflicting claims of id, ego and superego, or in the adaptation & 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 reading 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. Due to some health issues I have spent some time (on more than one occasion) 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.
It is in the third way one find’s meaning…one’s attitude toward unhappiness, regret, and inescapable circumstances…that Dr. Frankl’s wisdom shines. We’ve all heard the axiom “don’t sweat the (bad) small stuff”, and while I wholeheartedly agree I believe there is a different side to the same coin…appreciating the (good) small stuff. My father has a saying – “a half loaf is better than none”, and he’s also always taught us that one doesn’t have to look too far to find a person worse off than we are. We tend to find meaning in big stuff…lots of money, being famous, having some kind of grand purpose. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but not everyone will achieve grandiose things. I have come to realize that I’ve been in survival mode my entire life. That’s not meant as an excuse, it’s just the cold hard truth. And you know what?? I’m still here. If Viktor Frankl were around he’d tell me that my life still has meaning, and if I’m being honest it would take some rather arduous convincing for me to believe that. However, reading this book is a pretty good start.