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Finding Meaning

Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

If you read any of the self-help canon, sooner rather than later you will have Frankl quoted.  Mostly what’s quoted are two things, one of which isn’t original, it’s Frankl quoting Nietzche “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”

The other is about what Frankl called the last freedom, the one no-one can take from you: “You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”

For those to whom Frankl is a new discovery, he was a camp survivor…a survivor of four camps in fact, including Auschwitz. Part of the book tells of this part of his life. His survival was – as he explains – a combination of random luck, his skill as a doctor (and the sense to be silent on what kind of doctor he was) and the choices he made. He tells the now well-known stories of what it was like in the camps, but he tells them dispassionately…almost as though he lived those years dispassionately observing what was happening, examining how and wondering why people acted the way they did. However, he is careful to say that only on some occasions was he able to rise so helpfully above the pain and starvation and other horrors. He is also careful to say that it took a long time after leaving the camps to regain anything resembling a normal life.

His key observation – and the reason he is still read today – is that what marked the survivors from those who failed to survive – failed to survive as opposed to actually murdered outright – was this thing Nietzche called a “why”, and what Frankl himself calls “meaning”.

The interesting thing about the frequency with which Frankl is quoted is how infrequently the most interesting part of his book is referenced. Only the first part of the book is about his concentration camp experience, the remainder is about that search for meaning and it gets less airtime.

In truth it isn’t really a search, since that would imply we know that we need meaning and we actively go looking for it. It is a need – but one we often don’t know that we have to act in order to fulfil. He talks about the number of times and different circumstances in which people feel that their life is meaningless. Mostly they use the words “empty” or “has no purpose” or “what’s the point”.

I expected to be resistant to Frankl’s ideas because I know that there is no grand “meaning of life” that we’re all obliged to seek and find. My Dad subscribed to the selfish gene theory, that the only purpose of life is to create more life. Perhaps it’s my lack of maternal instinct that has me rejecting even that much, in favour of a view that life just is. It’s as random as the clouds in the sky. Part of a system, yes, but a system that could equally reverse itself or collapse in on itself as it could play out predictably.

There’s nothing inevitable about life, so how much less can be inevitable within a life.

The argument is that we need a meaning because we need to feel that we as individuals matter.

A common response to feeling no sense of mattering – having no meaning – is to give up, to feel that one may as well not be here. I personally wonder why the reverse should not also be equally true. Is it not just as likely that the response could be: well if it doesn’t matter whether I’m here or not, and, actually, here is quite a pleasant place to be (given some of the possible alternatives) so yeah, why not continue on?

I’m tempted to suggest that such a response is in fact very common, but of course it won’t show up in the therapist’s consulting room.

The reason that Frankl wins me back lies in his descriptions of what constitutes meaning. I suspect that the people I talk about not showing up in his consulting rooms do in fact have meaning in their lives – even if they don’t identify it as such.

The main point that he makes is that there isn’t a single ‘meaning of life’. There is only the meaning of an individual’s life…that for each of us there is some thing, that only we can do. Not only that, but that the thing concerned is itself transitory. On another day, the meaning of our life, our purpose might be something entirely different.

What I loved most about his ideas are that the things that count as giving your life meaning do not need to be grandiose or self-sacrificing. Some people, it seems, do need to view their circumstance or deeds within a frame of sacrifice in order for them to have meaning, but Frankl’s view of the world appears to be ‘whatever works’. If casting a circumstance so that it looks like sacrifice and that gives it meaning to the person concerned – why not?

From the therapeutic point of view, I’d side with him on that, on purely pragmatic grounds….but he really wins me over when he describes the different ways in which we can find meaning.

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed.
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone.
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

We don’t have to do great things to achieve meaning. We don’t even (Mother Teresa style) have to do small things with great love. Life can have meaning purely by our experience of it: “experiencing something – such as goodness, truth, and beauty – by experiencing nature and culture or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness – by loving him.”

I realise that in Frankl terms my life has meaning here and now as I sit on a rock, listening to the sea and scribbling in my journal…I don’t need to seek anything bigger. It has meaning when I curl up and read a book. It has meaning when I love someone, however I love them and for whatever reason. All of these things only I can do in the precise way that I do them…and who knows what might come of my having done them. In that too, Frankl says, we can find meaning: in the having done. He talks about things in the past as being safely stored in a place that no-one can take them from us.

I also love that when he talks of suffering, he talks of unavoidable suffering. Suffering for its own sake is not noble. “If it were avoidable…the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause”. Meaning is possible in spite of suffering, he says, not because of it.

It is not the challenges that we face, nor the absence of them, that gives our life meaning. It is the responsibility we take for our response to the challenges…or their absence. Responsibility. Accountability. These are the key. Life has the meaning we choose to give it.

Where I finally do part company with him is in his assertion that there is a super-meaning to life. “The ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man…What is demanded of man is not as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.” To my mind that’s just a very complicated way of saying God works in mysterious ways. It’s a fall-back on faith that undermines everything else he says.

I choose to fall back on the other assertion he makes that we must be responsible: responsible for the meaning we ascribe to our lives, for the deeds we do and those we refrain from.

We cannot choose to be happy but, he says, happiness must ensue from our making right choices. That’s the same thing, to my mind. Choosing to do the right thing, the meaningful thing, is a choice to be happy…

…even when it is simply a choice to sit on a rock, reading a book, watching the sail-boats and listening to the waves.

Read the book ~ but find your own meaning.

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