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3 lessons in finding the meaning of life

I recently finished reading (listening) to one of those timeless classic books on my must-read list: “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.

Dr. Frankl was a Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist who was arrested during World War II and was imprisoned in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Amongst the unimaginable atrocities he faced was the loss of his whole family, illness, starvation and terrible abuse. Yet, Frankl did not perish or just survive, he allowed this experience that would break most people, and rightly so, to teach him the meaning of life.

In his pursuit to discover the meaning of life he developed logotherapy – a branch of psychotherapy that can be translated literally to “meaning therapy”. His theory is that everyone needs an answer to the question: “What is the meaning of life?”, and that finding this answer can be all the therapy we need.

So how do you find it?  “According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”

Lesson 1: “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear with almost any ‘how.’” – Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Nietzsche. He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence and will be able to bear almost any “how”.”

Dr. Frankl stresses that the potential meaning of life cannot be found within oneself but must be found outside of oneself – whether it be a purpose to fulfill or another human being to encounter. To find true meaning you must live beyond yourself and become more selfless.

An example of the “why” strengthening the individual in the “how” is found in a story of two prisoners who were with Frankl in Auschwitz. Both were contemplating suicide, but neither of them gave in. After some introspection and discussion with Frankl, the first one could not leave behind his child who was waiting for him to be released and the other had a series of books he wanted to complete after the war.

Every person must find their own “why”. As a Christian I know we have our eternal goal of being part of the Bride of Jesus Christ and eternal fellowship with Him, but I am a firm believer that each one of us has a purpose and a “why” we must fulfill here on earth.

As we read in this book: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

Lesson 2: “Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which a man can aspire.”

Love is the ultimate and highest goal  to which a man can aspire.

According to Dr. Frankl, love is the only way to truly know another person, with all their traits and features. However, what’s more important is that we see the potential in them which is not yet actualized but should be. The goal of loving someone should be to “enable the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

The example Frankl uses to illustrate this point is of a time when he was busy digging trenches in the bitter cold while being abused by one of the Nazi guards. He just focused on an image of his wife and on having an imaginary conversation with her. This love gave him the strength to endure whatever the guards threw at him, and it didn’t even matter to him whether she was alive or not.

Lesson 3: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are able to change ourselves. Viktor Frankl

To illustrate the meaning of suffering Frankl uses an example of a patient he treated before his imprisonment. The man was suffering from severe depression after the death of his wife. Frankl asked him what would have happened if the man had died first and his wife had survived. The patient responded that it would have been terrible for his wife to grieve him. Frankl used this to help the patient find meaning in his suffering.

Suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds a meaning. Viktor Frankl

One of my favourite quotes from the book is “suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds a meaning.” We can’t change our fate, but we can change the attitude towards the unalterable fate. We will all endure immense suffering in this broken world. We cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how we cope with it, find meaning in it and move forward.

This is not the same as the clichéd Christian saying: God has a purpose for your suffering. (We will explore this in a later post.)

The truth is that due to sin, we live in an evil world where suffering is inevitable. We find meaning in this life when we strive to become worthy of our sufferings.

“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.”

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. Viktor Frankl

In summary, it is important to explore Frankl’s definition of success. He emphasizes that success or happiness cannot be the focus of your life. “It cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” Happiness and success happen as a side effect of listening to what your conscience commands and going ahead and doing it. Both result as an effect of fulfilling your life’s purpose.

“Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say! —success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”

What do you think the purpose of your life is?

One Comment

  • Hantie

    The perfect recipe for any circumstance: skip the Why and focus on the How!
    If I can’t change it, then I’ll pray to God to help me change my attitude towards it.

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